The unfunny state of science education

I attended BayBio’s Pantheon Award dinner in San Francisco November 3rd.  Each year this biotechnology community gathers to celebrate recent company successes and honor regional leaders and pioneers.  This year the Biotechnology Educator award went to Bruce Alberts for his long-standing work in and advocacy for science education.  Dr. Alberts is also known to most of us as the editor-in-chief at Science magazine.  During his short acceptance comments, Dr. Alberts wryly noted that he does not consider himself a successful advocate given today’s public support for science education.  Coincidentally the Daily Show weighed in recently with an episode skewing the anti-science rhetoric on TV and inside the D.C. Beltway these days.  Perhaps Aasif Manvi and Jon Stewart can help Dr. Alberts and the rest of us make a case for science?

But what is the case to be made? How do we convince students, politicians and the public that science and engineering matter, much less have the ability to improve lives? Against this contextual backdrop, I had the enjoyable task of reading the Crellin Pauling Student Teaching Award nomination packages last week.  Each and every one of the nominees, including the 2012 Pauling Award winner, Erick Morales (CSU Fullerton), argued that students (and the public) need “a solid understanding of how science works.”  Like Dr. Alberts these student teachers already know in their bones that hands-on, real-world science is engaging and inspiring to young scientists and adult learners. None of the Pauling nominees wrote about lecturing on genetics or tutoring organic chemistry; they all wrote about the joy of interacting with students in research and laboratory settings. Educational experts have published plenty data backing up these impressions. Even 60 Minutes featured the noted science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) educator and advocate, Freeman Hrabowski (President, U. Maryland Baltimore County), on the program this week. Dr. Hrabowski talks about “getting goosebumps” working on science and math problems.  The biotechnology executives at the Pantheon dinner demonstrated that same passion for doing science (and engineering and math!) with the goal of improving patients’ lives.

It seems to me that making the case for science might be as simple as getting students (and interested adults) involved in research projects. Might research involvement be an incentive that fuels patient advocacy groups? By walking 5Ks in support of breast cancer, they are doing something and are involved in research! By organizing, supporting and working with teams on compelling research problems, we show what science and engineering and math is all about.  What are you doing* to increase access to hands-on, participatory STEM learning these days?

*To think more about all this – join CSU faculty at the 24th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium.  We’ve organized a session titled, “Enriching Undergraduate Education,” for Friday afternoon, January 6th!

To read more about all this: See the Summer 2011 Peer Review (AAC&U) issue, “Advancing What Works in STEM: A View Through the PKAL Lens”

    This entry was posted in Opinion, STEM Education and tagged , , , by Susan Baxter. Bookmark the permalink.

    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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