The “Sputnik moment” that Dr. Tyson (above) and numerous others long for is merely a temporary band-aid on the much larger problem.
If you haven’t seen Neal Degrasse Tyson’s testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the future of NASA, I highly recommend it. His remarks should be required viewing for anyone interested in science education and the future of the science and technology in America. To summarize the video, Dr. Tyson believes that the space program of the 1960s and 1970s spawned a wave of retooling of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and an interest in science that inspired many of today’s engineers and scientists to enter the field. However, Dr. Tyson goes on to say, that the lack of advancement in space exploration has led to stagnating interest in the sciences and argues that we are currently coasting on the scientific advances of a previous generation. He draws the conclusion that we should double NASA funding, which would reinvigorate future scientists, if we wish to regain our superiority in science and innovation.
Dr. Tyson is absolutely correct that the investment in STEM education that came as a result of the Soviet launch of Sputnik has been paying off for the country over the last 50 years. As the US starts to lag behind other countries in terms of innovation and STEM education, calls for another “Sputnik moment” have grown louder. However, the “Sputnik moment” that Dr. Tyson and numerous others long for is merely a temporary band-aid on the much larger problem.
A recent OECD report examined trends in science and technology education and unsurprisingly found that the reasons behind student interest in STEM fields are too complex to explain. While some, including me, are trying to untangle the mess of student interest in science, the general conclusion is that students view science and engineering very favorably but their interest in pursuing a career in these fields generally declines throughout their schooling career until a sharp drop in interest at age 15 when formal instruction begins in high school. The OECD study reports that the United States already has an incredibly positive view of science and technology, with over 85% of students (compared to 70% of students in Europe) believing that science and engineering will make our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable, make work more interesting and will provide for greater opportunities for future generations.
On the other hand, the report found that students usually view careers in science as dull and dreary. They believe that scientists and engineers are trapped in cubicles doing repetitive work that is unrelated to the world around them; a view that is remarkably similar to their experience learning science in the classroom. Dr. Tyson has surely been a role model to many of these students by breaking the mold of “what a scientist is” but most of those students who are inspired by space or other scientific achievements then have to make it through high school science classes, and undergraduate degree, a Masters or PhD in order to fulfill become the scientist they want to be.
Most 15 year old students feel that their science classes are requiring them to memorize problem solving techniques instead of asking questions about how the world works. Then as a Freshmen in college, they are thrown into introductory “weed-out” classes with varying levels of preparation from their high school education, and don’t know where to turn for support. Even when universities offer support for these classes, students are essentially on their own in motivating themselves to make it through their classes. Every current scientist and engineer passed through this “gauntlet” of science education by relying upon their own internal motivation, the “light at the end of the tunnel,” which was often the Space Race and promise of a better tomorrow that space promised. Now, these same scientists and engineers are calling for even bigger and grander “Sputnik moments” that will inspire the next generation.
But what about those students who were discouraged by the esoteric teachings in their science class, but otherwise would have loved a career in science? The methods of teaching science in the classroom haven’t changed significantly in 50 years and creating motivational science ignores the actual problem. We have been continually teaching the same curricula that are disconnected from the lives of students and don’t allow them to investigate and find answers to the burning questions in their lives. We have to do a better job of explaining to students what scientist and engineers actually do by getting them out of the classroom and into the real world, and more importantly by bringing the real world into the science classroom.
Dr. Tyson argues that we can get back on track in STEM education by doubling the budget of NASA from the current $18.7 billion to $37.4 billion, but the Department of Education currently spends only $260 million on STEM Education programs. Just think of the way we could radically change STEM education with even a fraction of that amount. Most importantly, rather than waiting around for that one “Sputnik” moment to save us every few decades, it is time that we rethink how we teach in STEM fields in this country. The future of the country may well depend on it.
While I hate writing about a problem and not giving specifics about the answers, this article would quickly become a full length book by itself. Therefore in this section of ScienceWonks, we are going to focus on the issues surrounding STEM education, and what structural changes we can make to make a bigger impact on the outcome of these students and the country as a whole. Stay tuned for more!