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Scientific Literacy
(Released September 2007)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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K-12 Science Education


Halley's Comet passed by the earth in 1985. In the same year the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) started work on Project 2061 which focuses on the reform of science, mathematics, and technology education. The project title refers to the year Halley's Comet will return, anticipating changes in science and technology that society will undergo in the life-span represented by the comet's return, and emphasizing the need for long-term vision in education reform. The project identified deficiencies in K-12 education, including curriculums attempting to cover too much information with too little depth, unsatisfactory text books, and methods of instruction that did not adequately promote the learning process (Nelson, 1999). Fruits of Project 2061 included a number of documents, such as the texts Science for All Americans published in 1990 and Benchmarks in Science Literacy in 1993. These texts made recommendations regarding the progress that students should attain over the course of K-12 education and provided aid in developing curriculums.

students in a laboratory
Figure 3: Science Education Standards for K-12 students emphasize inquiry based learning.
Starting in the late 1980s, support for the development of national education standards helped drive the production of science education standards. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council worked on the development of the standards, with funding provided by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. The National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment (NCSES) built on the base provided by Project 2061. The NCSES released the National Science Education Standards in 1996.

The National Science Education Standards is an ambitious project that many people were involved in developing. The guidelines place emphasis on inquiry based education. The process of inquiry involves describing objects and events, asking questions, testing explanations, and communicating ideas. This process is aimed at helping students develop critical thinking skills and logic, consider alternative explanations, and learn to use science knowledge and logic to acquire further knowledge (NSES, 1996). The NSES does not intend to dictate a specific curriculum, leaving curriculum decisions in the hands of states, communities, schools, and teachers. The NSES is meant to provide guidance in defining what students should know by different stages in their academic development and providing guidance on effective teaching methods. The standards specifically cover the following subject matter: teaching, professional development for teachers, student assessment, science education content, education program standards, and education system standards. Developers of the NSES anticipate it will take many years to implement the reforms outlined in the document.

For years K-12 assessments of science and mathematics knowledge have shown that U.S. students frequently lag behind their peers in other industrialized countries. A 2003 survey of mathematical skill has shown some improvement over the past decade; however, a 2000 science assessment has not shown similar improvement (SEI, 2006). We have yet to see the results from the implantation of the NSES, and there are substantial barriers in the process of improving science education. The SEI assessment of Elementary and Secondary Education found a number of factors that negatively affect the teaching of science and mathematics. Science and mathematics majors who go on to teach at the K-12 level frequently show lower academic performance then their peers who go on to jobs in science and technology. Frequently teachers are assigned teaching jobs outside the scope of their college majors. Schools commonly contend with low retention rates for science and mathematics teachers, as teachers move to new schools or leave teaching for more lucrative jobs or better working environments. With the current shortcomings of K-12 education, our society must continue to rely on colleges and outside sources of science information to help promote scientific literacy.

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