Congressional Briefings Focus on Science Education

The degree to which the United States can remain competitive in the international community of scientists and engineers has been a hot topic of conversation around Washington since the release in late 2005 of the National Academies of Science (NAS) report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Future.

The degree to which the United States can remain competitive in the international community of scientists and engineers has been a hot topic of conversation around Washington since the release in late 2005 of the National Academies of Science (NAS) report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Future. This report formed the basis for President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative announced in his 2006 State of the Union address. Two recent congressional briefings covered topics related to the quality of science education from pre-school level through to university courses; several of the topics discussed at these briefings are of interest to scientific psychologists.

On April 26, 2006 the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus held a briefing entitled, Teaching Science: How We Fail and How We Could Succeed. The guest speaker was Dr. Bruce Alberts from the University of California at San Francisco and former president of the NAS. Dr. Alberts was introduced by House Member Rush Holt (D-NJ). Representative Holt is a physicist who has recently introduced two bills aimed at increasing both the number of university graduates with science degrees and the number of individuals who teach in science and technology areas. Dr. Alberts’ remarks centered on the theme that efforts to maintain and increase the infrastructure of science must also include efforts to improve the quality of science education and the quality of science teachers in the United States. He was critical of the rote learning of scientific facts and terms that is the dominant approach to current education in the sciences from pre-school to the university years. He argued that this method of teaching science guarantees that most students are turned off by science courses by the time that they reach the high school level. Dr. Alberts promoted a problem-based method to the teaching of science that is designed to take into account findings from high quality educational research and research into the cognitive psychology of learning. He argued for increased funding and attention to these types of research efforts.

A similar theme was discussed at a congressional briefing held on May 2, 2006 entitled Redesigning High School Science Curriculum to Meet the Demands of Global Competition. This briefing focused on the recent grant award of $1.8 million dollars from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the College Board to fund the redesign of Advanced Placement (AP) high school courses in biology, chemistry, physics and environmental science. The principal investigator on the grant is Dr. James Pellegrino, distinguished professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Pellegrino was one of the panel members who spoke at the briefing along with Mr. David Ely, an award-winning biology teacher from Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, VT, Dr. Shirley Malcom, Head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Ms. Judith Wurtzel, Senior Fellow, Education and Society Program at The Aspen Institute. The panel discussion was moderated by Jay Mathews, education reporter and columnist for The Washington Post.

While each brought their own perspective on the AP program, the panelists were in agreement that the focus of the AP science curriculum should be shifted from covering an exhaustive list of content topics to conveying the essence of “scientific thinking.” “AP teachers of science have to get over the view that they must get through the entire curriculum” was a comment repeated by several of the panelists. Rather teachers should cover fewer topics with an in-depth, problem-solving approach. Currently AP courses are modeled after first-year university introductory science courses that are most often taught in large class formats with grades based on multiple-choice exams emphasizing mastery of facts and terminology. The speakers acknowledged that the format of university-level courses will be highly resistant to reform. However, they were hopeful that future AP graduates, who will enter universities after experiencing a redesigned AP curriculum, will demand changes in university science instruction that will fuel eventual reform at higher educational levels. The panelists also commented that the reform of AP instruction will require additional professional development programs for current high school teachers so that they are given the opportunity to develop the types of teaching skills needed to convey the essence and excitement of a scientific approach to problem-solving.

The increased attention to the quality of education in the sciences provides a number of opportunities for psychologists as scientists and educators. These briefings have highlighted the increased need for quality research into educational methodologies and into the psychology of learning and learning styles. Many psychologists are already involved in research efforts aimed at assessing and improving the teaching of psychology at the high school and undergraduate levels. AP psychology courses are the fastest growing segment of the current AP course offerings so what is learned from the reform of AP science courses may be applicable to the AP psychology curriculum as well. Scientist psychologists and their students should remain alert for future research funding and fellowship/scholarship opportunities that will flow from the overall government emphasis on keeping the United States competitive in science, engineering and technology. Psychological science, in a number of its forms, fits into this niche quite well.