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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.