US lags in science education because it excels in science research

April 30, 2010 at 10:33 am 9 comments

The argument of this study is that there are only so many hours in a day.  Faculty want to focus on teaching, but believe that their Universities only value research.  “It appears, then, that many universities—and by extension, their faculty—treat research and teaching as a zero-sum game: as more time and energy is invested in one endeavor, the amount of resources that can be allocated to the other drops.”  The article explicitly claims that the US lags in science education because it leads in science research.  What does that imply for computing education, when the US is a world leader in computing research?

Recent studies have shown that American students greatly underperform many of their global peers in the science sections of standardized tests. The US has the largest economy in the world and spends a disproportionately large percent of its GDP on scientific research, so why aren’t our students excelling in science? The problem may not be purely financial: science programs in both rich and poor nations are not educating students as effectively as they should. A new study from Nature Publishing Group (NPG) suggests that emphasis on research at the expense of teaching at the university level may be partially responsible for the scientific underperformance of advanced students worldwide.

via Science education vs. research: a zero-sum game?.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thinkingwiththings  |  April 30, 2010 at 10:53 am

    It’s the zero sum game assumption that I question. One way I advise junior faculty to expand their dossiers is to engage in “the scholarship of teaching,” although I know that in some departments this would not be valued at all.

    We can do a lot to promote inquiry not only in research but also in our students. For an elementary math example, see (thanks to Bruce Corson for pointing me to this.) Students taught to inquire, not just to solve problems whose answers are in the back of the book, would make great undergraduate research assistants. It would be great for them and for us faculty.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  April 30, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Dubious at best (to me).

    K-12 isn’t focusing on research at all, so there are no distractions of that kind holding back science education that is critical for the early ages. (There are many other distractions, and this is what they should be paying attention to)



    • 3. Ian Bogost  |  April 30, 2010 at 9:51 pm


    • 4. Mark Miller  |  May 1, 2010 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Alan.

      The article talks mostly about faculty dynamics at universities and institutional priorities. It only alludes to K-12. Maybe I’m reading this wrong and what happens in colleges of natural science has little effect on this, but my take on what the quote was saying is that the science education of science teachers gets short shrift because the scientists who would be teaching them are too busy doing research. This then results in lower quality science education in K-12. It doesn’t directly say this. It’s assumed.

      The article went on to say that institutional priorities/incentives reinforce this behavior at a cultural level within academia, because tenure positions tend to go to good researchers. Good teaching is not a priority. All of the rewards and honors emphasize good research, not good teaching. Not to say that faculty have to be one or the other, but the selection process emphasizes one activity.

      Jerry King said the same thing has been happening for decades with the teaching of mathematics at the university level, in his book “The Art of Mathematics”. He also said the reasons were cultural, though for different reasons than the above article states (still, he may have been describing symptoms of institutional priorities). Not to say that this validates the argument above, but it provides some background.

  • 5. Garth  |  April 30, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    The distractions problems are with the k-12 students and parents, not the k-12 teachers. Overall I would claim that most science teachers in the US are well qualified to teach, I really cannot say the same about most parents being qualified to parent. Let’s not make the mistake of putting all the blame in the shoulders of schools and teachers, the student is ultimately responsible for their education. If the student is too young then it is the parent who must bear that responsibility. The schools should be required to offer the opportunity for students to learn but not be required to force students to learn.

  • 6. Alan Kay  |  April 30, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Hi Garth,

    I must have had terrible luck over the last 40 years or so working with K-8 teachers regarding science.

    I would say that this group of many hundreds only contained one or two who knew “real math” or “real science” and could teach them.

    Where is this enormous pool that you mentioned to be found?



  • 7. Garth  |  May 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm


    I probably do not get out of Montana enough. My Montana sample, which after 28 years is fairly large, is probably skewed compared to the rest of the US. I was assuming it was not. Bummer. I should probably know better but hope runneth deep. Being a high school teacher I think in high school teacher terms. The math and science education requirements for high school teachers are obviously more stringent that K-8. I taught Math for Elementary Teachers one year at UofM. You are right, that pool of K-8 teachers that really had a clue was a bit shallow. I still think my argument that parents and students need to be held more responsible for the education the kid receives has merit. Teaching at a private school I have been on the other side of the motivation fence for a quite a while. It is amazing how paying for an education out of your pocket motivates parents to motivate their students.

  • 8. Alan Kay  |  May 3, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Hi Garth,

    Oh there’s no question that you are right about parents being the central key to a lot of it.

    The big problem with science is that we humans were on the planet for about 200,000 years before we really were able to invent it (pace Archimedes and Aristarchus!) just a little over 400 years ago.

    So it isn’t at all obvious even to very smart people. And many high school teachers I’ve met don’t really understand the outlook of science (this is the biggie) even though they have learned to teach some of what scientists have found out over the last 400 years. (This is “OK” up to a point, but it is too much like “music appreciation” than actual “music learning”.)

    So great parents who don’t understand science will have a very difficult time surmounting a school system that doesn’t understand science, but is sure that it does.

    However, great parents who read, and can teach their children to read for content outside of the school system can really help their children start to bypass what’s wrong with school. This plus some contact with adults who understand the scientific outlook can often do the trick.

    One very probable (but not proven as far as I know) “difficult situation” is that much of what “outlook” is all about is picked up in the first 7-10 years of life (Ignatius Loyola said “7”, and there is quite a big of evidence for this). And once settled, it is quite difficult to change to a very different way of looking at things. I don’t think it is impossible, but what evidence there is indicates that it is quite a deep struggle(somewhat analogous to 1st language learning later in development).

    So I really think that the “science battle” (and many other battles) are won or lost in K-8 (really in K-4), and that most of these are lost currently.



  • 9. Alfred Thompson  |  May 5, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    I believe that science and math win or lose in the early grades. I firmly believe that success with multiplication (usually in 3rd or 4th grade) is a good predictor of future success in math. That’s a gut feeling but I think I could justify it with time. Young children are naturally interested in nature. Just watch them look at bugs or plants or try to build with blocks. But somehow we teach that joy out of them. Recent pressure to focus on math and English (without keeping the joy in them BTW) means that there is less time for science. And less money for hands on science which really builds interest. College is far too late. In fact I’m not sure there is much that one can do in college to either attract or dissuade students who are not predisposed in a direction.


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