Putting Science Education Under the Microscope

It turns out teenagers are quite interested in the sciences. Science class, however, is another story, according to a new survey.

It turns out teenagers are quite interested in the sciences. Science class, however, is another story.

The results are in from Students on STEM, a science learning survey conducted by the Amgen Foundation and Change the Equation. The researchers asked 1,569 American high school students about their opinions on science and their experiences learning it.

Students are certainly intrigued. Among those surveyed, 81 percent said they were interested in science topics, and biology in particular. Only 37 percent, however, said they liked science class a lot. Other subjects got better reviews.

Asked what would make science class more interesting, the students said hands-on lab experiments, field trips, and projects related to real life. That doesn’t mean traditional science instruction methods—class discussions and teaching from the textbook—lack value. But the responses are a signal that educators need to find ways to bridge the gap between curiosity and pedagogy.

STEM jobs are growing faster than those in other professions, according to Change the Equation. But many American students—particularly racial minorities, low-income students, and girls—do not end up qualified for STEM fields. Only 30 percent of high school seniors who took the ACT in 2013 were deemed ready for college-level work in science. In higher education, nearly half the bachelor’s degree students who started with a STEM major between 2003 and 2009 switched to a non-STEM major or dropped out, according to the U.S. Department of Education. As the Students on STEM survey shows, young people are interested in science—but without engaging, accessible learning experiences, that interest wanes and they miss opportunities for success.

Many educators are testing innovative science learning models to make the subjects more engaging and relevant. “Citizen science,” for example, refers to data collection and analysis by regular citizens, sometimes in collaboration with professional scientists. Citizen science projects can involve community members of all ages, but the model can be powerful for young learners who want to find real-world relevance in their coursework.

One such project in California has teenagers measuring air quality in their surroundings. The lessons grew out of a partnership between the Chabot Space and Science Center and UC Berkeley, where scientists were monitoring local air quality for pollutants. The science center has provided teachers with investigative lessons that have students analyzing the scientists’ genuine data or using handheld monitors to track carbon dioxide levels in places they spend their time.

The connection to professional scientists is key. Adult mentors play a critical role in a young person’s education, research shows. Educators and other adults help scaffold youths’ learning experiences and connect them to academic or professional opportunities.

More specifically, the Students on STEM results show that young people crave connection to adults working in fields that interest them. Among those surveyed, 86 percent said it would be helpful to know a professional in their field of interest, but fewer than half do. Low-income students have even less access to science professionals than their more affluent peers. The teens surveyed said loud and clear that they wanted science education to prepare them for opportunities after high school. Early exposure to professionals and the workforce is one solution.

Some programs simulate science workplace experiences. The Citizen Science Lab in Pittsburgh, for example, offers Hill District high school students the chance to test out a job in the pharmaceutical industry for a summer. The students earn a stipend to learn the process of drug design and computational modeling of proteins over the course of a month.

Other ideas laid out in the Students on STEM report are more straightforward. Respondents said it would be helpful to have greater access to career counseling, more classes related to future jobs, and relevant organizations on campus. The number of students who said they had access to such opportunities was far lower than the number who said they wanted it.

The researchers say businesses and schools can partner to get cutting-edge equipment into classrooms or job fairs on campus. Districts can support teachers by providing professional development opportunities that introduce them to innovative science learning practices. (The Amgen Foundation, which commissioned the report, provides biotech equipment and teacher training to schools.)

It is clear from the survey that young people know what they need to become engaged science learners and future science professionals. It is up to adults to make it happen.

Published July 19, 2016