Science Education and Funding

This blog is going to be a little more personal.  I was a high school science teacher, and I still am involved in the education community, and I know how important it is to have advocates who help with professional development, point towards resources, and connect with scientists.  The White House’s budget has a significant impact on science education, and it concerns me greatly.  For a good introduction to the issue, see Science’s news brief.

This change will have a severe impact on STEM education. Major science education organizations such as the NIH, NASA, and NOAA will have their K-12 programs cut completely, though the NSF will increase.

As a teacher I have used resources from all of these organizations in my lessons.  NASA’s  site has great lessons on scale/ size of the universe that I used while teaching a camp for elementary school students in New York.  I used some of NOAA’s resources for teaching about food webs in biology.  The NIH’s programs have been a part of my professional development for many years and are an essential part of my teaching.  In particular, local programs funded through the Science Education Partnership Award allowed me to use bioinformatics in the classroom, allowed me to incorporate Ethics in all my lessons, let my students think about the genetic and environmental factors involved in smoking addiction, and have provided great molecular biology materials for DNA analysis, and allowed my students to explore differentiation and stem cells, as well as allowed my students to present their scientific research in creative ways (many of them had not done a year-long project like this before).  I cannot emphasize enough how much the professional development, the material and curricular resources these programs provided helped me reach students.  These units were what my students wrote about in their end of year reviews, because they emphasized that science is hands-on and about problem solving, and put content in context.  Students were taking part in research – using real data and thinking critically.  For example, differentiation and stem-cells are more real when students model it using play-dough and see the effects of stem cells using planaria flatworms.

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This is the logo from the NIH’s Science Education Partnership award from: http://www.ncrrsepa.org/ Look at their site to see all of the great programs they have funded and what potentially could be cut

The hardest thing for me is that this is done in the name of consolidation of “redundant programs” for “similar services” to “similar target groups”.  Yes there are many education programs targeted at high-needs communities (such as students in the inner city, or students in rural areas).  However, I might use different services depending on what I am teaching, and what I want to emphasize in that year.  These resources have been teacher-tested and prepared by excellent informal science educators.  They are ready to be implemented in the classroom, and connect students and teachers to outside resources.  As a teacher, I trusted the curricula developed by these groups because they are educators first, and their main goal is in education and helping students understand science, not getting students ready for a test they might need to take. These programs get kids excited about science.  They helped me as a teacher connect with what the National Research Council says is important for students learning science – namely connecting to prior knowledge, connecting to a big idea, presenting students with a dilemma to solve, and helping students reflect on their learning.

If we want to keep producing excellent scientists, we must continue to fund science education. These informal science education programs were invaluable to me as a teacher.  I urge you to read an excellent piece on this at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research’s Blog.  Science isn’t about memorization of a set of facts – it is about problem solving and questioning.  Ask yourself – what do you remember most about your high school science career?  The tests you took, or the projects you did?  Personally, what stands out to me is the later.  In particular I remember helping sequence part of the Huntington’s Gene early in the Human Genome project my senior year in high school.  This has inspired me not only in education, but also in my graduate school career in Public Health Genetics.  Once these resources are cut, it will be difficult to bring them back. Please stand up for science education (for more specifics about how, see this post).  Teachers rely on these types of extracurricular resources to make science relevant and exciting for students, and these types of curricula help encourage students to go into science so that science in this country can be sustainable.

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