The secret to a healthy science pipeline should be "elementary"

Feb. 17, 2005
When Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan speaks about inflation and interest rates, Wall Street listens.

Gregory S. Babe

Head, NAFTA Region,
Bayer MaterialScience

President & CEO,
Bayer MaterialScience
LLC Pittsburgh, Pa.

But when he breaks with tradition and talks about the critical need to strengthen U.S. science education, perhaps we all need to pay attention.

That is precisely what happened last March when, for the second time during his tenure, he testified before Congress about the importance of science education to America's continued economic vitality, and increasingly, to homeland security.

It's no surprise that a number of recent national reports call into question the state of U.S. science and engineering. The National Science Foundation, in its 2004 Science and Engineering Indicators, reported that the country is in danger of losing worldwide dominance in critical areas of science and technology. The National Science Board further adds the U.S. is facing a science-pipeline crisis. The reason: Our educational system is simply not turning out enough scientists and engineers to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow. Moreover, we can no longer rely on the contributions and talents of scientists and engineers from other countries because myriad new opportunities are opening up every day abroad.

What's the fix? Experts say the creation of a healthy science pipeline doesn't begin in college or high school, but as early as kindergarten. And it's as much about highly trained, effective teachers as it is the students. After all, how can we expect our students to achieve in science when teachers aren't expected to?

This is the primary question raised in the recent Bayer MaterialScience survey Bayer Facts of Science Education X: Are the Nation's Colleges and Universities Adequately Preparing Elementary Schoolteachers of Tomorrow to Teach Science?. The survey targeted those most familiar with the issue — deans of American schools of education responsible for training teachers, and the newest generation of elementary teachers themselves.

The survey found that while deans believe science should be the fourth "R" and placed on equal footing with reading, writing, and mathematics, it is still treated as a second-tier subject in college coursework.

Unfortunately, all this trickles down into elementary-school classrooms. Most of the teachers we polled say that, unlike the other core subjects, they do not teach science every day. Also, fewer new teachers say they feel "very qualified" to teach science compared to the other basics. Only 14% rate their school's overall science program as "excellent," while another 30% rate it as "fair" or "poor."

This is simply unacceptable. Elementary school is when we get the best, first opportunity to grab students' attention and keep them engaged.

The good news is, problems often create opportunities, and I believe there is an opportunity here for those of us working in the fields of science and engineering. I'm proud to say that Bayer, through its Making Science Make Sense initiative, is helping to rewrite the rules of elementary-science teacher training. These innovative university programs partner scientists and engineers with college students who are studying education. College deans widely support such partnership programs because they want and need the expertise our scientists and engineers bring. Similar programs and ours provide models for university-corporate partnerships, as well. Model programs are already in place at several colleges and universities throughout the country.

For more about the model programs, visit the Bayer Web site:

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