Special Issue of Science Explores the Grand Challenges in Education

Not all students will be scientists, but scientific understanding will be crucial for all students preparing to be college- and career-ready in the 21st century, according to education experts writing in the 19 April issue of the journal Science.

The “Grand Challenges in Education” special section explores the opportunities and obstacles facing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, at a time of high interest in the field.

Last week 26 states, with several institutional partners including AAAS, released the Next Generation Science Standards, designed to prepare students for analyzing a wealth of scientific data and using the scientific tools they will encounter as adults.

In keeping with some of the Next Generation Science Standards proposals, Noah Feinstein from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests a shift from the current focus on skills that are specific to STEM careers to broader approaches that help students use science in their everyday lives. He outlines some strategies for attracting “competent outsiders” or students who are not pursuing STEM careers but still recognize when science is relevant to them.

“I think we need to understand that ‘making a connection to real life’ is not just another way to teach science,” Feinstein said. “It’s one of the most important skills that students can develop…It’s very important to help students build their own enduring interest in science.”

Meanwhile, the resources available to students and teachers alike continue to evolve. Traditional physical laboratories as well as new virtual laboratories on the Web have been shown to offer their own unique pros and cons. Ton de Jong from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, along with colleagues in the U.S. and Cyprus, offer recommendations for combining the two lab settings to strengthen science education.

“Combining physical and virtual laboratories doesn’t only provide ‘the best of both worlds,’ but it also seems to lead to better conceptual knowledge,” said de Jong. “There are indications that, if students use a virtual lab first, they profit more from the subsequent real lab.”

Public school teachers also need the best tools available for keeping up with the ever-evolving landscape of science education, said Suzanne Wilson from Michigan State University, who noted that more professional development for science teachers will be critical for meeting the Next Generation of Science Standards. Opportunities such as summer institutes, coaching, mentoring and research experiences with practicing scientists have all been shown to improve teachers’ knowledge and practice, as well as students’ science achievement, she said.

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Children raise their hands at a school in the Busia district. From the project “The Impact of Distributing School Uniforms on Children’s Education in Kenya.” This image relates to the special section article by Dr. Michael Kremer and colleagues.
[Image courtesy of Aude Guerrucci]

STEM education could likewise benefit from a bold new brand of teacher leadership, called “teacherpreneurs,” said Barnett Berry from the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina. These new educators teach regularly, but also have the time and space to communicate their ideas and best practices to other teachers, administrators, policymakers and parents.

“The most trusted source for a teacher is another teacher,” Berry explained. “Therefore, we need more people who teach children regularly to be resources for their colleagues…Right now, there is a premium placed on teachers who come and go, unfortunately.”

Berry and other experts writing in the special issue highlight the need for participation from all facets of society in order to improve science education, including in developing countries.

The developing world poses unique challenges to students, schools and learning in general, but recent evaluations have highlighted some innovative strategies that seem to enhance education regardless of geographic location or resource availability, according to Michael Kremer and colleagues. The authors explain that school participation is cost-sensitive, and that factors like merit scholarships, conditional cash transfers and reducing out-of-pocket costs can give such participation a boost. On the other hand, issues like chronic health problems, crumbling school buildings and inattentiveness on the part of teachers still threaten to blunt education’s impact around the world.

“Turning the fire of the natural curiosity of students into effective, flexible and well-grounded outcomes will take a concerted effort by many different actors,” Science editors Pamela Hines, Jeffrey Mervis, Melissa McCartney and Brad Wible write in their introduction to the special section. “Among them, scientists must play a central role.”

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Read the special section, “Grand Challenges in Education.” (All articles in the special section are free with registration.)

Listen to a related Science Podcast with special section authors Ton de Jong and Noah Feinstein.