Breakthroughs In How We Teach Science

It's a well-known fact that America, long a technological leader, is in danger of falling behind much of the industrialized world because we have not kept up with educating our young people in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

According to Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering, 21% of undergraduate degrees in Asia are in Engineering, compared with 11% in Europe and just 4% in the United States.

As an engineer and educator, I find that extremely troubling. But two developments give me hope that we could be turning a corner on this issue.

The most recent encouraging news is a comprehensive report just issued by the National Research Council that unveiled a framework for developing new standards in teaching science to K-12 students.

I was one of 18 educators and scientists on the NRC committee that prepared the report, which was released July 19. We heard testimony, reviewed the literature and talked to a wide range of experts as part of this process.

The K-12 science framework would not be part of a nationalized curriculum imposed on school districts across the nation. Each state would use the NRC framework it to develop its own standards.

But the real breakthrough here is that the report calls for teachers to use engineering as the principal medium to teach science. As an electrical engineer and university professor, I am convinced that engineering is the best way to teach science to kids. That's because engineering is tangible. It is not abstract.

Engineers design and build things. They use math, science and carefully observed trial and error to create products that are useful, that help solve problems.

Children learn in much the same way. Making things comes naturally to them. Their brains learn by doing. Just look at how youngsters play with Legos. They use hands-on trial and error to design a finished product.

We've tended to teach science by telling. But when you talk to young people about algorithms, extrapolation and optimization -- all tools of the scientist -- their eyes understandably glaze over.

When you can get them using their hands and brains to design something, suddenly the science inherent in the exercise starts to make sense.

The NRC report dovetails with efforts to promote STEM education in California that have the potential to make our state a national leader in this important area. It is an opportunity we must fully embrace.

The California STEM Learning Network was launched in 2008 with funding from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Known as CSLNet, the Network has been pushing hard ever since for students -- including girls and minorities who are typically under-represented in the STEM fields -- to graduate from high school with the necessary STEM knowledge and skills needed to succeed in post-secondary education, work and life.

This is good for California and good for our students. STEM jobs are going to grow faster than jobs in other fields. They tend to pay more. With an economy increasingly built on innovation, it's essential that we train the next generation of innovators who will keep our economy growing.

After all, we are citizens of a society that depends extensively on technology. In addition to the crucial issue of our economic competitiveness, we need to understand science to make decisions that are in the best interest of our country and ourselves.

If California can do a better job promoting science literacy in the biggest, most innovative state in the nation, other states will follow our lead, as they have in so many other areas. And that would be an innovation that would be a boost for us all.