Can You Tell Me How to Get To Science Street?

When President Obama announced a major initiative to increase participation and achievement in science on November 23, 2009, Elmo was there with Sesame Street to support it. Time Warner, the MacArthur Foundation, Intel, and Xerox also had representatives on hand.

Carla wasn't there. Carla, a Guatemalan-American 10th-grader, represents hundreds of urban minority boys and girls I've worked with over the years. Though Carla struggled with reading and writing, she showed talent in science. Carla sought a summer program to learn more chemistry. Her chemistry teacher suggested the idea but didn't know of any summer programs; her guidance counselor had little to offer in the way of advice. Carla's two-hour Internet quest at the public library turned up only a handful of opportunities. Most were expensive, located out-of-state, or required a B+ average, which Carla, a novice English speaker, didn't have. Carla decided science wasn't for her.

Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign aims to "harness the power of media, interactive games, hands-on learning, and community volunteers to reach millions of students over the next four years." Sounds ambitious, but underneath the 21st-century shine, programming being lined up has a familiar 20th-century substance. One-day activities, demonstrations and short-term programs targeting highly-engaged students are not going to change who gets involved with science. "Educate to Innovate" does little to remove basic barriers: lack of information about opportunities, fees, transportation to and from programs, and academic eligibility requirements. Equally significantly, students like Carla rarely see themselves, their interests, or their lives reflected in programs or the adults running them.

Since Sputnik's launch, the national science education agenda has focused largely on school curriculum and out-of-school programs designed to recruit the "best and brightest" into the science workforce. This model has failed to reach most students of color, girls and students who are poor, despite decades of singular interventions aimed at leveling the playing field. Unless we complement existing strategies with systemic approaches that reach traditionally overlooked kids, we won't achieve equity of access, participation, or achievement in science in the United States.

In 1999, University of Chicago Paleontologist Paul Sereno and I co-founded Project Exploration to expand access to science for girls and young people of color. Project Exploration puts students at the center through engaging after-school and summer programs like Sisters4Science and Junior Paleontologists. We create personalized experiences with science and scientists and foster and support long-term relationships that ensure students do meaningful work alongside scientists. We get students interested in science, keep students interested, and equip them to stay involved with science as long as they want.

In the past 10 years we've involved nearly 1000 Chicago Public School middle and high school students of color and girls in science. Although we target students who may not be academically successful, our alumni are significantly more likely to graduate high school, go to college and major in science than their peers. They attribute their persistence in school and science to participating in our programs. We are, literally, changing the face of science, one student at a time.

I applaud the Obama administration's ambitious goal of helping young people experience the wonder and discovery of science first hand. Elmo should help inspire our youngest children to have fun with science in their everyday lives. But we need more than media efforts, special days and competitions to transform science as usual. For young people like Carla to have a chance to contribute to the knowledge economy we need an inclusive, expansive and collaborative approach to science education that puts kids least likely to get involved with science at the center of comprehensive strategies.

Before we educate to innovate, we need to innovate how we educate to reach students like Carla. We need to connect classrooms and science teachers with the nation's burgeoning out-of-school science field; we need to give Carla a chance to experience first-hand the real work scientists do and hear from them about the questions they are asking. Most ideally we need to network efforts locally, regionally and nationally so Carla can easily find - and stay on - a path that includes science know-how, economic opportunity and passion for the future.