Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Missouri: Kansas city school science labs get an ‘F’

The state of science laboratory classrooms took a double shot Friday. First, a local study showed that most middle school and high school lab classes in the Kansas City area are probably not safe enough, are poorly organized, are ill-equipped and don’t blend with the curriculum.

Then came Carl Wieman — a Nobel Prize winner in physics and chairman of the board of science education at the National Research Council of the National Academies — with the really sobering news for area educators. In analyzing the roots of success for students who achieve science careers, he has found that it’s as if they succeed despite their experience in labs, not because of it. “Labs can and should play an important role in science education,” Wieman told a gathering of science teachers and administrators at the Central Library downtown. “But generally they are not.” For far too many students, lab classes are “generally useless,” he said. Science classes in secondary schools and the introductory courses in colleges that should be inspiring students are too often pushing them away.

The bad news for science converged as part of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s continuing investment in trying to boost science, math and technology education. The foundation paid for a five-month study of 170 lab classrooms among 30 area school districts by SuccessLink, a nonprofit agency created by Missouri to research best education practices.

Concerns were numerous, particularly in middle schools, said Amy Youngblood, the project director for SuccessLink. Goggles, aprons, gloves, fire blankets and first-aid kits were frequently missing. Fume hoods often didn’t work. Nearly half of the districts did not provide lists of chemicals kept in their schools. Many lists that were provided were not current. Many lists included chemicals that were considered excessively risky by the Environmental Protection Agency. Many middle schools had chemicals that were appropriate only for work at the high school level and above.

Most of the labs viewed in the study needed more space. Many storage rooms were cluttered or inconveniently located, or their contents were too unfamiliar to teachers. Most schools were not giving enough time to lab classes, and the time spent in labs was often not well integrated into the overall curriculum. If students aren’t engaged in science as a connection to the real world and real learning, then the skills won’t follow them beyond the classroom, Youngblood said. “At the end of the day, can they do it in the field by themselves?” she said.

Wieman said he steered his career from physics to science education because he wanted to help understand why secondary schools and colleges weren’t inspiring more students. Students fall on a scale from novice to expert in their attitudes toward science and how they understand the scientific method and its role in the world, he said. National studies are showing, he said, “that students in introductory sciences courses (in colleges) are more novicelike in their attitude toward science when they finish the class than when they started. “That’s very disturbing.” Also troubling, he said, are surveys of various college students in science courses that reveal elementary education majors as “dramatically more novicelike.”


Science education drought in Britain

A shortage of science graduates threatens the future of British industry at a time of record demand for scientists to combat problems such as climate change and to take advantage of trends in the global economy. Even when students opt for science degrees, they are often lured into the “wrong” kind of subjects, which they perceive as more glamorous than hard-core options of physics, chemistry, maths and engineering. TV dramas such as Silent Witness have popularised the study of subjects such as forensic science, despite a lack of jobs in this field, and sports science and psychology courses are also growing even though they do not necessarily give people better job opportunities.

With A-level results coming out this week, Richard Lambert, the Director-General of the CBI, called on the Government to offer £1,000-a-year “golden carrots” to students to encourage more to study the science, technology, engineering and maths subjects that were becoming increasingly important to the economy. The shift to a low-carbon economy would require dramatically increased numbers of people with skills in these subjects, he said. The CBI estimated that Britain would need 2.4 million newly qualified staff with such degrees. “Too many potential scientists and engineers are abandoning these subjects at an early stage in their lives and missing out on rewarding, varied and lucrative career options,” Mr Lambert said. “Some employers are already finding it difficult to get the right talent, and the problem is set to get worse. Bursaries towards the cost of degrees which are most useful to the economy could kick-start thousands of young people into reconsidering a future in science.”

While the number of students obtaining first degrees in science subjects had risen by nearly half since 1994, much of this was because of the numbers taking biology, computing, sports science and psychology. Since 1984 the number of people studying physics A level has slumped by 57 per cent, and the take-up of chemistry has dropped by 28 per cent. And although there was a rise in applications to study science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at university this year, in the long term the proportion graduating in physics and chemistry fell by 25 per cent between 1994 and 2006.

Mr Lambert cautioned that “a pared-back science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and patchy classroom lab facilities” undermined the study of science. Many see science subjects as harder and opt for what they believe are easier choices, he said.

Graham Love, chief executive of the defence and security company QinetiQ, said that there was a decline in the number of applicants with suitable qualifications. “Five years ago we were getting 75 applicants per job,” he said. “Now the figure is 30. That is a concern because our business is based on our ability to continue to recruit high-calibre science, technology, engineering and maths graduates.”

Andy Duff, chief executive of RWE npower, said: “We need people with the right skills to deliver secure, affordable power for the nation and who relish the chance to be at the forefront of the battle to address climate change.”


Elite maths 'discouraged' in Australia

SCHOOLS have been accused of discouraging average maths students in an attempt to boost their academic results. As the number of year 12 students enrolled in advanced and intermediate maths continues to slide, the chairman of the national committee for mathematical sciences, Hyam Rubinstein, said because maths was viewed as a difficult subject in schools, only the best and brightest were encouraged to pursue it at an advanced level. "If a school wants to maximise their performance, they may feel that 'if we encourage weaker students not to take maths, our results will look better'," he said.

Professor Rubinstein's concerns precede the release of a report ordered by federal, state and territory governments on numeracy teaching, learning and assessment practices. The report is due later this month. Last year 10 per cent of students took advanced maths and 21 per cent took intermediate maths compared with 14 per cent and 27 per cent in 1995


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