America’s Efforts to Improve Math and Science in Schools
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
SPENCER MICHELS: Nineteen-year-old University of California freshman Erin Basel expects to major in nutritional science at U.C. Davis, while at the same time learning to teach science to children, a skill in short supply in America. Each week, she spends time in Sarita Cooper’s science class at a local elementary school.
SARITA COOPER, SCIENCE TEACHER: And you want to watch that the students have their eyes down at level, because I’ve taught them to have their eyes level, and that they measure from the bottom of the meniscus. And if they don’t mention the meniscus or you don’t see them sort of doing that, ask them about it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Basel is participating in a new statewide university program designed to supply more science and math teachers. California produces only half as many credentialed teachers as it needs in math and science, and its eighth-graders rank last on national science tests. So it’s launched a statewide initiative to turn those figures around.
ERIN BASEL, FRESHMAN, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA: I’ve always loved science. I never really considered being a teacher. But at the beginning of the school year, I got an e-mail from Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about how they needed well-educated science and math teachers for the future just to make us really compatible with the rest of the world.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nationally, the concern is just as great; in his State of the Union message, President Bush proposed training 70,000 advanced placement math and science teachers for American high schools.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need to encourage children to take more math and science and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations.
SPENCER MICHELS: In a report issued last year, a group of top American scientists and educators concluded that the future prosperity of the United States depends on its leadership in science and technology. On the panel was Lawrence Berkeley Lab director and Nobel Prize-winner Steven Chu, who says early education is crucial for the U.S. to train its own scientists and to maintain leadership in high-tech.
STEVEN CHU, DIRECTOR, LAWRENCE BERKELEY NATIONAL LABELLE: We don’t want to base our science and technology only on foreign imports; we have to have homegrown people. And science education starts at kindergarten and the first years, and we lose a whole number of people in years four through eight.
SARITA COOPER: … organism that eats or absorbs rotting organisms and turns them into inorganic matter.
SPENCER MICHELS: Unlike many California elementary schools, those in Davis have full-time science teachers, and the enthusiasm for science is palpable.
SARITA COOPER: When I get the kids at the fourth- and fifth-grade level, they love science. My job is not to motivate them; my job is to keep from de-motivating them. I think when they get into the higher levels, it gets more demanding. There’s a lot more book learning. It is a little harder to keep them motivated.
ERIN BASEL: OK. Now I’d like you to calculate the volume of the rock.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: OK.
SPENCER MICHELS: The university program that Basel is part of is one approach the state is taking to increase its supply of qualified teachers. It allows college freshmen who are interested in science and math to also learn what it’s like to teach, and it puts them in a classroom with other prospective teachers.
Here they can do most of the work toward a teaching credential while still undergraduates, so that they can get a paying job as soon as they graduate. And the state says it will forgive some student loans.
ARTHUR BEAUCHAMP, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS: What are some of the things that you feel you’re learning about these kids?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT TEACHERS: When they learn — the stuff that they learn that day, it’s hard for them to have the deep understanding that we’ve been talking about.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT TEACHERS: Because they just, like, spit out vocabulary where, like, I’d ask them, “Oh, do you know what this means?” And they’d be like, “Well, kind of. No, actually, no.”
SPENCER MICHELS: Traditionally, low salaries have kept many students from going into teaching. That is especially true for those in math and science, says Arthur Beauchamp, a high school science teacher who runs the program at Davis.
ARTHUR BEAUCHAMP: They’re thinking they’re going to come out of college. “I’m going to have a degree in science or math; I’m pretty highly marketable.” And so, that early year, that first year, if they can get out of here, and be really to close to having that teacher credential, and then be making money that year, it’s a big difference than going to an additional year of school when you’re not making money.
CHARLES OLSON, INTERN TEACHER: I like to them put the name on the back of the project…
SPENCER MICHELS: Forty-nine-year-old Charles Olson embodies another way to recruit more teachers. Olson, who has never taught before, is studying teaching at San Francisco State University. With a career in computers behind him, he has transferred his workplace experience directly to the classroom…
CHARLES OLSON: … solubility depends upon temperature.
SPENCER MICHELS: … the kind of professional the state is trying to entice into teaching, despite the lower pay.
CHARLES OLSON: I worked for a long time in the computer industry. I had my own consulting company, did a lot of programming. I enjoyed it a lot. And then, after over a decade, I decided that I wanted to work with more heart. So it seemed to me education was the path to that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although Olson doesn’t have a credential yet, he’s already teaching chemistry at Mills High School, south of San Francisco, not as an unpaid student teacher, but as a paid intern. Technically, such interns are not fully qualified, yet California schools currently employ 10,000 of them as a way to fill the ranks, most of them assigned to poor, underperforming schools.
Still, Olson, in a high-achieving school, does not find teaching easy.
CHARLES OLSON: It’s the most difficult job I’ve ever done, far more difficult than the programming.
SPENCER MICHELS: Olson acknowledges that the big challenge in teaching high school science for him and for others is motivating teenagers.
CHARLES OLSON: I love chemistry. I love science in general. I find it really neat to do experiments and see what actually happens. And so the more I can display my enthusiasm for the subject in my teaching, it naturally becomes more interesting to the students, as well.
SPENCER MICHELS: But for some teens, enthusiasm for the subject isn’t always infectious.
JORDAN CAPILITAN, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: My problem is I don’t know what to do or how to solve something or what’s the — what does it mean?
NINA FERNANDEZ, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: And there’s a lot of different, like, concepts in chemistry, and it’s hard for me to, like, apply them.
JORDAN CAPILITAN: I really don’t want to be here right now, but I try to pay attention anyway.
SPENCER MICHELS: Grabbing kids’ attention and keeping them interested are considered critical for maintaining America’s technological lead. At San Lorenzo High near Oakland, California, a racially diverse school in a working-class neighborhood, the math department uses innovative techniques and carefully-chosen teachers to keep students enthused.
CARLOS CABANA, MATH TEACHER: We are part-way through our presentations, trying to review, and remember, and get solid on the concepts from first-semester calculus. So is your team ready?
SPENCER MICHELS: Carlos Cabana teaches math. An unusually high 20 to 30 percent of students in the school enroll in advanced placement calculus, which he and others teach.
CARLOS CABANA: Just because we have a challenging — students that come from challenging environments, it doesn’t mean that they’re not smart. I have to find the neediest, most vulnerable kids in my class and reach out to them on a human-being-to-human-being basis.
JO BOALER, STANFORD UNIVERSITY: This isn’t a typical inner-city math class.
SPENCER MICHELS: Stanford University Education Professor Jo Boaler has been observing and advising Cabana and his students.
JO BOALER: They’re not communicating to some students that they’re never going to make it. They tell everybody that they’re going to be going to calculus. They encourage everybody.
SPENCER MICHELS: Cabana divides his class into groups of four, and each team prepares a calculus problem for the other teams to solve.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: So he got so mad that he grabbed his bike and threw it straight up into the air. But he was so close to the edge that the bike came straight down and fell straight into the water. So he was so amazed by amazed by his strength that he know he had to find an equation.
SPENCER MICHELS: The math department philosophy is that, within the groups, the strong students help the others.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Highest point? Oh, so this is not — this is the highest point, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Yes, that’s just the T. Now plug that into the original rule.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Oh…
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: No. But if you plug zero in to the derivative, it could give you the…
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: It gives you the time.
CARLOS CABANA: There’s no way that I can get around to a class of 32 or sometimes 40 students and support kids individually, but if we set up a classroom culture where the name of the game is to provide mutual support for the sake of every kid’s learning, then students feel welcome; they feel like they’re not in there alone and that they’re not necessarily dumb just because they have questions.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: What’s the maximum point?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Yes, but we set it up so you find the slope, and the slope is equal to zero.
SPENCER MICHELS: Stanford’s Boaler says the innovative methods, like the small groups used at San Lorenzo, keep kids interested, whereas old-fashioned teaching techniques are a turnoff.
JO BOALER: The time when students are dropping out of mathematics is at high school. For many students, they’re in those traditional classrooms where teachers do most of the talking. And they don’t sort of find the opportunities to get really interested in mathematics, and they drop it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Captivating students through exciting teaching is also a priority for Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s Steven Chu.
CHU: Science and math is sometimes taught as dogma, as, “These are the facts; learn them.” But in fact, it’s not. It’s the exploration of the human mind.
So don’t teach it like dogma; teach it like what it really is about. It’s about understanding and realizing how the natural world works, and that there’s this give and take between theories, experiments counter-theories. It’s a very exciting thing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chu’s national committee has recommended to Congress a list of remedies, including recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers a year by setting up scholarships, a move, the group says, that will educate millions of young minds.