1 in 7 students are taught creationism in school

Photo by latvian on Flickr

A recent survey of high school biology teachers shows the majority don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students.  Fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance, while the majority hedge on the topic in order to avoid potential conflict.  A full 13% openly teach creationism.

President Obama’s “Sputnik moment” call to inspire a new generation of science students stands in stark contrast to the stifled educations being offered to most of today’s kids.  The argument is often that teaching creationism as science might stunt a student’s biology career, but it shouldn’t prevent producing scads of software engineers and physicists.  But that’s sophistry.  A lot of the innovation space with the rapidly aging populace is in medicine and biology, so there is a need for people who really understand the life sciences.  But moreover, when a child’s early exposure to science of any flavor is basically that a bunch of whackos in lab coats have this nutty idea, but really the way the world works is something else, they learn an inherent distrust of science in general.  Why would a student want to pursue a career using the same fundamental techniques that yielded such “flawed theories” as evolution?  It requires a pretty significant cognitive dissonance to believe that biology, geology, anthropology, cosmology, and several other sciences are fundamentally wrong, but quantum physics is right on the money.

The prevalence of creationism in schools does matter.  Children require inspiration to pursue careers in science and technology. And teachers, especially science teachers, who don’t have enthusiasm for the field or reject the discipline altogether are certainly not being inspirational.

It would be easy but overly simplistic to dismiss this as just a problem in our schools.  The reality is that teachers are human.  They reflect the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the society as a whole.  Considering that repeated studies have shown about 45% of the population in general believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, science teachers are already well outside the mainstream.  The answers here don’t lie in fixing the schools as much as in fixing society.  Children are not often motivated toward goals their parents openly reject.  When almost half of parents reject science as hooey, it’s not surprising that kids are not flocking to the field.

Industry doesn’t help here either.  While demand for science and tech jobs has picked up a bit, the outsourcing of entry level positions to overseas markets continues to make it challenging for average students to find work after college.  If the U.S. is to grow the next generation of talent, we have to be willing to plant the seeds domestically by hiring fresh grads.

In addition, society doesn’t treat science as credible, cool, or aspirational.  The CSI and Mythbusters television shows have helped make science seem a bit more interesting and mainstream.  But science and tech careers are still things perceived to be pursued largely by those geeky kids who seems inexorably destined for lab coats from birth.  Yet that minority of kids will not be sufficient to fuel a new Apollo program.

If this is truly a Sputnik moment, we need to inspire a big chunk of the “normal” kids to get their geek on.  Teachers are a part of that. Government is a part of that. But unless society as a whole embraces it, it will not succeed.

Our generation’s Sputnik moment finds few science students ready to answer the call

Sputnik means nothing if we don't go all Apollo on it

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night reminded Americans that our future depends on research and innovation.  The same day that results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress were released showing that only 21% of graduating high school seniors ranked proficient in science.  Moreover, only 1% ranked at the advanced level, deemed appropriate to pursue science at the college level.  Fourth and eighth graders were also evaluated, and the results were similarly disappointing.

Obama made repeated appeals in his State of the Union speech to the need for a workforce skilled in science and technology:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean-energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.

We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

These are noble and vital aspirations. Yet the current state of our educational pipeline indicates we may be a decade or more away away from having students prepared to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) based careers.  Only 1% of our graduates are prepared to go on to study in scientific fields in college.  Fixing that is not merely a matter of funding or focus.  Even with the retooling of educational programs and an Apollo-level political will, it will take years and years to reeducate the current generation of students, or a decade to refill the educational pipeline with students who are properly prepared.

Achieving the economic goals outlined by President Obama are very much contingent on becoming a scientifically competent society.  As he said, “The world has changed.”  The days of toiling on an assembly line are gone.  Jobs that will allow our children to achieve the American dream require STEM skills and knowledge, and the foundation for that has to be laid in our schools.

This is not a path we are on.  And the results of our national school report card indicate it’s also not a path we are remotely prepared to travel.  This leaves us in grave danger of having our Sputnik moment sputter out and stall unless we unite behind this cause as one nation with one purpose, and hold that course for a generation.  Surely, this is a challenge worthy of the American spirit.

Obama hosts science fair at White House

Photo by Mark Wilson at Getty

Hooray science!  That’s the message coming out of the White House today where President Barack Obama kicked off a week-long science fair at noon by announcing winners in a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions.  Obama said, “If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.”

Obama also announced steps his administration, in conjunction with leading companies, are taking to advance STEM education.  The focus is on expanding the tools of invention so that more students can directly be the “makers of things.”  The steps include placing 3D printers in 1000 schools and an initiative by Autodesk to make new easy-to-use design tools freely available to students.

The President has long been an advocate for science and technology as essential to the country’s prosperity and success.  His science adviser, Dr. John Holdren, even has pictures in his office of the President peering through telescopes, examining solar panels, and honoring scientists and engineers.  And last October, the President held Astronomy Night at the White House where more than 20 telescopes were set up on the White House lawn and focused on various objects the invited students could observe.  This is a refreshing change from the relatively science hostile Bush administration.

Certainly not least, Obama also announced he would be appearing on the December 8, 2010 episode of Discovery Channel’s MythBusters.  The show has been instrumental in making science fun and accessible to the general public, despite its incessant warnings to not try this it home.  For one night, at least, the President will be the envy of geeks everywhere.

Hooray science, indeed.