Revitalizing Science in the Classroom

The recent update to the National Academies’ 2005 report to congress, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, paints a bleak picture for the future of science in the classroom should nothing change.  The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in quality of math and science education.  Ouch.  It’s clear that fundamental changes in our educational system must be made beyond cutting a check and crossing our fingers.  We must revitalize our approach to science in the classroom in order to effectively educate and inspire future generations of scientists.  But where do we even begin?

We spoke with Virginia Shepherd, a Professor of Pathology at Vanderbilt University and Director of the Center for Science Outreach about what’s gone wrong and how she’s tackling the problem head on- and seeing great results.

BenchFly: The US is 48th in the quality of science and math education – clearly, something has gone wrong.

First, I think that one key issue here is that testing has focused only on reading and math, so that teachers give these areas their attention and reduce time spent on other subjects – science and social studies are the two that have suffered. Until we value science learning teachers will continue to avoid this subject. Second, many teachers find themselves unprepared to teach science; either they have not been trained in this area (i.e. are teaching out of their field) or they simply do not have time to keep pace with the rapid changes occurring daily in science. Finally, students love science when taught from a hands-on and/or research approach. Doing science is the only effective way of truly learning the information. But too many of our teachers at both the secondary and higher education levels lecture students, perhaps because in an 8th grade classroom it is just too hard to conduct an experiment with 35 students in a 50 min period. We need to begin teaching from an inquiry approach, and outside that “50 minute box”.


Was the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach started in response to these problems?

The CSO was indeed started in response to the lack of preparation and knowledge on the part of teachers. We have since evolved into many arenas, from curriculum development to teaching students and teachers in a research-based method.


How does science education change from elementary school through college?

This is a short answer to a very complicated problem. At the elementary level, students are still excited, they still are willing to question everything, and to push, prod and poke all that they come in contact with. Their love of discovery is infectious. Most educators agree that at some point in middle school (perhaps earlier) this love of discovery disappears for many and science becomes something “too difficult to learn” and “only for the nerds”. Our teachers may contribute to this because this is where many are required to begin teaching higher level science but don’t have the background or preparation necessary. It may be the style of our schools, with overcrowded classrooms, few resources, and short class periods.

By the time that students reach high school, they either have become totally turned off to science and take as few courses as they can to get by, or they stick with it and move on to higher level courses and/or majors in colleges. If lucky, they will land a research internship early in their undergraduate years that will keep them “hooked”; if unlucky, they may find themselves sitting through interminably long lecture courses that at best are boring and uninteresting.

There is of course much hope for reform, and great national interest. More and better professional development programs for teachers are cropping up each day; inquiry-based teaching is being stressed at all levels; and more specialized STEM programs are appearing to engage students in science learning. My one soap-box statement is always that effective science teaching is not only critical for keeping students in the science pipeline, but science is a way of learning that naturally develops required critical thinking skills for students that they can apply in all of their classes.


How do students change throughout the same period?

Students do of course change, and some of this is physiological. We joke about puberty and hormonal changes, but that does impact how students view themselves and how well they accept pressure from peers and parents. Students also as they get older begin to detect how teachers might overtly or subtly treat students in certain ethnic groups or gender differently. Their involvement in other activities increases as they move toward college, and they begin to get pulled in many different directions. Students are also being asked to choose their “career” path earlier and earlier these days with Career Technical Education and Career Academies appearing in middle and high schools.


What have you found to be the most effective way to reach students at that critical point in their education?

Again, use of lessons that engage the student in active learning is the only way to learn science. Learning to ask and answer questions is critical.


What do you think our current system of science education is doing correctly?

I think that many teachers at all levels are realizing that lectures and traditional textbooks need to be replaced or at least augmented with activities that engage students.  In the sciences these activities naturally engage students in discovery and experimentation. Inquiry must drive all of our teaching to continue to raise the level of interest and achievement in science; I think that scientists and teachers are working on this problem together with some very exciting solutions and approaches appearing each year.


What do you think is the major roadblock to improvement?

I think that the major roadblock right now is the resistance to thinking outside the box and continuing to stick with our traditional modes of teachings. We need to realize that science cannot be taught inside classrooms with only minimal supplies and limited time. We must take advantage of the expertise and novel approaches that others can bring to the classroom, and we must engage everyone in this challenge, including active and retired scientists, and business and community leaders.

Finally, we must find a solution to better preparing our teachers for the challenges of public education, and STEM education specifically. This is a discipline that changes so rapidly that even current researchers in the field are challenged to keep up. As scientists we have opportunities to attend lectures by leaders in our field, attend meetings and present our results, and get constant feedback through peer review of grants and papers. Teachers need these kinds of professional opportunities as well. Perhaps a system of sabbaticals for teachers, and opportunities for summer research and other professional development might help these educators stay renewed and excited and current in their field.


You have also started the Scientist-in-the-Classroom Partnership Program. What has been the response from teachers and students?

The Scientist in the Classroom Partnership (SCP) is a program that provides a small “topping up” award to current graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to spend one day per week teaching in a partner science classroom in our local public schools. The program was developed on the model of the National Science Foundation GK12 program, started in 1999. Vanderbilt received six years of funding, and the CSO has been able to sustain the program through funding from the university and the school district. Teachers and students love this program! There is always competition on the part of principals, schools and teachers to participate. Teachers gain a partner scientist for a year, building their science content knowledge in the process and gaining an extra person in their classroom to excite and educate the students. K-12 students learn science from a practicing researcher who not only provides a role model, but also brings inquiry into the classroom. The university Fellows gain important teaching and communication skills. This year (the 11th year of the program) we have the highest number of fellows (16) and have expanded to include high school classrooms. We are very excited about this program, and believe that it could provide an important model for universities and school districts across the country.


How can people support your organization?

People can support the CSO through monetary contributions (by going to our website). Persons in the area can volunteer through any number of in-classroom and on-campus programs for K-12 students and teachers.


Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D. is a Professor of Pathology at Vanderbilt University. She is also the Director of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach, which is dedicated to enhancing scientific and technological literacy through the establishment of unique partnerships between University scientists, K-12 educators and students, and the local and global science community.




7 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Clay Boggess

    wrote on October 6, 2010 at 7:34 am

    If science is as important as we say that it is then we need to be emphasizing it just as much as reading and math from a testing standpoint. It is true though that math and reading are essential building blocks for science. There is no doubt that things need to also change from the teacher level as well. I think that text books and lectures are an important part of the learning process but that application needs to be more effectively integrated. Science needs to be made interesting to students. How does it relate to them and why is it so important? The problem is that we don’t have enough qualified teachers let alone qualified science teachers. It is good to see more teacher training programs cropping up to help address these needs.

  2. Dave S.

    wrote on October 6, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Clay is right, science needs to be made more interesting for students so they can see the real world applications of what they're learning. A list of principles in a book means little to most students, other than it's boring.

  3. biogeek

    wrote on October 6, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    As a former high school teacher I am very concerned with this problem which won't be changing any time soon. During my years of teaching I worked with only one other science instructor who had actual research/lab experience outside the college lab courses. They don't know what "real" science is and are intimidated by it. Administrators view lab work as costly and dangerous. I am not in favor of testing schemes because it encourages teaching to the test and teaches students value is in test scores rather than actual learning, however, without testing there is little incentive for administrators to fund science programs. Real science teachers are going to make a subject come to life and have the students coming back for more but there are few out there with real experience and real support. I left the classroom after ten years out of frustration and lack of support which doesn't help society, but it saved my health. Now, I have opportunities to help teach a smaller number of students and I help other teachers create experiments for their classrooms. Very little is going to change until there is a change in the perception of the value of learning (as opposed to SAT scores and brand name universities).

  4. victor sirama

    wrote on October 21, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Of course science is dynamic and science students should be well informed on the changes that do take place on the various field they are majoring on. I agree with biogeek,administrators should always be willing to equip labs with the required lab apparatus for innovations and discoveries which forms the real science rather than looking at it as amonster that is ready to eat up the students as well as the institutions finances.

  5. When I Grow Up I Want to Be... A Scientist. | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on October 25, 2010 at 11:10 am

    […] that influenced our decision to become scientists, it seems opposing forces may be at work.  In Revitalizing Science in the Classroom, professor Virginia Shepherd points out that elementary school students are highly inquisitive and […]

  6. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    […] Revitalizing Science in the Classroom – Vanderbilt professor Virginia Shepherd shares her vision for the future of science education and what she’s doing now to make it a reality […]

  7. bioteach

    wrote on September 21, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    Like Biogeek, I have seen the same roadblocks in high school science education. The system is set up such that truly innovative teachers constantly feel like they're battling administrators and swimming upstream to make what they would consider marginal changes. Too few decision-makers are willing to stick their necks out for a new approach and thus the status quo remains and the innovator's fire is extinguished. Kudos to Dr. Shepherd for pushing for a better future!

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