Inspiration, Funding Cited as Top Needs for Math and Science Education

BY Jenny Marder  September 13, 2010 at 6:25 PM EDT

By the end of a Brookings Institution event on science and technology education, people were referring to superstring theorist Brian Greene as “rabbi.” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, the moderator, took it a step further, calling him “Rabbi Rev. Father Imam Swami Greene.”

It’s unusual to see such a pseudo-religious outburst at a panel made up of scientists. But in just a few minutes, Greene had managed to embody the very thing other panelists said was overwhelmingly lacking in American science and math education: to create more scientists, mathematicians and engineers, people first need to be inspired.

Greene spoke of his father, who taught him how atoms worked: “He had the electrons in the wrong place, but it didn’t really matter.” His spoke of his own kids — ages 3 and 5 — who “smash things together more than the Large Hadron Collider.”

And he diagnosed the problem with much of America’s science education:

“I mean think about it,” Greene said. “Through the power of thought, through the power of calculation, we have been able to figure out how stars shine, how black holes form, how space expands, how time elapses. We’ve been able to peer back to a mere fraction of a second after the beginning to try to understand how the universe began. We have pried apart the atom and been able to understand its constituents with absolutely fantastic precision. This is fantastic material. This is material to die for.”

“And yet,” he added, “if it is taught in a way that we usually teach it, where we focus in so quickly on the details in order to get kids to solve the equation, know the parts of the cell, balance the reaction, without a commensurate focus on the big wondrous ideas, the ideas that get us up in the morning … what we do is we leave science lifeless.”

Susan Hockfield, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, outlined the problems facing science and technology education in America:

  • In the 1960s, the U.S. was the top country in high-school completion rates. It’s now ranked 21st.

  • In 1995, the U.S. ranked second in college completion rates, and it now ranks 15th.

  • In math, American 17-year-olds have made almost no progress in the last 30 years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

  • The average starting salary for MIT graduates is $67,000, while the median salary for full-time math and science teachers is $51,000.

Competitor countries, she said, “are doing a better job of recruiting, training, compensating and celebrating highly qualified teachers of math.”

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has been tasked with improving science and math education. “We conclude that the federal government, historically, over the last quarter century, has really lacked a coherent strategy and sufficient leadership capacity for K-12 stem education,” said Eric Lander, a leading geneticist and co-chair of the council.

The council’s report on the subject won’t be released until later this month, Lander said, but he previewed some of the recommendations:

  • Math and science education should be designed to both prepare and inspire. Its teachers should have deep content knowledge, and the top 5 percent of the country’s best teachers should be rewarded for their work and recognized as a “national treasure.”

  • Better use should be made of technology.

  • More funding and after-school programs should be targeted toward science and math.

“Science is the most dramatic of stories, and we must capture that drama,” Greene said. “We must embark on a radical cultural shift that takes science from the outskirts and puts it center stage.”