[Currents headergraphic]

March 2, 1998

Science skills will be essential for America's future success

By David S. Kliger

As residents of California, most of us are keenly aware of the extensive role that science and technology are playing in society today. Our region of the state, in particular, has become the base for a veritable revolution in computer and electronic technologies. Early in the 21st century, California will repeat this spectacular success, this time in the area of biotechnology. Given the importance of such technologies in the quality of our lives and the health of our economy, we must continue to develop new educational strategies so today's elementary, secondary, and college-age students will be equipped to live and work in the technology-centric world that awaits them. In other words, we must strive to provide our children with education and training of the highest caliber today, so they will have the tools they will need tomorrow.

Study after study suggests that the quality of science education and training that students in this country receive is inadequate. Headlines in the popular press repeat this refrain: Compared with students from other nations, U.S. students perform at mediocre levels--at best--in science and mathematics. In fact, the just-published scores from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study ranked high-school seniors in this country 16th in general science and 19th in general math; only 21 countries participated in the test.

Certainly, there is great consensus in our society about the importance of science education. There is, however, considerable disagreement within the scientific community about the best way to provide that education to our children. Unfortunately, this debate about science instruction is too often framed by two extreme positions: we should concentrate solely on content (a position held mostly by professional scientists), or we should concentrate solely on making science education fun (a position held by many science educators).

The argument that we must impart absolutely accurate information to our children in their first experiences with science education is supported by studies showing that scientific principles learned by students at an early age become deeply imbedded in their scientific reasoning. Thus, if a student learns a "scientific principle" at an early age that is fundamentally flawed, the student will remember that incorrect principle even if he or she later is taught the correct one. In short, it is difficult to unlearn erroneous "facts" and relearn correct ones.

On the other side, the argument that students will not learn concepts if they are presented in a boring way certainly has merit. I, personally, do not completely agree with this notion; life is not always fun, and we don't have to teach our children that they should not work on something unless it is fun. I can, however, accept that in an age where our children are raised with television shows that entertain them, their attention will naturally be drawn to entertaining educational experiences.

As a public event at UC Santa Cruz this month will illustrate perfectly, these two positions need not be considered at odds with each other. Professor Bassam Shakhashiri, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, will deliver a lecture-demonstration in science that is as accurate and rigorous as it is entertaining and captivating.

The career of Professor Shakhashiri, who has served as the Assistant Director for Science and Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation, has been devoted to developing new approaches to science education. He is also no stranger to our community, having delighted children of all ages (and their parents) during past demonstrations on campus.

On behalf of UCSC's Division of Natural Sciences, I would like to invite those budding scientists in our community to see Professor Shakhashiri prove--once and for all--that the presentation of science can be both sound and fun!

Professor Shakhashiri's demonstration takes place on the UC Santa Cruz campus on Thursday, March 12, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Main Stage. Admission is free. David Kliger is a professor of chemistry and dean of natural sciences at UCSC.

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