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An Interview With Dr. Bruce Alberts, President of the NAS

The National Academy of Sciences recently released the draft of new guidelines that propose significant changes in science education from kindergarten through high school. The proposed standards represent an unprecedented collaboration of teachers, scientists and education specialists. Why were the standards created? What will science education look like in the future? How can administrative resistance be overcome? What about the growing use of computers and the Internet? I spoke with Dr. Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences recently about these and related issues.

Q: The draft of the new NAS standards for science education in primary and secondary school have now been released. Can you tell us what prompted the development of the new standards? Is science education at a crucial turning point, and if so, what factors have brought us to that turning point?

A: We are at the point where we need a major change in science education. The standards are a tool to give a coherent vision to education in general and science education in particular. It seems that we have always been at a crucial turning point in education and are always unhappy about our precollege education system. For that reason we've always been in a state of reform. Nevertheless, at least in terms of science teaching, we haven't made much progress.

There is a wide recognition now that did not exist before that science education is something that all students should have, not just the small percentage who want to become scientists. This recognition now extends to the private sector, which seeks better science and math education to be able to hire workers who have a better chance to succeed. Our industries are competing with countries with education systems that better prepare their citizens to deal with problem solving and creative exploration on the factory floor and elsewhere. That realization is creating a sense of urgency about our science and math education system.

This challenge is not going to go away. In the past, the post-Sputnik reforms gave rise to a lot of enthusiasm. But they were different from the current reforms. For one thing, they were designed to prepare future scientists, not to educate everybody about science. Second, those reforms were motivated by the concern that we were falling behind the Soviet Union in space. When we eventually caught up with the Soviet Union and surpassed them in space, the push for education reform disappeared.

I think we have a special opportunity now because science education is facing a broader crisis. We are not likely to overcome the current national problem. We will always be competing with the Japanese, the Europeans and others. This reform is therefore going to have a staying power that the others did not have. It is also going to have the kind of broad support the other efforts may not have had.

Q: What should the focus of science education be from now on, and how can this be achieved?

A: This is what we've been working on for two and half years with the science education standards. The basic assumption of the standards movement is that reform can not succeed unless you know where you are going. Too often we've seen reform efforts that work against one another.

We have tried to create a vision that would last for at least 10-15 years, so that we all can work on all aspects of the system together. The system is presently in gridlock. The science education standards deal with all aspects of the education system, because our committees and volunteers thought that there was no way we could make the kind of dramatic changes that are called for in the content standards in a system that had the same kinds of tests, teacher preparation and the same lack of science materials support as our present system. In the current draft standards, half of the document is devoted to issues other than content, such as teaching, assessment and school system programs.

Q: You mentioned in your talk at the NABT conference that previous efforts to institute changes in science education have failed in part because a top-down approach was used. You noted that a bottom-up approach would be more effective. Could you elaborate on that?

A: The education reforms in the wake of Sputnik were definitely of the top down variety, where the science curriculum development did not include enough of the wider community. Those reforms taught us some lessons. It was clear to us that the current reforms had to involve a very broad constituency, including teachers, the schools that teach the teachers, parents, the business community, the science education establishment, etc. This has been an attempt to work with everybody. The standards document we've produced reflects that concern.

Much that was in the document could never have written by scientists alone, because we had no real expertise. For example, we didn't know what grade levels would be the appropriate ones to teach kids about atoms and molecules. Research by the science education community has shown that although younger children might do well on tests, they can't really comprehend what a teacher is talking about when she teaches about molecules. and atoms. No one community has enough expertise to prepare the standards.

The second chapter of our document, the teaching chapter, is one of the most important chapters. It clearly defines what good science teaching looks like. That area is completely foreign to most scientists who teach by lecturing at the collegiate levels. Indeed, those who teach at the college level could benefit a great deal from what is said in that chapter.

Q: Now that the draft of the standards has been released, opinions from focus groups are being sought. What kind of input will you looking for from the focus groups, particularly those involved with the high school level?

A: I think the high school teachers can contribute a lot to the process. For example, we need to know if the amount of material we are talking about in the content standards is too much, keeping in mind that we are talking about a new system in which science is a core subject every year, so we won't start with a blank slate in junior high or high school as we do now.

I'm also very interested in finding out what the teachers think about the professional development chapter. They've been through the process. Many teachers have complained about the kind of experiences they've had. We need to know if we have dealt with the changes needed in pre-service and in-service professional development. We would like to know if this chapter can be improved to be clearer or more effective.

Other questions deal with system and program. What are the limiting factors in their school systems now that prevent them from doing good science teaching? We've tried to identify many of them, and we want to make sure we've made the points clearly enough.

We also need to know how to present the new standards to the people who have influence in school systems. We've got to determine what kind of summary to use to best reach parents, principals, school system superintendents and school boards. We will need to get the message across to all of the various constituencies that will have to be supportive if we are really going to make this change.

We emphasize the connection between science and society in the new standards. We would like to make sure we have not missed any important examples of these connections. We'd also like to know if the teachers have better examples of teaching samples than the ones we give.

Q: In the past there has not been a lot of interaction between those who teach science and those who are doing scientific research. There now seems to be an increasing emphasis on creating partnerships between scientists and science teachers. Why is this important and how can it be brought about?

A: This is a key issue for the National Academy of Sciences. We've been at it for several years. We work with scientists to inform them about opportunities in education and how best to interact with teachers. There are a lot of scientists who want to work in their local regions to help improve science education. Many would be happy to volunteer, but need to do it right. If we are going to have a better interface between scientists and science teachers, scientists need to be educated on how to help.

For example, the excellent hands-on inquiry based science modules are well kept secrets in many school districts. Scientists will be most useful if they become aware of the good curricula and become advocates for it. This will require a much more organized, ambitious and thoughtful approach than most partnerships have previously employed.

At the moment a typical interaction would be a summer visit program, in which a science teacher comes to a laboratory facility for the summer, learns about the research being conducted, takes that information and tries to develop a few lessons for the classroom. This is all for the good, and is very effective for making connections, but it is not the ideal interaction, given the amount of time and effort it requires.

We need to start with any kind of activity that brings teachers and scientists together, but build on to this, to be more ambitious. Scientists can help science teachers not just in their classrooms, but in the community, influencing the way that teachers and science are treated within the school district. These partnerships are the only way to get a truly permanent change in school districts, given all the vagaries of school district politics, school board elections and the short half-life of superintendents of schools. Partnerships are the only way I see for us to move to a meaningful system of continuous improvement of science education.

Q: A good part of science is now conducted in the private sector. Moreover, private companies are more likely to have resources to spare. What is the role of the private sector in reinvigorating science education?

A: We have to work with the many scientists and engineers in the private sector. There are many examples where local corporations have successfully supported science education reform within their school districts. There are many more examples where corporations give money to some pet project and don't really make a long term difference. The support of local corporations, both financial and intellectual, for reform can allow science education to flourish.

Local industries can provide a permanent influence, facilitating ongoing improvement of science education. In contrast, the school system often has little stability. With every new superintendent you have new program, and all the old kits are left in the closet. This is a very destructive and wasteful process that also disillusions teachers.

One of the first things we have to do with partnerships is to get teachers to believe that this kind of partnership can lead to a stable and rational improvement cycle over a long period of time. Most teachers are probably pretty disillusioned with all the waves of reform, each lasting two or three years, which are never sustained. Meaningful partnerships are essential to give the new reform efforts credibility.

Q: You have noted that the structure of the school systems will have to change to facilitate new approaches to education. What part will the teachers play in these changes?

A: It is essential to look at ways of changing the way school systems are run. We have to change the way that decisions are made regarding science education. The outstanding teachers must have an important and lasting voice in the governance of the school district. I think school districts can be made much less hierarchical and more responsive to ideas from the teachers.

Teachers are a tremendous resource. Yet for one reason or another, teachers are all too often treated like they are some kind of menial employees. That whole dynamic has to change. For example, the automobile industry has flattened its organization to allow those on the shop floor to make suggestions at every level of the manufacturing process. In this case, the teachers are the ones on the shop floor. They should have voice in what kind of materials support they have and how inservice funds are allocated. Without allowing this input, it will not be the kind of system in which the teacher want to work. I'm amazed at how many outstanding teachers have put up with so much of this for so long, because they love the kids.

Q: It sounds like the science teachers will find themselves working a lot harder even than they do to bring these changes about.

A: Yes, but the changes that come as a result of this effort will support what they need, so in the end, it will make their lives a lot easier. This will enable them to do what they want to do more effectively. Ultimately, these changes will make them feel that they are supported by the school district, and that they have an important voice in how science is being taught and how resources are allocated.

Q: Computers and especially the possibilities of communication and information exchange are changing many aspects of our society. What is the role of the new technology in science education and what would you like to see emphasized?

A: What we need right away is to create ways for teachers to communicate with each other on the Internet. The Access Excellence program is a wonderful way of empowering teachers. It reinforces their professional status and stresses that they have important information to share in the education community. It also creates political momentum so teachers can help work for the things that they need in their school systems. This changes the dynamic of how it feels to be a teacher, and allows communication with a much wider range of people than ever before.

Internet access in the schools is also an important goal. However, we already know from experience that having a single terminal in the library is not going to do much. That means we have look at creating local networks as well. This raises questions about where resources are to found. I would not want an emphasis on this area to distract from the resources needed in areas where we already know how to do things well, for example, to get good curricula into the elementary schools and get teachers to learn how to teach it. But in the long run, computers are going to be useful and important in allowing more students to get information that only a few can get now.

N.B. For an overview of the proposed standards see the news article, NAS Standards in What's News/Science Update.

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