by Russ Steele
What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing - Aristotle
Last month the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress science test results were announced, and California students were at the bottom of the pile with 43 other states scoring higher than California. How can California lead our national economic recovery with such dismal science scores?
According to both the United States National Research Council and the National Science Foundation the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math fields are the core technical fields, which are the foundation of an advanced society. The strength of a work force knowledgeable in science, technology, engineering and math are indicators of a nation's ability to sustain itself. They are also indicators of California’s ability to lead the nation’s economic recovery. However, we cannot have a robust growing high tech business sector without knowledgeable scientists and engineers.
One concern is that elementary and middle schools are not preparing students for careers in science and technology, because science is barely taught at the elementary school level. According to some observers the California Academic Performance Index algorithm overemphasizes Math and English. Science is simply not measured. If it is not measured in the Performance Index, it is not going to get much attention in the classroom. By the time these science-deficient students reach middle and high school, they are so far behind in the prerequisite skills and knowledge needed to be successful in rigorous high school science and math courses, and eventually, university science, technology, engineering and math requirements as well.
After I retired from the Air Force I went to work for TRW, an aerospace and automotive parts company. TRW manufactured every thing from satellites to airbag activation systems, to the remote control door openers. All of these projects required engineering skills from design to manufacturing. Recognizing the need for more engineers was growing; TRW joined industry councils and investigated the problem. They discovered that many grade and middle schools have abandoned hands on science in the classroom, focusing more on science appreciation than doing science.
The solution was to develop hands on science kits for students in middle schools, and encourage company engineers, on company time once a week, to assist teachers with these simple hands on experiments. I introduced one friction module at a local middle school, but could not continue with the program when my business office moved from Sacramento to San Diego, and eventually Farmington Hills outside of Detroit. Even with my heavy travel schedule, I worked with a Seven Hills Science Teacher to show his class how to build telescopes using PVC pipe, surplus photocopier lenses, and military surplus eyepieces. I found the parts in a surplus catalog, and bought them out of pocket.
A few years ago, Ellen and I had dinner with my daughter Caitlin in Boston. She had invited an MIT astronomer who had been a friend of hers in middle school and high school to join us. During the dinner conversation I asked the young woman why she chose astronomy. She related a story how a man had come to her middle school class and showed the students how to make a telescope out of sewer pipe and copier lenses. She went home and made her own telescope, fell in love with the stars, and eventually went to Indiana University to study astronomy. This was a real lesson for me on the value of hands on science in a child’s education.
I recently read a story on the Internet that a California high school had decided this year that a science fair would no longer be part of the school experience. One of the main factors that led to dropping the Science Fair was the feeling that doing an independent science project took too much time away from the preparation for the California Standards Tests. Since doing the project wasn’t directly correlated with any CST questions, it wasn’t deemed to be worth the time spent. The CST science section does test “Investigation and Experimentation,” but these standards count for only 10 percent of the test. Administrators found it hard to see how doing an actual project directly prepared the students for the test questions.
It was more important to teach the test questions, than to teach science.
The lack of high school students entering the science and engineering fields has been, and continues to be, an issue for members of the Sierra Environmental Studies Foundation. In 2007 SESF inaugurated TechTest in response to filling a local need for scholarships that would encourage young people to consider undertaking some aspect of technology as their life’s work. According to Dr. George Rebane, SESF’s Director of Research:
In the last decades the United States has fallen woefully behind in supplying our institutions and businesses with qualified technical workers who form the backbone of our country’s wealth generating capacity. America must graduate many more scientists and engineers if we are to retain a competitive position in the global markets and maintain our nation’s security.
Now in its fifth year, TechTest is the flagship component of SESF’s merit scholarship program. With a recommendation of their math or science teacher, the test is open to all the county’s high school seniors and juniors who plan to embark on a technology based career after college. Only seniors will receive cash scholarships; juniors are invited to take the test for practice.
The test is a grueling four-hour math/science exam given each spring. It is a lower division university level examination administered by the TechTest Academic Committee composed of teachers in the Nevada County high schools and chaired by Mr. John McDaniel, Nevada Union High School’s award winning physics teacher. SESF’s participation is limited to writing the exam, conducting pretest seminars in the spring, and awarding scholarship checks to the winners. The TechTest Academic Committee administers and grades all tests, and posts the results. Winners are determined solely by their test scores.
Dr. George Rebane, who also conducts the SESF pretest seminars, writes the test. Past copies of tests and grading keys are available for download from sesfoundation.org/tech_test.htm
SESF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization not associated with CABPRO, an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff. TechTest scholarships are supported by SESF Board members, community members at large (including donors from out of the area), and for profit businesses. Every penny contributed by donors goes toward the student scholarships. SESF is currently seeking more contributions for the TechTest 2011 scholarship and welcomes your participation.
Full Disclosure: Russ Steele is an SESF Board Member and is currently the Executive Director. He is also a freelance writer and blogs on local issues at NC Media Watch. He can be reached at 530-263-0135, or firstname.lastname@example.org