Improved Teacher-Training Is Crucial, Malcom Tells UNESCO Forum
Nations seeking to improve science and engineering education must focus on teacher-training-especially in primary and secondary schools-and provide quality S&T education to all students beginning at an early age, AAAS executive Shirley Malcom told a UNESCO forum in Seoul.
Malcom, the head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, said that S&T education will be increasingly important to current and aspiring economic powers in the Asia-Pacific region, and worldwide. But, she said, too little attention is paid to preparing the teachers who help create the foundation of future scientific development.
"Our teachers at primary and secondary levels set the tone for all that is to follow," she said in a speech Monday (12 September). "They provide instruction that introduces students to fundamental concepts; they support a student's considering or dismissing the idea of a career in engineering or science. They affect attitudes and prior preparation so critical for later engagement with science, engineering and technology... So the quality, adequacy and education of teaching faculty at these levels must be of paramount concern to scientists and engineers."
Malcom's remarks were prepared for the Korean National Commission for UNESCO's International Forum on Reform and Innovation in Science and Engineering Education in the Asia-Pacific Region. The forum also was organized by the Korea Science Foundation.
The forum was an offshoot of a meeting last year, organized by AAAS, in which scientists and educators from five continents gathered at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to advocate systemic improvements in science and technology education for the world's children.
Malcom, one of the organizers of that conference, is widely regarded as a global leader in efforts to improve education and diversify the workforce in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. She has been at the forefront in urging that future scientists and engineers be recruited from broadest possible student talent-pool. In 2003, she received the Public Welfare Medal, the highest award given by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
In her remarks at the Korean forum, Malcom said that the modern "learning revolution" cannot be achieved by scattered programs and isolated efforts. Instead, systematic global efforts are required, she said. Educators and other leaders must consider ways to improve access to education, academic preparation and the quality and structure of science and engineering education while assuring equal opportunity for all students to benefit from such education.
Nations must press for further progress in the recruiting of women into science and engineering fields, she said.
"No country in the world can afford to ignore more than half of its base of talent," she explained. "Perhaps even more important than contributing to the number of scientists and engineers is the opportunity to affect the research agenda, research perspectives and product design and development that more diversity can support. Since women are half of the consumers of knowledge and products, adding their voices and perspectives to science, engineering and innovation is critical."
On the issue of program structure and quality, Malcom questioned whether science education at the undergraduate level in the United States may be trying to do too much, thereby missing a chance to nurture science-literate citizens.
"The practice in many institutions has been that of offering survey courses, often as superficial coverage of too many topics," she said. "It is as though faculty say, 'Since this is my only chance, I will cram in everything.' This tends to lead to unsatisfactory results for both students and faculty alike. What if we made a different choice, for example, to cover fewer topics, but perhaps to focus on significant topics in greater depth? Suppose we focused on the nature of science, how we come to know, what we accept as evidence? And suppose that we engaged students in activities that would help them understand the nature of inquiry?"
Discussions among U.S. scientists, engineers, business leaders and educators have yielded a similar shift in the philosophy of primary and secondary education. "The storyline of nature was the most important take-home message that all students needed to understand," Malcom said. "And it needed to be represented as a story still unfolding, not facts set in stone. It was determined that hands-on, inquiry-based instruction was the best way to give meaning to the story and that students needed to understand not only the nature and processes of science, but also of technology, if they were to live in a world increasingly shaped by these fields."
But while primary school is where the ideal of universal education is most nearly realized, teachers too often are unprepared to exploit the opportunity.
"In our work with local teachers in the public schools of the District of Columbia, it became obvious that teachers were being asked to provide inquiry-based instruction in science, never really having experienced real inquiry themselves," Malcom said. "Affecting the way that teachers are educated must be a central goal of any efforts to improve science and engineering education for all."
These issues have broad ramifications not just for economic growth and development, but for solving crucial environmental and diplomatic challenges that confront the world, she told the audience. Developing an effective consensus on sustainability and energy conservation will be difficult, she said, but it will be even more challenging if the public does not have a firm grasp of science and technology.
Edward W. Lempinen
12 September 2005