You may have read the recent news stories about the disappointing
performance of U.S. students on an international science and math exam.1 The
future of biomedical research and the health of this nation both hinge
on getting young people excited about science and health. Unfortunately,
too many of them are leaving school without the analytical skills they
need to be successful in today’s economy, much less to become
competitive researchers. Here at NIH, we are taking a multifaceted
approach to engaging students from diverse populations in science and
inspiring some of them to choose careers in research. However, there
is only so much that we can do from Bethesda. Our best hope for making
a broad impact on the children of this nation would be to have a grassroots
movement of scientists across the country, rallying for improved science
education in their own communities.
At the end of this Desk-to-Desk, I will suggest ways that you might
use the tools developed at NIH to partner with local teachers and officials,
and help revitalize American science education. I hope that many of
you rise to this challenge. If those of us already passionate about
science don’t carry the torch, who will?
Our Children's Science Education: What You Should Know
Science education has been a concern in this country since the launch
of Sputnik in 1957. Seeing our biggest adversary beat us into space
lit a fire under American policy makers, educators, and the public.
However, as detailed in books such as Thomas Friedman's The World
Is Flat and the National Academy of Science's Rising Above
the Gathering Storm, that fire desperately needs to be rekindled. 2, 3 American
leadership in science and technology is once again at risk.
The performance of U.S. students is behind most other rich nations
in the world—and quite a few that aren't rich. A 2003 study by
the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compared
the problem-solving abilities of 15-year-old students from 40 nations
around the world. (See the graph below.) The U.S. placed 29th. More
than half of our children scored in the range that suggests they will
have serious difficulties as they enter the workforce or even try to
face the normal challenges of adulthood. American students were less
than half as likely as students in the top-performing nations to achieve
the highest level of problem-solving performance. (For more about the
PISA and other education assessments, please see Appendix I in the
new guide Scientists
in Science Education. (PDF - 308 KB)
I believe that we scientists can agree that this is not what we want
for our children, for our nation, or for the future of our field.
Figure from Problem Solving for Tomorrow's
World. Countries are ranked in descending order of percentage
of 15-year-olds at the two highest levels of proficiency (Levels
2 and 3, above the 0 line). Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development (OECD) member nations are depicted with a black font
and non-members with a colored font. A larger version of this graph
is available at the Web site http://science.education.nih.gov/pisa.
The entire report can be downloaded at the Web site http://www.oecd.org/document/54/0,3343,en_32252351_32236173_34002550_1_1_1_1,00.html.
Science Isn't Just for Scientists!
Obviously, the next generation of biomedical researchers needs to
be taught science, but why worry about everyone else? There are a few
good reasons. Economists have estimated that as much as half of the
post-World War II growth in GDP in the U.S. is attributable to technological
progress that resulted from research and development. The world economy
is changing, and with it, the skills that will be demanded in the promising
jobs and the productive workforce of tomorrow. The international competition
for a greater share of the wealth is heating up.4 It
is important for our citizens to understand more math and science than
they ever have in the past, if we dream of continuing the American
tradition of leadership.
Labor economists are now warning that more than half of our children
may leave school without the skills they need to enter the middle class.5 Business
reports such as Building a Nation of Learners and Tapping America's
Potential are suggesting that many companies are having increasingly
difficult times finding the employees with the critical-thinking, problem-solving,
and communications skills they need to do their jobs. 6, 7 A
rigorous education in math and science can help prepare all students
for good jobs, even those who will never wear a white lab coat. I encourage
each of you to familiarize yourself with the National Academy of Science's
recent report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which discusses
many of these issues.3
Science Literacy and the Burden of Illness
Improving science education may improve not only a child's economic
prospects, but his or her health status as well. Children who learn
about health and the science that underpins it will be better equipped
to make smart choices—about diets and exercise, about smoking
and drugs, and about choosing lifestyles that will help keep them mentally
and physically fit. They will grow into adults better able to pick
the insurance plans and choose the treatment plans that best suit their
needs and the needs of their families. Better science education is
one key to a more participatory style of healthcare, which will engage
individuals and communities in building a healthier society, understanding
and minimizing health disparities, and reducing the suffering and costs
associated with chronic disease for all Americans. We are working on
this with our sister agencies in HHS and will be announcing some bold,
new initiatives soon.
Promoting Science, Health, and Science Education: NIH Curriculum
To many laypeople, science and technology are essentially one and
the same. Many don't understand that science isn't about the high-tech
devices we use or even what we choose to study. It is a way of knowing.
It is a method of making sense of our world and of our universe. Science
builds models of what is and tests hypotheses about what will be.
At NIH, we use the tools of science to investigate human health and
disease, and to improve the human condition. But we also recognize
that the same thought processes we use can also propel our society,
culture, and economy, making a brighter future for our children and
our children's children.
Therefore, although we focus our primary efforts on efficiently finding
and funding the best research today and work to ensure the health of
the scientific enterprise of tomorrow, we also make strategic investments
in broader K-12 science education. An excellent example is the NIH
Curriculum Supplement Series-16 free, interactive modules for
elementary, middle, and high schools that combine the latest science
from our institutes and centers with state-of-the-art instructional
approaches. The supplements are available free to educators at the
Web site http://science.education.nih.gov/supplements.
The supplements have been aligned to state and national science education
standards so that teachers can fulfill their requirements, as they
introduce students to the science surrounding important human health
problems. More than 300,000 supplements have been distributed to date,
each in response to a request from an educator. (Take a look at a map
illustrating how the NIH curriculum supplement requests correspond
to population density across the U.S. at this Web site http://science.education.nih.gov/map.)
While we are thrilled by the broad interest, we would love to see them
in even wider use. There is always an "activation energy" required
when trying something new, and even good teachers can be intimidated
by working state-of-the-art science into their curriculum for the first
time—especially in urban and rural environments where the appropriate
tools and support may not be as readily available. That is where we
hope you can help!
What Can You Do to Help?
- Take a few minutes to explore the demonstration page we created
for the NIH Curriculum Supplements, http://science.education.nih.gov/demos.
It features one supplement for elementary school, one for middle
school, and two for high school. Each will take you no more than
5 to 10 minutes and will show you how different the approach of the
supplements is from what you probably experienced in grades K-12.
If you like the samples, tell your child's science teacher or school
principal about the free NIH Curriculum Supplements Series and
how well the lessons portray the scientific process. Better yet,
find the supplement that is closest to your research. Offer to assist
the teacher with that supplement by giving a demonstration related
to one of the activities or serving as the teacher's "personal science
resource" while he/she works through the lesson plans.
- Read over the new guide Scientists
in Science Education. The guide was written by scientists
and educators to help you—whether you are considering devoting
an hour to a local "career day" or a hundred hours to reviewing
your state's science education standards. It has some simple
suggestions for making the most of your time. It includes some
references if you would like a deeper understanding of the performance
of U.S. students, the importance of "inquiry" in modern science
education, the roles of national and state science education
standards, and the No Child Left Behind Act.
Thank you for all you are doing to advance medical science today and
to ensure the vitality of the American scientific enterprise in the
years to come. Please let me know if you have any comments on this
Desk-to-Desk or on NIH's science education efforts. I am especially
interested in hearing about your own experiences in promoting science
education in your community—using the NIH curriculum supplements
or however else you choose to get involved.
Please contact Bruce Fuchs, director of the NIH Office of Science
Education, if you have questions about our science education efforts
or if you need help with the science education projects you are considering
We look forward to hearing from you soon.
I invite you to share any comments you have with me, directly, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., Director National Institutes of Health
For information about NIH programs, useful health information, and additional
resources, see the NIH web site at www.nih.gov. An archive of the Director's
Newsletter is available at http://www.nih.gov/about/director/newsletter/archive.htm
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