Published in the November 1-14, 2017 issue of Gilroy Life
We had a conversation with a local high school science teacher about what makes good science learning in the classroom. “I emphasize to the students it’s all about the data,” the educator told us.
Collecting data and recording and analyzing the metrics in experiments and research is an important part of the scientific method. But science populizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Michio Kaku might place the emphasis elsewhere when teaching science to middle school and high school students. Science is an activity where the human mind is powered by the fuel of curiosity to see the world in new ways. Unfortunately, some teachers often forget the “wow factor” in science learning. Their students get the message that “data is for dorks.” The students soon build a bias that science is “boring.” Science learning when taught well, however, is a fun and mentally-stimulating process where students feel the excitement of ideas in physics, chemistry, biology, human behavior and technology.
The data-driven teaching approach might be one of the reasons American students are turned off to science — and as a result why they do poorly in comparison with students from other nations. The biggest cross-national test is the Programme for International Student Assessment. Every three years, PISA measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.
But there was a time when American students excelled in science. It started 60 years ago this month when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit. Americans learned Oct. 4, 1957, our Cold War enemy now had the ability to send satellites into space. They realized the Soviets could also soon send missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Sputnik led to a surge by the federal government in improving STEM studies in our nation’s schools. The economic and social payoff is the advanced technology we developed in the decades since.
The goal of STEM is not to make everyone a scientist. Every career from artists to zookeepers needs science and technology at some level. And an appreciation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics not only engages students in feeling wonder for the natural world, it builds critical thinking skills that empowers citizens to make better decisions in life.
Building a public that is scientifically literate is a big reason why we encourage students in Gilroy, San Martin and Morgan Hill to participate in the 2018 South Valley Science Fair. There, students will share their projects in physics, engineering, chemistry, biology and behavioral sciences. Their participation also helps them develop socially, learning communication skills both verbal and written.
In 2010, President Barack Obama held the first-ever White House Science Fair. His comments on the occasion were:
“If we are recognizing athletic achievement, then we should also be recognizing academic achievement and science achievement. If we invite the team that wins the Super Bowl to the White House, then we need to invite some science fair winners to the White House as well … We belong on the cutting edge of innovation. That’s an idea as old as America itself. We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow.”
We hope parents, teachers and principals in the Gilroy Unified School District encourage 6th to 12th graders to participate in Oakwood’s upcoming science fair. They’ll learn how to ask a question about how the world works, use their imagination to come up with an idea for finding an explanation, test the idea through valid experimentation, evaluate the data and evidence, and come up with a conclusion and communicate it to the public.