News: News Archives
Scientists and educators from around the world meet for AAAS-UNESCO conference in Paris
AAAS and UNESCO are convening an international expert conference in Paris next week to address worldwide concerns about how to improve the quality of basic science education. With a grant of $150,000 from the National Science Foundation, a group of 50 scientists and educators from Europe, North America, Africa, South America, and Asiaincluding two Nobel Laureateswill gather for the AAAS-UNESCO International Conference on Science and Technology Education: Systemic Approaches to Reform. Their goal is to consider different approaches to teaching science and mathematics, and to develop a research agenda for figuring out what works and what doesn't.
"We all have many of the same problems in terms of access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and learning and innovation in those areas," says Shirley Malcom, AAAS's Education and Human Resources director, who organized the conference with AAAS Chief International Officer Shere Abbott. "None of us is doing it right. The United States shares these same concerns with the rest of the world."
A recent report from the National Science Board warned that the United States is losing its worldwide dominance in key areas of science and technology (Science and Engineering Indicators 2004). In 1975, the United States ranked third in the proportion of its 18-to-24-year-olds earning natural science and engineering degrees. It now ranks 17th. In responding to the new data, says AAAS President Shirley Jackson, the federal government should consider international solutions for boosting the science and technology workforce.
"We must work to strengthen our own mathematics and science education with an aim to enhancing our capacity in science, engineering and related fields and in doing so we can make a difference globally," Jackson says. "We must work to maintain and improve our own standard of living and security, while working with others to elevate standards of living worldwide."
Leaders in education and science policy from Uganda, China, Brazil, Pakistan, India and the United States will be among the participants making presentations at the meeting at UNESCO's headquarters, among the first science education conferences the United States has funded since re-joining the organization last year after a 19-year absence.
"We have been focusing in the United States on improving partnerships between the K-12 education community and disciplinary faculty at colleges and universities as a way to energize consistent and lasting improvements to mathematics and science education," says Judith Ramaley, NSF Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources. "While we're grappling with those challenges, it seems appropriate that we link our efforts to those being done internationally to find some positive solutions from which we may all benefit."
Amitabh Mukherjee, Director of Delhi University's Centre for Science Education and Communication in New Delhi, has a similar perspective. "All the participants at the conference have been grappling with the question of how to make science education better in our own countries," Mukherjee says. "For a country like India, the challenges are all the greater." We are still struggling with the basic goal of achieving universal elementary education. Yet we are simultaneously trying to bridge a huge technology divide in a short time. The countrywide drop in enrollment in science courses from about 1995 onwards is cause for concern, and suggests that we need to do something quickly to improve the quality of our science education."
In Brazil, 20 teachers have been sent to France for training in the "La Main à La Pâte" program, and they will return to join other groups that are already working with 100,000 students, says Fernando Galembeck, director of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. But, he adds, much more is needed.
"Brazilian students have performed very poorly in all international assessment examinations from which they have participated in the past few years," says Galembeck, who is also a chemistry professor at Universidade Estadual de Campinas. "This has sparked a number of actions at all levels. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences and other organizations are now supporting fast-growing teacher-training programs and a public hearing was held past May 27 in the Parliament House, creating momentum for a large national effort for the improvement of science education. We need good science education in Brazil to build a strong citizenship, to give to citizens the ability to understand and decide on scientific issues, to create and to improve employment and wealth."
During the conference, which runs from Monday 7 June through Wednesday 9 June, some of the world's best-known approaches to science education will come under scrutiny. La Main à la Pâte Hands On is a teaching method developed by French Nobel Laureate Georges Charpak, one of the participants in the conference. Another Nobel Laureate, Leon Lederman, will make a presentation on the respected Illinois Math and Science Academy, the boarding school for gifted children that he founded in Aurora more than 15 years ago.
"This conference is a step toward collecting the experience and wisdom of the planet to attempt to make a truly international, cooperative attack on this problem of how to increase comprehension of science and technology," says Lederman, who is also the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.
Like many current thinkers in science education, both Charpak and Lederman advocate a "hands-on, inquiry-based" method for teaching science and mathematics to children.
"'Inquiry-based' means that I ask a question and seek to answer it. I come to understand a concept because I come to understand where the concept came from," says Malcom. "If I say to you, 'Does air take up space? Does it weigh anything?' Then you can blow up a balloon and see the space it occupies. You can learn through investigating the question."
The approach has intuitive appeal, Malcom says, but no one has done research that proves its effectiveness.
"Many of us also have been working on how you get more inquiry-based learning into science education," Malcom says. "But we've had no real research evidence to show that this was effective, or any methods to let you measure effectiveness. The inquiry-based efforts are being rolled out in many regions, and we need a real way to measure our progress and effectiveness. Is it more or less effective than other methods, for example?"
The presence at the conference of scientists and educators who reflect great diversity in language and culture will be particularly interesting, Malcom says, as they will help the group address the question of what is core in the teaching of science.
"We don't really know what parts of a curriculum must be retained and what parts can be adapted to the new settings," she says.
Among the goals of the conference is the creation, with UNESCO involvement, of alliances linking U.S. educators and scientists to their counterparts in other countries. And the organizers hope to come away from the conference with a design for an international science and mathematics education research initiative.
"That would be the first step toward building an empirical base of knowledge regarding science, mathematics and technology education that would help policymakers and educators around the world with reforming their education systems," says Malcom. The next challenge, she notes, will be to get the funds needed to go forward.
4 June 2004