Nobel successes hide science education problems

October 6, 2006

U.S. scientists swept the Nobel prizes in science this year — in Medicine or Physiology, in Chemistry, and in Physics. I noted earlier that I suspected most Nobel winners this year would, again, be products of public schools. (I have not yet got biographies of each winner to confirm that.)

Beneath the successes at the top simmers a lot of pending gloom, however. P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula points to concerns among science educators about a huge gap between our top achievers and the rest of us. He cites an Associated Press story, and it in turn calls up the 2002 survey by the National Science Foundation that found woeful ignorance of basic science stuff among U.S. kids and adults.

Basic research and practical applications of science drove U.S. economic achievement through the end of the 19th century and through most of the 20th century. China and India far outpace the U.S. in producing new engineers today, however, and European research centers simply have greater scientific capacity in many areas, especially since the end of the plans for a U.S. superconducting supercollider particle accelerator, more than a decade ago.

Rhodes Scholar, former U.S. Senator, NBA and NCAA basketball all-star Bill Bradley once said that it’s easier to get to the number 1 position than it is to stay there. The ascendancy of the U.S. in science and engineering achievement occurred decades ago. Without serious, planned work to stay there, some other nation will take over the lead in each area of science, probably within the next 20 years — perhaps within the next decade.

I’ll try to find links, but my memory brings up a couple of studies that show that in 4th grade, U.S. kids are at the head of the pack in science achievement. By 8th grade, they start to fall behind the leaders. By 12th grade, U.S. kids are far behind almost all kids in other industrialized nations. Something we do wrong between 4th grade and 12th grade is sapping the competitive ability of the nation. We need to fix it.

Dr. Myers has some suggestions well worth considering.

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