Science Talk:
“What are the Challenges in Science Education—Now and in the Future?”

Last week, 125 middle and high school teachers gathered on the The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) campus to attend an all-day symposium, "Contemporary Issues in Bioscience," sponsored by TSRI in conjunction with the San Diego City Schools’ Partnerships in Education Program. Topics included the latest developments in current basic biomedical research, the skills required for a scientific career, and ways to encourage students to further their education in science.

In the wake of this event, News&Views asked 11 individuals from TSRI and beyond, "What are the challenges in science education—now and in the future?"


Martin Friedlander
TSRI associate professor of cell biology

The key is educating the public. The better educated people are about science and the process of discovery, the more comfortable they will feel about science. A good way to do this is to start with school age kids and school teachers, making them enthusiastic about science. I believe the teachers are extraordinarily important in this regard; while I can have one or two summer students in my lab each year, one teacher can reach hundreds of students. If the teacher is passionate about the subject matter, the students sense this and become much more involved.



Kim Bess
Director of science, San Diego City Schools

Probably the number one problem is that we have way too many topics in our science course of study in the United States. We also have topics that are being introduced at age levels that are probably inappropriate. If you look at nations that are outperforming our American students, they do things in depth rather than breadth. We’re known for breadth.

The second problem is that teachers in science initially teach how they were taught at university, because that’s their model. Most teachers in K-8 do not have a science degree. They take a required course or two of study in college, and these courses are delivered by graduate students or teaching assistants in an amphitheater with 400 students. In their teacher preparation they’re only given six to eight weeks of a science methods course, then they enter the classroom. So they revert to the habit of the last science instruction method they had, which was a lecture.

The articulation of science is all over the place from school to school. Somebody calls a course "integrated science" and means one thing; somebody else calls a course "earth science" and means another thing. So kids are getting a lot of things retaught but not necessarily learned. There has to be an experience that is more meaningful.

What we know about how young children learn science is that they learn by experiencing science. If they don’t have those experiences imbedded early, by the time they get to middle school, they pretty much hate science. Then you get to high school where you have such a depersonalization problem. A high school teacher sees hundreds of kids. They’re lucky if they remember their names. If you’re running five sections with 34 or 35 bio or chem kids, you’re on a treadmill. You’re on a treadmill.

The professional development that is needed to change that is enormous. We have very little financial support for science education. If you look around the nation, especially at California, the governor’s initiatives are all about language arts and mathematics, which is terrific. But if you read the Glen Commission report before it’s too late, there’s a critical economic factor associated with not improving science education in K–12.


Bill Miller
Eighth grade science teacher at Lewis Middle School

My class is a combination of all content areas put together at one time—physical and earth all at once. There are two pertinent points I see in the science classroom in trying to get across some science instruction that really has some teeth to it.

One is the class size. Having anywhere between 34 and 40 students in a class—and five sections a day—is difficult. And having that many 13 and 14 year olds together in a classroom is very difficult. Incorporating some sort of lab setting with that many students at different stations in a limited size classroom is not beneficial.

Second is lack of funding. To be able to even come close to a microcosm of what they do here in the labs at the public school level isÉ I mean, we have trouble even coming up with glassware. Even coming up with basic chemicals to do basic reactions is sometimes a huge hurdle that we can’t seem to get over.


M. Elizabeth Stroupe
TSRI graduate student

As technology gets more advanced, one needs more information to make sense of the developments. This challenges teachers, then, to present the pertinent information without distilling away the interesting part (experimentation, discovery, failure...). The ultimate goal is to equip students with skills to be informed citizens who can make intelligent decisions. By piquing the students' interest in chemistry, biology, math, and physics, we hope that even if they do not chose a career in science, they will keep abreast of scientific discoveries after their formal education ends.


Steve Bartram
Marine science and biotechnology teacher, Rancho Buena Vista High School

I got into a discussion a number of years ago with a friend of mine who mentioned going to Israel. He said, if you’ve been there for a few days you could write a book. But if you’ve been there a month, you could only write a story. And if you’ve been there six months, you could then write one page.

As you begin to get more and more into this idea of education, it’s the same way. A person who takes a quick, big-picture glance at it would say, "I can fix it. This is the way."

The problem is that it’s unbelievably difficult to pinpoint any one thing. It takes many things together. We need to reduce class size, increase the amount of time the teacher has to prepare, make it so kids are held accountable, give them the proper setting and the security and everything else, take away all of the family structure that is given to schools, and reinforce [science education] at home—plus the labwork, plus all these things. Then on top of that, teach them how to write complete sentences, to be engrossed and enthusiastic, and to WONDER what’s out there all at the same time. And do it so that they can pass the high school exit exams.

Make it so that the teacher doesn’t have to belong to eight committees, so that they have time to be involved with wonderful things like this, and so that they don’t feel stretched.

It can’t all be done at once. For me personally, reduce my class size, give me more preparation time. [With so many students,] you hate to admit it, but it may take you six to eight weeks to learn all their names.


Cynthia Edwards
High school teacher and chair of the Science Department, Youth Opportunities Unlimited

The kids aren’t coming in with basic skills. And the quality of their questions doesn’t change. I ask my kids to write down 10 questions, and do you know most of them can’t come up with 10. Kids aren’t curious about science. They don’t see where it applies or why it matters.

We don’t walk around and wonder anymore. My favorite word is "wonderful"—to be filled with wonder. I take my students outside when I can and walk around and look at things. "Why is that bird doing that? Why is this grass growing here and that growing there?"

I don’t care if my students get the answer right. I do care that they understand the process and how to get to that answer.


Megan Trevathan
TSRI graduate student

Science educators need to be research educators, too. Teachers need the resources and materials to teach what is really relevant today and do it well. And researchers need to play a role in shaping science education—helping to educate educators and to develop curriculums.

We’re doing this on a small scale here at TSRI.



Leonard Thomas
Madison High School biology and physiology teacher

There are several available curriculums. Our district creates its own curriculum—a lot of teachers do their own thing—but you have the fundamental question of what courses you are going to offer. Biology/AP biology, chemistry/AP chemistry, anatomy/physiologyÉ our district may give up on anatomy/physiology next year.

There are four levels of student: a life sciences, basic biology, an advanced biology, and an AP biology. Now, we’ve decided every kid is going to be college prep, so we don’t offer life science or basic biology anymore. That bottom rung, those kids that need basic, fundamental biology—whether it is because they can’t read or it is because they don’t care or a variety of maturational factors—those kids are forced into an advanced biology class, which means that the class now has to run a little slower.


Steven Bark
Manager of the TSRI Open Access Mass Spectrometry Facility

The most critical problem we are going to face with science education will be getting a reasonable level of understanding of basic research to the general population: what it is, where it is going, and how it is impacting people’s lives. How radically science is affecting their lives.

Everything from the medicine you take to the glasses that you’re wearing to the way you understand the universe depend on the basic research that was done ten, twenty, fifty years ago. How we perceive the future will depend entirely on how people understand science that is done today.

We don’t know where the future breakthroughs will come. If people do not understand science, then they won’t be able to critically evaluate why it is important to continue research. They won’t support basic research, and then the necessary tools may not be there when we need them. Then we as scientists and as people may start failing.


Scott Wolkenberg
TSRI graduate student

The most important challenge is to connect new discoveries that are being made with what people are taught. It can take decades for these things to filter down into the textbooks.


Gary Siuzdak
TSRI adjunct associate professor of molecular biology

Integrating the Web into the science curriculum is an important issue. There’s so much information available that it’s hard to decide what to use.

Teachers and professors have to make their curriculums more challenging. In the past, they would give lectures and those, with the textbook, would be the only sources of information that the students would have. Now students can go much further with just a couple of clicks.



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