If you’re a parent, you may know just how important it is to get kids focused on science. Kids know, too, from watching TV shows like Sid the Science Kid and Magic School Bus. But how to get kids the knowledge they need, when science education is hampered by budget cuts?
In WNC, there are science museums brimming with interactive programs and exhibits (Asheville is home to both The Health Adventure and The Colburn Earth Science Museum). There are summer camps and after-school programs and more (UNCA’s Super Saturday and Robotics programs, The WNC Nature Center and Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute are a few local outlets). And, of course, there are our schools, some of which have specific science and technology mandates, including Hall Fletcher Elementary, Evergreen Community Charter School and the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences within Asheville High School (SILSA).
Turns out there are many good reasons to get our kids to focus on the sciences.
According to recent research, America’s students lag behind their counterparts in many European and Asian countries when it comes to science and technology.
Results from a national exam reveal that less than a third of U.S. students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade have a solid grasp of age-appropriate science. These scores, from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, were released in January.
While North Carolina’s fourth graders performed on par with the nation’s fourth-graders, the state’s eighth- and 12th-grade students were significantly behind the nation when it comes to science. In fact, the South trails the rest of the country.
Western North Carolina educators offer a couple of different explanations for the dismal test scores of both our nation’s and region’s students on these (and other) science exams.
Many blame the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires testing in math and reading, but not science. Because the results of the testing directly affect each individual school’s funding, teachers feel forced to teach to the tests, often to the detriment of other subjects.
“I think [the low test results in science] are an unintended consequence of the No Child Left Behind testing program,” says Jason Carter, associate director for grades 5-8 at Evergreen Community Charter School. “I think if we don’t test it, we don’t value it as much.”
The U.S. Department of Education administers the National Association of Educational Progress assessment, while North Carolina requires end-of-grade science tests for grades 5 and 8 — but those statewide tests in science were first administered in 2008.
“It’s only been in the past few years that elementary and middle schools have been testing science at all,” says Greg Townsend, principal at SILSA, whose curriculum emphasizes health and life sciences. “The emphasis has been on high-stakes testing in math and reading.”
Educators also note that there are fewer qualified teachers and fewer teacher positions, both of which impact science study. Budget cuts have decreased the number of teacher jobs in North Carolina significantly. These cuts have impelled many teachers to widen their specialties in order to keep their jobs. At the elementary-school level, science teachers are rare. Asheville City Schools employs one science coach for all five of its elementary schools.
And, of course, testing often can only reveal so much in terms of student knowledge and ability. Educators emphasize the importance of learning the scientific method in order to apply its logic to other aspects of school and life.
“It’s not knowledge that’s as important in science. It’s a process and a way to explore the world around you using the scientific method,” explains Carter. “It’s about learning skills that will last way beyond school.”
Inoculating our kids with science not only can help them catch up with the rest of the world’s students, but can offer life-long benefits to them and to our society as they move from the educational world into the work world. From farming to construction work, from law to the health-care profession, ability to apply the scientific method can be key.
“I think that what you learn through the study of inquiry-driven science is process,” says Townsend. “I think it’s essential that we continue to develop the ability of the students to solve problems. This is the challenge we face in all of our educational environments: How do we change what we’re doing in a way that enables students to move forward in a time of uncertain future in terms of career development and nontraditional work? If we can give them the ability to problem-solve in a variety of situations, we’ve developed their capacity to succeed.”
Hungry to get ahead
If many of our schools are failing our kids, with testing mandates and budget cuts, where can parents turn?
There are the previously mentioned extracurricular science programs, one of which, the national Science Olympiad, fields teams from at least 13 Western North Carolina public and independent schools.
Carter co-coaches Evergreen’s Science Olympiad team, which consists of 18 middle-school students who compete in science competitions at the regional, state and national levels. The students spend their Saturdays preparing for both written and experiential tests, which include building actual contraptions and applying the scientific method in situations such as crime solving.
“All the students have to be ready to go into two or three different events,” Carter says. “These competitions really get kids entrenched in science. They’re giving up their Saturdays to do this, and they’re excited and hungry for it.”
Despite the popularity of the program in the state, Governor Beverly Perdue's proposed budget cuts include cutting funding for the Science Olympiad, which could leave the students involved having to raise money to continue competing.
More teachers are working together — across age groups — to support science learning. For example, SILSA technology facilitator and lead teacher Shannon Baggett helped organize a Kids Inquiry Conference between SILSA students and 12 Asheville City Schools elementary classrooms. The SILSA students visited classrooms to work with kids in grades 3 through 5. Then, on March 30, they’ll help the younger students present their science projects at a special event held at UNCA.
There are other regional examples of educators, nonprofits and institutions who are stepping up to the science plate in order to feed that student hunger. Whether or not North Carolina students will catch up to the rest of the U.S., and U.S. students will catch up to the rest of the world, remains to be seen. In the meantime, parents can avail themselves and their progeny of the myriad opportunities in our area. And to quote Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”
— Anne Fitten Glenn is an Asheville-based freelance writer.