Americans don't know much science. Fewer than one in 10 can explain a molecule, the vice president said last year. Earlier this decade, a Lou Harris poll found that 65 percent of us don't know that there are nine planets in the solar system.
My disconnect from science came in seventh grade. I engineered a cloud chamber. I wanted to detect cosmic rays or, actually, anything radioactive. But my chamber was as uncooperative as the family cocker spaniel. Never did work.
Having students follow a recipe to make a scientific device or perform an experiment is labeled, by today's educators, a cookbook approach to teaching science. It's an OK first step, says Joe Heppert, associate professor of chemistry at Kansas University. But the way to get kids psyched on science, he says, is to get them actively engaged in problem-solving.
Heppert is leading a $2.4 million grant-funded investigation by KU and Kansas State University. Mathematics, science, engineering and education faculty are involved. The result will be improved preparation of science and math teachers in Kansas. Ten Kansas school districts are participating.
Heppert says that Mr. Snyder, my crew-cut, bow-tied seventh-grade science teacher, might have led me to a deeper interest in science by having me think of problems I could address with my cloud chamber -- had it worked. I might, for example, have used it to see how much radioactivity my dad's glowing watch dial was emitting vs., say, my mom's uranium-ridden Fiestaware. (Did you know that's what gave it the nice glaze?)
There are several tricks besides encouraging problem-solving to whet kids' appetites for science, Heppert says. For one, it helps if they work in teams and not alone. Personal acquaintance with, and mentoring by, actual scientists also helps hook kids.
The KU-KSU project addresses the entire sweep of time involved in the recruiting, preparation and placement of a teacher, from first aspiration to the early professional years. The latter are especially perilous; 50 percent of all science teachers drop out in the first three years of their working lives. In the inner cities, the numbers are worse.
One of the most interesting points about teaching that Heppert shared caused me to recall another crew-cut mentor, professor Dick Renner. I took five courses from Renner, so we got close enough to talk personally. He once said, "I try to make sure students have one thing they remember, one major idea, after they leave a lecture."
His instinct was right. American K-12 school teachers try to cover 35 to 45 science topics in a year, while those in other countries do only 12 to 20, but in greater depth, Heppert says. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study showed that students who study fewer topics tended to earn higher math and science scores.
I wish Mr. Snyder had had the benefit of knowing all this. I wish my cloud chamber had worked. Who knows? I might be splicing genes today.
I could be doing some real damage.
-- Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.