The bad news first….
The United States lags behind other countries in K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Even the U.S. rate of progress to improve science and math achievement is bested by 24 countries including Latvia, Chile and Brazil, who have the highest growth rates.
The public perception of science is declining. From 1999 to 2009 the public perception that science and technology are the greatest achievements of the U.S. fell from 47% to 27%. In addition, only 17% of those surveyed thought U.S. scientific achievement is the best in the world. When scientists were polled, 85% felt that the public’s lack of understanding of science was a significant problem, and 49% believed that the public has an unrealistic expectation about the speed at which scientific advancements are made.
Federal support for research and development is decreasing. U.S. federal expenditures on research and development is expected to decrease by 6.5% in fiscal year 2013, and federal spending on research as a percent of GDP will fall to 0.8%, a 40 year low. This is ominous data given that science and technology are required to solve many of the problems facing our country now and in the future. Not to mention the overwhelming evidence that investment in scientific research is a proven economic engine.
Now the good news…it’s time to have some PhUn!
The statements above paint a gloomy picture about the direction of science education and funding. They also raise the question (at least in my mind) of what we, as scientists and teachers, can do to reverse these trends. Is it sufficient for scientists to simply hunker down, spend more time in the lab, submit more grants, and be satisfied with the notion that the public just doesn’t get it, or that it is the problem of teachers to fix STEM education? Are K-12 educators to just sit back and hope that updated content and innovative lesson plans materialize out of thin air? If these options are not sufficient (they aren’t), then what other choices do we have? Scientific outreach may be the key, or at least an important part of the solution.
The purpose of scientific outreach is to enhance public awareness and understanding of science. Outreach does not have to be a daunting, all-consuming task.
From the perspective of a scientist, it can be achieved by making a visit to a classroom, talking with your institute’s public affairs office about an important research finding, or writing a letter to your local representatives. K-12 educators can facilitate this process by being familiar with the ongoing work of local colleges and universities, inviting scientists to the classroom, or even getting involved in summer research projects. What if you’ve never participated in science outreach before? It is conceivable, maybe even likely, that this is not in the comfort zone of many scientists. In addition, teachers may not know where to find research opportunities that could benefit their classrooms, or feel comfortable contacting local scientists. Thankfully, professional organizations like the American Physiological Society (APS) can help. APS has great resources for physiologists on how to conduct advocacy and K-12 education outreach.
Among the K-12 outreach activities offered by APS, Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week is the widest reaching event having taken place annually in the first week of November since 2005. The goal of PhUn Week is to foster interaction between scientists and local schools and now reaches 12000 students annually. I have been fortunate to be involved with PhUn Week over the last several years and have organized small and large PhUn Week events. Typically, I bring a team of scientists to a local elementary or middle school where we set up interactive, hands-on stations for the kids. An example of a station that we might include is to build your own glomerulus (the filtering unit of the kidney). We spend a few minutes talking about the purpose of the glomerulus and its basic anatomy. Then, students are presented with a series of different materials from which they can use their knowledge of glomerular function and anatomy to build their own model. When students are finished building their models, we test them to see how good they filter the “blood”. You can view this and other activities in this Archive Collection.
The example of PhUn Week illustrates how outreach can foster collaboration between scientists and K-12 educators promote educational resource development to enhance scientific achievement, and improve the public perception of science. Ultimately, these outreach opportunities will help reinforce the pipeline of the future scientists who will be solving the medical and technological problems of the future. For scientists who are hesitant to interact with the public, don’t underestimate the power that improved public perception of science and scientific literacy has to influence the budget priorities of the federal government. So let’s get out there and have some PhUn!