August is back-to-school month

We’ve followed the science education debate for years, but jumping into the fray has caused us to think in new ways.

August5th,2012
Peter and Candice Kissinger
Much has been written about failing schools and our studentperformance ranking below other nations on standardized tests for science,technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. We are unconvincedthat Finland, with its population smaller than many American cities and lessdiverse than a bag of frozen peas, is a reasonable benchmark. Many gurusrespond that science teachers should have deeper content knowledge and scienceas their primary college major. That's a noble thought, but the disincentivesare many.
 
We've followed the science education debate for years, but jumpinginto the fray has caused us to think in new ways.
One fallacy of stressing science content knowledge is thefact that it's not often a real problem. The stressors on our system derivemostly from a society that values entertainment over learning. Ours is a timewhere many families are badly broken, and children are having children in acycle of poverty and despair. Technology has advanced so rapidly and beendisseminated so broadly that it is hard to be excited by improvements we maketoday.
 
Vilifying teachers fits the idea, accepted by many, thateverything untoward that happens is someone else's fault. Educators are aconvenient scapegoat, but not the only one.
 
When seeking candidates for a STEMteaching job, it is illegal to ask for a birthday, but it is acceptable to askwhen the candidate graduated from high school. If that date is prior to 1990,many transitioning scientists will run into a barrier called "too old, tooexperienced."
Those fortunate to then receive an interview in many schooldistricts will find that one of the first questions is, "What can you coach?" Asatisfactory answer does not include chemistry, biology, math or physics. Abeginning science teacher at any age is not going solve our STEM problem bycoaching sports.
 
We find it curious that some middle-school teachers are judgedon scores from standardized tests taken by students for whom the grade has no consequenceat all. What is the motivation for students to get a grade that only applies inthe aggregate to their teacher and school? Baseball would sure be a differentsport if only aggregated batting averages were reported.
 
It's odd that academic competition among students isdiscouraged in school when it is the key to nearly every other activity inlife. Competition is said by some to make schools as a whole better, but whynot students? When we were in school, it made students better. Experiencingdisappointment and failure made those inevitable experiences easier to handlelater, and inspired us to try harder. The majority of great figures fromhistory improved in the same way.
 
University professors are recruited from school to school. Theyare incentivized to stay or depart, just like a free-agent point guard. Schoolteachers,on the other hand, lose their salary and benefits (and/or seniority) if they tradeone district for another. Imagine if Pfizer and Merck—or Harvard and Yale—exercisedthis constraint of trade?
 
It strikes us odd that some want to encouragecompetition among schools for students (via parents) using a voucher system,but don't likewise encourage competition for the best teachers. That isun-American.It is further curious that some states propose financiallyrewarding schools where the students perform best on standardized tests, yetthese are the school districts that commonly have clientele from the highest-performingdemographics. A contrary thought would be recruiting and rewarding high-performingteachers to take on the challenge of the toughest demographics. We don't sendNavy Seals to Disney World.
 
What can you as a life-science professional do to contributeto our nations STEM challenge this academic year now underway? Here are a few thoughts.Science teachers have little to no budget; contribute tocommunity foundations that give grants to educators. Mentor a science fair studentor be an encouraging judge. Sponsor a science fair award. Support a sciencemuseum. Take a few kids for a walk in the woods.  Be a mentor to a disadvantaged youth. Openyour business to tours by small numbers of 12-year-olds. With six at a time,you can amaze and inspire.
 
Both of us were fortunate in our youth to have been welcomedto tours of commercial research centers, often on a Saturday. What we sawcemented a lifelong interest in bettering life through better science. The "wow"factor in STEM did not come to us from classrooms as much as it did fromparents and astronauts and little transistor radios. STEM advances one kid at atime, and it only takes one to make a difference in this world. Only 1 in 2,000Americans are members of the American Chemical Society, while 100 percent ofthe population depends on chemistry, biology, physics and math. Make it happen.If you don't, who will?

Peter T. Kissinger is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairmanemeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics andProsolia. Candice Kissinger is an eighth-grade science teacher, adjunct professorof pharmacy at Purdue University and former senior vice president of researchat BASi.
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