Three Ways to Interest Students in Science

Perhaps the fundamental goal of science education should be finding ways to interest students in science.  Stephen Hornstra Landgraaf, (The Netherlands) made this statement as part of his comment in my previous post.  In this era of standards-based education we leave most students outside of science, and do little to bring them in to see a connection between their own lives and the joy of science.

Yet even in these high-stakes testing times, there are some powerful ways in which science educators are interesting students, young and older, alike.  Here are three:

Thinking Big.  This is all about asking “big” questions, much the way that Carl Sagan did.  Of course it is more than that.  Thinking Big in science teaching means we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to pique our curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest students.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

The 12" gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life and culture on Earth.  It was placed on Voyager 1 & 2, and was designed by a group headed by Carl Sagan.  Follow the link to read more about this.
Thinking Big!: The 12" gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life and culture on Earth. It was placed on Voyager 1 & 2, and was designed by a group headed by Carl Sagan. Click on the disc to read more about Sagan's thinking, and how you might apply it to your teaching.

A really good example of “thinking big” was NASA’s announcement last Fall of The Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship.  You can view the video of the announcement here, and from contemporary scientists and science educators discuss Carl Sagan’s legacy.   Then follow this link to NASA’s Planet Quest (Exoplanet Exploration) Website, and explore how NASA is trying to answer the question, Are we alone?  It’s fascinating, and would capture student’s imagination.  You might also visit the Carl Sagan portal for other interesting ideas.

Thinking Informally—Science museums. One of my favorite theorists in education is John Dewey. Dewey wrote lots of books on education, and advocated a humanistic approach to teaching, and specifically believed that “non-school learning” could provide the kind of energy that learning in school would require to engage and interest students. Science museums are a kind of informal learning environment that typically engage students of all ages.

T-rex on exhibit at the Tellus Museum, one of a large collection of fossils in this wonderful learning environment.
T-rex on exhibit at the Tellus Museum, one of a large collection of fossils in this wonderful learning environment.

Yesterday I visited the Tellus Museum of Science, located in Northwest Georgia, a new museum full of fascinating science wonders including an extensive mineral gallery, dinosaurs and more than 40 pre-history animals in the Fossil Gallery, a fossil dig, and gem panning, history of flight from the Wright brothers to the American and Russian space programs.

The visit to Tellus reminded me of all of the museums that I’ve visited in Atlanta, Barcelona, Boston, New York, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Prague, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, Vancouver, London, Moscow and St. Peterburg. In fact, some years ago I was in St. Petersburg, Russia with 100 American and Russian middle and high school students and their teachers as part of the Global Thinking Project, and we were brought to the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  It was there we  viewed the famous display of the Wooly Mammoth.

Mammoth exhibit in a science museum in St. Petersburg, Russia
Mammoth exhibit in the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Museums play an important role in science education, and have to near the top of list of ways to interest kids and adults in science.  Here informal learning is emphasized over formal, classroom-like instruction.  Visitors are encouraged to “touch” and “play” with exhibits.

Reconnecting with Nature: The National Park Syndrome.  Although Yellowstone Park was established in 1872, the U.S. Congress established the National Park Service in 1916 protecting the 35 national parks that existed at that time.  Now there are 391 units in National Park Service including parks, national monuments, seashore sites, battlefields and other recreational and cultural sites.  If you add to this the number of state parks that there are in the U.S. you have a enormous resource available for another type of informal learning that emphasizes the outdoors, and cultural experiences.  I am not sure if there really is a “National Park Syndrome,” but what I mean is that we should work to reconnect students to nature.  My own National Park Syndrome was created by my many trips to the Rocky Mountain National Park, both personal, and professional (teaching graduate courses on environmental education).

View of the Rockies from Trail Ridge Road, in the Rocky Mountain National Park
View of the Rockies from Trail Ridge Road, in the Rocky Mountain National Park

And indeed the Children & Nature Network is dedicated to this, and supports a movement to reconnect “children and nature.”  The goal here is to give students opportunities to experience nature directly.  C&NN is a great resource for science teachers, and provides a convenient way to connect with other educators who are developing strategies in the service of nature for children and youth.

Connecting our students to nature does not have to involve traveling to a park.  Simply going outside one’s school will bring you and your students in contact with nature.  In my own experience as college teacher, I taught in the center of Atlanta’s urban environment.  The urban environment was rich with experiences for my students.  We were able to study the geology of building stones, that not only included rocks from various parts of the world, but also many of the sedimentary building stones included fossils. We did scavenger hunts looking for change, living things, biodegradeable substances, various types of rocks and minerals, plants, animals, mineral processes, evidence of physical and chemical weathering, and other phenomena.  We even looked for stalagmites and stalagtites that formed when water trickled through cracks and fissures in the underground parking garage.

From the vantage point of central Atlanta, our students were engaged in environmental studies, including the investigation of ground-level ozone (Project Ozone).  We did this every summer, and students not only monitored ozone in central Atlanta, but also from the vantage point of their homes.  This provided us with a rich data base all around the Metro-Atlanta area.  Project Ozone was one of the projects that we developed as part of the Global Thinking Project.  Using very simple monitoring equipment, students from many parts of the world were able to monitor the air outside their school, and use our online data base to share and investigate the problem of ground-level ozone.

A middle school student from Walker County, GA discusses air quality as part of Project Ozone with a student from Puschino, Russia in School #1.
A middle school student from Walker County, GA discusses air quality as part of Project Ozone with a student from Puschino, Russia in School #1.

There are many ways to interest students in science.  These are simply three that I have found to be very effective with students of all ages.  I’ll continue to talk about this and come back to it from time to time.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear what some of your favorite ways are to interest students in science.  Leave a comment for others to read.

Toward a More Open Science Curriculum

There was a very interesting article in the New York Times entitled High Schools to Cultivate Interest.  The article focused in on a school district that is experimenting with “redefining traditional notions of a college-preparatory education and allowing students to pursue specialized interests that once were relegated to after-school clubs and weekend hobbies.”  As one student, who was interviewed for the article said:

It’s letting people learn about what they love rather than dictating what they should be learning.

In the case reported in the article students can take courses such as cardio fitness, advanced Java programming and Mandarin.  Other schools are expanding their curriculum as well, adding business and entertainment courses, courses in investment and accounting and sports.  

Curriculum design has been impacted enormously by the recent No Child Left Behind Act.  Schools felt they had to reign in variety and choice in curriculum, and have students regimented to a strict curriculum that included courses in the core areas of the curriculum.

An interesting implication of a school curriculum that gives students more choices in courses electives is to apply this principle to the way we look at the organization of the science curriculum.  How can student choice be built into the content of the science curriculum?  Are students capable of choosing content that is relevant and important, not only toward understanding science, but toward building up confidence and interest in science.

More to come….

Why Aren’t Students Interested in a Career in Science?

In a recent NSTA Reports (March 2008, Vol. 19 No.7), a publication of the National Science Teachers Association. the lead article entitled “Steer Your Students to a Science Career” pointed out that science teachers try to inspire their students to careers in science, yet in a very recent major study, the ROSE study, carried out at the University of Oslo, it was found that very few students in industrialized nations are interested in following this path. In fact, except for students in developing nations, students are ambivalent about pursuing jobs in science and technology. Indeed, organizations such as NSTA have encouraged teachers to support science career education. Yet, as Glenn Fay, Jr., another author in the same publication, points out, this effort raises a lot of questions. And Fay goes on to suggest that educators need to pay attention to students’ motivations and interests, and their world.

In the ROSE Study, students from over 40 nations, were asked their opinions of various topics and issues related to science and technology, as well as school science. For instance, when these students were asked to indicate their degree of agreement with the following statement: I would like to become a scientist,” the agreement in developed nations is rather low and girls are even more reluctant than boys. Also notice that there are significant gaps between boys and girls in many nations.

Thanks to Svein Sjøberg at the University of Oslo for providing this graphic.

The ROSE study sheds light on a number of issues that contribute to students’ lack of interest in pursuing careers in science. However, contrary to what many people think, youth believe that science and technology are important for society. Students in all countries agree strongly that science and technology (S&T) are important for society, and that S&T are needed for development. Lack of interest in science has more to do with how students perceive science, and their experiences with school science. In the ROSE study, students in most countries express more skepticism towards science than adults do. When they are asked to compare science with other school subjects, students in industrialized countries rated science as less popular than other subjects, and in most countries, girls dislike science more than boys.

The ROSE researchers concluded that there is a strong relationship between the HDI (Human Development Index) for a country and responses in the ROSE questionnaire. They suggest that the higher the level of development of a country, the lower the interest in science and technology-related topics. So, students in Uganda and Bangladesh show more interest in learning about topics in science than students in more developed nations like Norway, and Japan.

In Western societies, students have tended not to choose traditional career opportunities in science (physicists, technicians and engineers), but have gravitated toward medicine, biology and environmental studies, and often girls outnumber boys. If we compare this view to the nature of the school science curriculum, we are led to conclude that there is a mismatch between the content emphases in the science curriculum, and the career aspirations of many students.

Do you think there is a mismatch between the content emphases in the current science curriculum, and the career aspirations of many students? Could this be the underlying cause of student disinterest in science, and the lack of success in science career programs?

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss two views of the science curriculum, and explore how students relate to these two views, and how it might contribute to students’ attitudes toward science.