EDITORIAL

Doing More for Kate

Science  16 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5755, pp. 1741
DOI: 10.1126/science.1123580

When Kate graduated from Lincoln High School, she had a budding interest in science. Taking college-level advanced placement courses in biology and chemistry during her senior year had been challenging, but a combination of enthusiastic teachers and supportive classmates brought her unanticipated satisfaction—she was learning how nature worked and had made a good start at analyzing it as a scientist would.

It took only 1 year of science classes at a large research university to turn Kate into a business major. Her general chemistry textbook was similar in content to the one she'd used in high school. But the class was so enormous that she only knew the professor as a speck in the distance. The laboratory section was taught by a teaching assistant who was struggling to learn English, but that didn't matter much because the acid/base titration was the same experiment that Kate had done in high school. Moreover, the pressure to memorize equations and work on assigned problems dampened Kate's enthusiasm for grappling with the underlying concepts.

CREDIT: BOB HANDELMAN/GETTY IMAGES

So why should a research scientist reading this account care about what happened to Kate? After all, hasn't it always been this way? There is a laissezfaire attitude among some that although university science classes are tough, those who are really “cut out for it” will survive to populate the next generation of scientists. But we should care, and there are two reasons why.

First, the pipeline issue; illustrated here with reference to the United States, but a problem in many other countries as well. The number of Ph.D. degrees in science and engineering granted by U.S. universities increased by 45% from 1974 to 2004, somewhat more than the 37% growth in the country's population. But the doctoral degrees granted to U.S. citizens increased by only 11%, making non-U.S. citizens, most holding temporary visas, largely responsible for our keeping pace with the country's need for scientists. Clearly, something is turning Kate and her classmates away from careers in science.

Second, the future of the world is at stake! That's not melodrama. Never have exciting new developments in science been more tightly connected to real dilemmas in public policy. If the electorate distrusts science and doesn't understand how scientists explore and interrogate the natural world, how will they vote on issues ranging from stem cell research and global climate change to the teaching of intelligent design in our schools? In addition to full-time scientists, we need educated citizens who can think critically about the science and technology choices so prominent in contemporary political life.

Science and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) are committed, each in their own ways, to revitalizing science education. Therefore, we are pleased to collaborate and bring the readers of Science innovative educational ideas in each month of 2006.* We want to showcase new approaches to teaching that work even in large lecture classes, or bring other disciplines, such as physics and computer sciences, together with biology into a single course. Learning is not a spectator sport, and through active involvement in the material, students will understand and retain concepts much better. We want to explore how to connect research and teaching for the benefit of both student and professor. We want to help faculty do what they would all love to do: teach better with less struggle. Above all, we hope to increase general interest in, and knowledge about, science; no matter what path our students embark on.

Why Science? Because it's widely read by scientists around the world, many of whom share a primary commitment to research and a conviction that the successor generation of scientists must be nurtured. If they agree with us that science and the teaching of science are inseparable, they are an audience we must reach.

We researchers pride ourselves on thinking scientifically in our laboratories. We gather data, formulate hypotheses, and suspect our own conclusions enough to test them rigorously. And we always want to apply the best technology available to our problems. When scientists step out of the lab into the classroom, they can apply these same principles: finding out what their students already know, reworking their methods to enhance understanding, and applying technology to support those efforts. This scientific approach to teaching science is what we will highlight in the upcoming issues of Science.

  • *Science and HHMI will work with an advisory committee on the essay series. Science will have full editorial responsibility for the content. Essays may be submitted for consideration through our Web site at http://www.submit2science.org/.

Navigate This Article