Science education in Arizona seen as key to new jobs

December 7, 2009

By hammersmith

Science education in Arizona seen as key to new jobs

Teachers, businesses say public funding isn’t enough for high-quality education

Kerry Fehr-Snyder, Arizona Republic, Dec. 4, 2009


Daisy Alvarez rolls black ink onto a glass surface and presses her fingertips onto it, leaving prints that other seventh- and eighth-graders in her class dust to reveal the swirls and arches that make her unique.


The hands-on science experiment in a classroom at a charter school in Tolleson is already familiar to students who have watched episodes of the TV series “CSI.”


And it reflects science education at its coolest – fun, challenging and far from the drudgery commonly associated with science labs.


It’s the approach President Barack Obama stressed last month in an initiative called “Educate To Innovate,” urging the country to be more competitive in a world increasingly ruled by science and technology.


It’s a call being heard by the National Science Teachers Association, which is meeting through Saturday at the Phoenix Convention Center. It ends with a free community event from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday called Science Matters with Bill Nye the Science Guy.


On Thursday, NPR Science Friday host Ira Flatow told about 600 of the 1,800 attendees that he is glad Obama has “restored science to its rightful place” in society by bringing an annual science fair to the White House.


“I think this is just a good beginning,” Flatow said.


Pat Shane, president of the 60,000-member National Science Teachers Association, said “science is of critical importance to our society” because “a large number of careers are science-based …. and more than 50 percent of the jobs that aren’t even jobs today will be in the next 10 years.”


But experts say innovative science lessons are all too rare and are limited by shrinking education funding and a political climate that doesn’t value science. Educators and business leaders are pushing back by urging private companies to donate money, tapping into parent volunteers and asserting more loudly that science education is the future.


Craig Barrett, a retired Intel Corp. chief executive, says Arizona needs an educational system that helps students compete in an economy based on scientific know-how.


“Science education is fundamental to that system,” said Barrett, who is among those backing Obama’s effort to improve science and math education.


That point is being driven home this week during a conference of the National Science Teachers Association at the Phoenix Convention Center.


Pat Shane, president of the 60,000-member National Science Teachers Association, said, “Science is of critical importance to our society (because) a large number of careers are science-based . . . and more than 50 percent of the jobs that aren’t even jobs today will be in the next 10 years.”


In Arizona, advocates of science education acknowledge that success will depend heavily on private contributions. The lesson in Terri Lynn Lake’s class (where Daisy Alvarez experimented with fingerprints) is possible because of a grant for the fingerprinting kits from a private group,


Intel donates computers and employees’ time to classrooms in the Chandler Unified School District, where the volunteers help with science camps and field trips and advise schools on how to make the best use of technology in the classroom.


Covance Inc., a biomedical-research company with a facility in Chandler, is working with the district to promote science education and has granted college scholarships to students going into the biosciences. Elsewhere, teachers and parents are spending their own money to buy materials for school gardens and conduct meteorology and geology experiments.


The deficiencies


So far, evidence in Arizona suggests that, despite the efforts, most students aren’t considered literate in science.


To test students’ science proficiency, the Helios Education Foundation granted money to test 12,000 sophomores at eight Valley high schools on the American College Testing (ACT) college-entrance exam last spring. Students needed to correctly answer 24 of 36 questions on science to demonstrate a minimum level of proficiency. Most students who took the test fell far short.


For example, only 3 percent of the ACT test-takers in the Phoenix Union High School District scored a 24 or better. The results were slightly better in Mesa Public Schools, where 16 percent met the minimum standard.


Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, chairman of the state House Education Committee, sought the grant because of shortcomings in other tests, especially the Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS.


But even proponents of raising standards and pushing science education can’t always back their support with dollars. Faced with a huge state deficit, Crandall and state Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, who chairs the Senate Education Accountability and Reform Committee, voted last month to sweep $144 million in “soft capital” used to buy books and classroom supplies from the 2009-10 K-12 budget.


Crandall said that the cuts could have been worse but that he and others compromised after lawmakers originally wanted to cut $277 million from the education budget.


Democratic lawmakers such as Reps. Rae Waters, D-Phoenix, and Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, argue that the cuts are hurting Arizona’s ability to compete in a technological and scientific world.


“Science education is really the future, especially for where we want to go in this state,” Waters said. “You don’t have computers without science: (computer) chips, silicon, your biosciences, TGen (the Translational Genomics Research Institute), medical fields.


“That’s how you’re going to find a cure for cancer someday, and that’s how you’re going to have a more green economy.”


Businesses and teachers are working to raise money and awareness of the need for science education. Success is essential for the state to attract new high-tech jobs, especially in green technology, they contend.


“If we want to keep Intel and the other high-tech companies, we have to provide them with kids with a high-quality education,” Waters said.


Ableser added, “We’re losing the intellectual capital, and businesses are going elsewhere.”


The classrooms


At Madison Simis Elementary School in Phoenix, students as young as kindergartners are learning about earthworms and their role in the nutrient life cycle of composts for a campus garden. Mitra Khazai, whose three children attend the north-central Phoenix school, volunteers her time to tend to the garden year-round.


She has arranged for private companies, including Southwest Gardener, Baker Nursery and Starbucks, to donate expired seeds and old coffee grounds. The students, Khazai said, “are enthusiastic gardeners” who root out weeds and scour raised garden beds behind the school for pests that could damage their tomato, turnip or pumpkin crops.


Fourth-graders in Diane Cyments’ class worked to answer the question: What happens to water vapor when it touches a surface that is about 0 degrees Celsius? After a 30-minute experiment using the scientific method, they arrived at the answer: It turns to frost.


Down the hall, Michelle Hebert’s first-grade class learned the difference among basalt, tuff and scoria in a geology experiment by scratching rocks on a piece of black construction paper.


The future


The experiments were more than child’s play, business leaders contend.


Barrett, the former Intel CEO who lives in Paradise Valley, has long advocated strong science- and technology-education investments.


The problem, educators and scientists believe, is that innate curiosity is drummed out of children over time. Obama’s “Educate To Innovate” campaign aims to change that by teaching children how to think deeply and critically in science, math, engineering and technology. It employs “Sesame Street” characters Elmo and Big Bird to drive home the point that science is important and fun.

Science illiteracy can be reversed, advocates say, through efforts aimed at children and adults who must be scientifically literate in order to make informed decisions at the ballot box.


In the meantime, students in Terri Lynn Lake’s seventh-grade science class conduct experiments from the television-science show “MythBusters” to test their mastery of scientific principles.

During their “cooling a six-pack” experiment, they used three plastic-foam coolers to determine which would cool a can of soda fastest: one filled with water; one filled with ice and water; or one filled with ice, water and salt.


The 24 students made guesses before one announced that the container with ice, water and salt cooled the quickest. “You’re absolutely right,” Lake told the student.


Science, it turned out, was handy for last-minute gatherings when a six-pack of cola absolutely, positively needs to be cooled quickly.