MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move now from history to another well known, but not necessarily well loved, subject you'll learn in school, science. You'd think science would be a key part of a well rounded education, right? But with all the focus in recent years on reading and math, some scientists worry their field is getting the short of the end of the stick.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Well, a local group of engineers, doctors and other scientifically inclined types are trying to change that. Education reporter, Kavitha Cardoza, caught up with them recently to get the scoop on their efforts and she joins us now in the studio. Hi, Kavitha.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
So I think it's safe to say, when it comes to science, people in the U.S., you know, they've been concerned for a while that our students have been falling behind their counterparts in other nations. Would you say those concerns are valid?
I asked Stephen Provasnik, a researcher at the National Center for Education Statistics, that same question. He says elementary school children do very well on science tests. On one of those tests, students in just four out of 35 developed countries did better than students here in the U.S. But that changes as the students get older. In a science test for 15-year-olds, students in 16 out of 34 countries did better than our students.
MR. STEPHEN PROVASNIK
Over time, U.S. students have remained remarkably consistent. Between 1995 and 2007, there's no measurable change in U.S. student scores. We have not gotten better and we have not gotten worse. However, among other countries, there have been a number of countries that have seen an increase in their scores between 1995 and 2007.
That doesn't sound very good.
No, definitely not. And a group of retired scientists in our region are trying to do something about it. Don Rea worked for years on space exploration and he created a group, Senior Scientists and Engineers or SSE. He's 81 years old, Rebecca, and there are about 50 other people, also mostly in their 70s and 80s, who want to be involved in improving science education. So they go to schools in Montgomery County, Md. and Fairfax County, Va. to talk about their work and try and interest children in science.
It's similar to programs in Boston and San Francisco. But what I found most interesting, is when I spoke with these men and women about why they like science, they said things like, it's fun and it's a way to express myself. Yet that sentiment doesn’t seem as widespread among students nowadays as Don Rea says.
MR. DON REA
Our culture, unfortunately, does not give science the attention I think it deserves. Science literacy, you should start addressing that subject as early as possible which means elementary school, in our case. Because as the kids get older, they become fixed in their attitudes and convincing them that science and engineering are really exciting areas, you got to get them young.
Okay, so what exactly do these scientists do to get them young, so to speak?
Well, for example, a physicist brings in rocks and talks about how they were formed or another brings in fuel cells and explains how they work in cars. Robert Thomas is an analytical chemist and he uses clips from TV shows such as "CSI" to talk to students about, say, why soil particles on someone's shoes places that person at the scene of a crime. Or, for example, after the tsunami in Japan, students wanted to know more about the nuclear leaks there.
MR. ROBERT THOMAS
The kids started asking questions about nuclear power, how it works, what is radioactivity, how is it measured. So I put together two talks on nuclear fusion and nuclear fission and I related it to information in the media about contamination in the soil, in the sea water. It really was an introduction to nuclear chemistry but it was done at a very basic level.
So what I'm hearing here is the idea is to try to relate science to the students' everyday lives.
Exactly. So, for example, Colette Freedman was a cancer scientist and she studied how mice mammary glands are affected by different hormones. She says she isn't just trying to reach the few children who might be interested in science as a career, she's trying to show them how science touches all of us.
MS. COLETTE FREEDMAN
I think it's important for students to think of science as something that's useful to them personally, day by day, whether it has to do with their habits of eating, staying out of the sun, not smoking cigarettes and relating biology to things that can go wrong with you.
After that one class, Rebecca, she had 91 cards from children saying thank you, I had no idea what cancer really was until you explained it.
Wow. Do these scientists have anything to say about how educators are teaching science today or why we don't see more students interested in science?
Some say it's not presented as interesting, others say, children spend so much time doing experiments or memorizing details that they don't have time to think about the results and what they mean. Some say the children are just not challenged enough. Haddox Sothoron is a retired orthopedic surgeon. He talks to the students about mending broken bones and the science and mechanics behind it.
MR. HADDOX SOTHORON
I try to explain how things work and encouraging them to look at it and think about it and then how do you think that works? What do you think about that, just try to pique their curiosity, maybe light a few fires of interests.
And I understand, we're seeing a lot of demand for these folks in the classroom.
Yes. In fact, the Senior Scientists and Engineers is hoping to recruit approximately 30 new volunteers for this school year.
Kavitha Cardoza is the education reporter here at WAMU. As always, it's been a pleasure speaking with you, Kavitha. Thanks so much for joining us.
If you're interested in learning more about Senior Scientists and Engineers and how you can get involved in the program, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.