Reading is fundamental, the arts are essential and history is a must. But more than at any time in our development, an understanding of math and science has become crucial in our political and personal lives.
You’ve heard many times the complaint that Washington state is not preparing enough of its students for high-tech jobs.
Job preparation is a good reason for making a high-quality math and science education more broadly available, but there is another increasingly important reason to move quickly to give young people a solid grounding in those areas of study.
This country desperately needs a science-literate citizenry.
Reading is fundamental, the arts are essential and history is a must. But more than at any time in our development, an understanding of math and science has become crucial in our political and personal lives. And we’re not where we need to be in preparing Americans with a solid base of understanding in any of those areas.
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I was reminded of that Saturday night at the Pathfinder Awards banquet at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Three men (yep, there is yet another reason for improving tech education) were being honored for their contributions to aerospace development.
For each of the achievers part of the education that prepared them for success happened outside traditional school settings, and one of them in particular has been tenacious about changing education so that students won’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
That would be George D. “Pinky” Nelson, a former astronaut and a champion of education reform who taught at the University of Washington and Western Washington University.
Nelson grew up in a small town in Minnesota where he had good math teachers, but he told the awards audience he arrived at college not even knowing what calculus was. He was lucky to have a roommate who coached him through the math he needed. Education shouldn’t be a matter of luck.
One of the other award winners, Walt Braithwaite, grew up in Jamaica and became an engineer and a Boeing executive. Braithwaite learned a lot of his science through library books. Among his achievements at Boeing was his leading role in making it possible to design an aircraft entirely by computer.
The other honoree, the late J. Kenneth Higgins, had good schooling and a family entrenched at Boeing, but he also taught himself the skills necessary to become a test pilot.
It’s important to be able to advance your own education, but everyone should have access to important basics in the sciences and other areas of study.
Nelson had a stellar career at NASA, then in 1989 he came to teach at the University of Washington, where he’d earned his doctorate in astronomy in 1978. He said he felt good about his work until he got the feeling former undergraduate students didn’t remember much of what they’d been taught. “We pretend to teach, and they pretend to learn,” he told me Wednesday.
Because science is partly about measuring things, he began to measure retention and found that it was worse than he thought. But instead of thinking something was wrong with the students, he took a look at teaching and concluded methods that developed generations ago might need tweaking.
He moved to Western Washington University (WWU) because it trains a lot of K-12 teachers, and he thought improving their understanding of math and science and their teaching methods would be a key to producing generations of science-literate Americans.
Nelson also worked over the years with K-12 schools, especially in rural districts.
In 2013, he received a Science Champion statewide education award, which singled out his work with Neah Bay schools. Not a single student at Neah Bay High School had met state 10th-grade science standards in 2005. After the transformation in teaching, every student met or exceeded those standards.
“Students learn what they do,” Nelson told me. Lectures give the impression you’re covering lots of material, but not all students are learning it. He noted that Raisbeck Aviation High School relies on project-based learning, which is effective for more students.
In WWU science courses for future elementary teachers, Nelson said classes are kept small and there isn’t a single lecture. Students are guided through scientific work designed to give them a strong understanding of a few crucial ideas. And along the way, instructors talk about why they are teaching in a particular way.
Nelson joined, and eventually led, Project 2061, a long-term effort to improve science and math education in the United States. It’s a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science aimed at making it possible for all Americans to be literate in science, math and technology. Americans need to understand how the climate works and how to weigh the risks and benefits of various technologies, and to understand how vaccines work.
But, Nelson said, focusing on STEM or on science isn’t enough. “You have to focus on how you’re teaching everything.”
With a better educated public, we might avoid some of our problems. But even as knowledge becomes more important, some Americans are turning their backs on learning, even on facts.
New Mexico, the state where I grew up, was considering modifying science-education standards to leave out mentions of global warming, evolution and the Earth’s age, among other changes. The secretary of education promised to back away from the changes only because outraged residents of the state spoke out against the proposed changes at a hearing Monday.
Keeping people ignorant compromises our ability as a society to deal with issues of critical importance. Anyone who wants better-informed public policy should support efforts to improve education in every subject area.
In Washington, we’ve wrestled with education-funding training, but this year the Legislature provided money to keep some important programs running.
We need to push for all of our children to get the education they’ll need in an increasingly complex world. Citizenship demands it.