Confronting a third crisis in U.S. science education

Is science education broken in the United States? And if so, how should the country fix it? A working group of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has been investigating these long-standing questions and is expected to issue a report on its policy recommendations this month. Science News Contributing Editor Alexandra Witze spoke with the working group’s cochair, physicist S. James Gates Jr. of the University of Maryland in College Park. Gates also serves on the Board of Trustees of Society for Science & the Public, the parent organization of Science News.

S. JAMES GATES JR. “The reason we are doing this with urgency is because it’s connected to our country’s future economy.” John Consoli/University of Maryland

What is the outlook for U.S. science education?
If you look at U.S. performance on various international metrics, depending on which one you use, we come out something like 24th or 25th in the world. A lot of people might argue: “Well, who cares? It’s just science.” The only problem with that theory is we’re moving into a time in the development of the world economy when innovation and the formation of novel approaches will clearly come from countries best situated to create a population that can innovate in science and technology.

We’re not doing this because we want to make more scientists. The reason we are doing this with urgency is because it’s connected to our country’s future economy.

The Obama administration has announced a number of science education initiatives. Will they do enough?
I think the true test is yet to come. Does one put one’s money where one’s mouth is? To some substantial degree, this administration has stepped up to the plate with its increased support of science. On the other hand, we have heard concerns about sustainability of this commitment in light of current economic constraints.

How is PCAST approaching its deliberations about science education?
We’re trying to be mindful of the tremendous number of efforts that have gone before; there are at least 40 to 50 such reports that one could list. We have found discussions in the literature all the way back to the ’60s where people were raising issues of science and technology education.

When I look at the country’s current crisis with regard to STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education, this is in fact the third such crisis.

The first one was World War II in my opinion. If you look at the way this nation prosecuted the war successfully, it was because the United States innovated at a level far beyond its competition.

Crisis two in my opinion was the launch of Sputnik. Once again there was a public resolution. You create NASA, our space program, and we successfully get men on the moon by 1969.

In this third STEM crisis, what we really need to do is start thinking in light of our previous experience. What might be policy structures that could bring to bear the kind of transformational and long-term vision to allow our nation to progress to higher levels of performance?

How do we do that?
My [PCAST working group] cochair [Eric Lander of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.,] says the problem is that we in this nation do not have the structures that have allowed us to get inside the innovation cycle in education in the way that we have in scientific research.

One way to look at this problem is to look at education as a system to be engineered and to ask how one might do this. What I’ve been looking for is maps between how research works in this country and how education works in this country. In particular I have been struck by the fact that there is nothing like DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] for education. You need something like that in the system to drive innovation like we haven’t seen.

Previous education has been mostly about the delivery of facts; you wanted people to remember and manipulate facts. But one thing that’s different now is in a world that has a Web [and] access to information at your fingertips, the memory of facts won’t be that important. What’s going to be important is the capability of people to marshal those facts to solve the kinds of problems they’re engaged in.

Are you optimistic about the country’s future in science education?
I’m optimistic in the long term. There’s lots of evidence that this country solves difficult problems, especially if you give us enough time. In the short term, I’m afraid it’s going to be very painful. I fear that we may not be able to impress upon the larger society quickly enough that the issues around science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not tied to just those fields — that in fact this is the basis for our wealth formation. If we can’t get that message out quickly enough, the nation’s not going to respond quickly enough.