5 Reasons U.S. Students Struggle in Science

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Science is the bedrock of modern society. And while it’s true that science and technology support everything from communications and medicine to assuring a food supply for our burgeoning population, it’s also alarming that we’ve set up a society where few understand the underpinnings of science. And although those seeking it can still get valuable preparation for a science career prior to college, a great many students in the United States are being woefully underprepared to become citizens of a technical society. Here are five reasons why U.S. students are falling behind in science.


5. The U.S. Has Lower Academic Standards

U.S. schools in general have lower standards for science education than many foreign countries.

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In a 2009 test conducted by the Program For International Student Assessment, 15-year-old students in the U.S. finished with average marks in general science literacy, with the U.S ranking 17th out of the 34 countries tested. This test was hardly an aberration, as similar results have been reported on PISA tests in recent years. To many educators, these average results are the result of average or even below-average expectations. Many countries such as China and Japan not only have longer academic school days, but also longer school years and an average school week spanning Monday through Saturday. Also, a basic proficiency in science is expected in many countries, along with the old skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Although there are many schools and school districts in general that do a wonderful job of teaching science, the lower general expectations have meant that some pre-med students are arriving at college with little or no exposure to the concepts of biological evolution (for further reasons we’ll discuss in a moment). Another consequence that’s becoming apparent is that although unemployment and under-employment in the U.S. is more than 10 percent in many regions, many highly skilled jobs in the medical and engineering fields remain unfilled.


4. Other Countries Put More Emphasis on Science Education

Students in China and other countries face much more rigorous science standards than American students.
The current priority on STEM (Science, Technology, and Engineering and Math) education isn’t what it was in the Cold War days. As a side benefit of the Sputnik era, the U.S. realized it needed to raise a scientifically literate public to compete. To this end, the U.S. trained a whole generation of scientists and engineers through the 1950s and 1960s. Today, students in China and India are taking algebra, chemistry and physics courses as early as seventh grade, while in the U.S., it’s often enough to take one course of general science to graduate high school. Again, other developed nations instill a culture of “science literacy” both in and out of school, where it tends to get compartmentalized in American culture. In some U.S. schools, there may not even be a science department, or the class might be taught as an afterthought by the gym coach.


3. Overcrowded Classrooms, Risk-Adverse Environment Hamper Learning

Overcrowded classrooms pose a problem for science educators.
Overcrowding of schools and classrooms often means less individual attention per student. Ironically, technology in the classroom can be positive, but only when it can be incorporated seamlessly and it is never a substitute for direct instruction. Rules and safety regulations are necessary to a degree, but science by its very nature is a messy “hands-on” affair. Many modern scientists report first gaining a love for science via science kits and classroom labs of yesterday, complete with dangerous chemicals and experiments. Modern science classrooms may not have kids doing anything more exciting than cutting up paper, and that’s only with OSHA-approved goggles in place.


2. Anti-Science Attitude is Embedded in U.S. Culture

An anti-science sentiment in the U.S. hurts U.S. students.

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This is a very complex issue, and also a very American one. At the start of the 20th century, the idea arose that science could be a panacea for all the world’s ills; and while science tackled huge problems through use of antibiotics, modern farming techniques, and computer technology, it also brought with it such dilemmas as radioactivity, toxic waste, and the like. These negative factors are one reason a thread of distrust or at least ambivalence runs through American society when it comes to science. It’s rather alarming to hear that 30 percent of U.S. citizens in a recent survey believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, or don’t know the Earth orbits the Sun once a year … and this lack of knowledge can be found among college graduates in the U.S., not just the high school population.

Ideas to “teach the controversy” where none exists in the scientific community or “equal air time” are fine in philosophy class, but only serve to undermine science curriculums. And while the theories of evolution and anthropogenic climate change are the most high profile subjects for debate, there are individuals who would challenge even the most general of scientific facts under the guise of “equal airtime,” from a round Earth to Newton’s laws of motion.


1. Other Countries Offer Better Pay For Science Teachers

Many other countries pay their science teachers on par with researchers.

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In countries such as China and Korea, teachers are paid on par with research scientists and engineers. It’s a sad fact that while most everyone agrees that U.S. teachers are underpaid, few plans are in the works to remedy the situation. In fact, the U.S. has experimented with hiring foreign nationals to teach science and math in the U.S., while teachers in the U.S. who can do so are seeking better paying employment abroad. And those with technology or computer skills seldom look to teach but instead search for more lucrative (and better-paying) employment in private industry. This all serves to feed into the “Those who can’t do, teach” message that children pick up on. And while the U.S. ranks third when it comes to education expenditures per secondary school student, this often doesn’t find its way to hiring and retaining qualified teachers. In fact, some schools have attempted to replace teachers by simply purchasing more laptops.

Students also have a perception that a career as a research scientist isn’t lucrative. A modern high school student looking at a career as a research scientist faces a daunting prospect; years of undergraduate work in a field that may mint more PhDs than there are positions to fill. And that’s only if they don’t get held up in “post-doc limbo” sometimes well into their 30s, a time when their peers are well into their respective professions and raising families. While this may assure that research science only gets the most dedicated individuals, it also results in turning off many students to a career in science. Better pay for teachers and emphasis on science education will ensure that U.S. schools can demand and retain only the best and help guarantee America’s continued viability as a technological superpower.


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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.