It is most unfortunate that science fairs and interactive science activities are fading from schools. This year, due to local sponsors dropping out, several of the largest science fairs in the country were under threat of cancellation before corporate sponsors saved the day. Yet these events are exactly what can engage a student and spark an interest in learning more about how the world around us works. I've seen several experimental programs that target exactly what kids need to bring them back to science and help our country stay on top in the future of scientific development. The problem is going to be how schools can afford such programs when they are cutting their budgets to the bone.
I recently attended a local conference called Let's Play, A Corporate Citizenship Conference. I had the opportunity to listen to a panel discuss partnerships in education. The speakers, all currently working in the world of education, were talking about current issues in education, with funding being the focus. Susan Dawson from the E3 Alliance was one of the panelists and she brought up the disconnect between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education and the careers related to the subjects. An audience member brought up the fact that the most in-demand jobs are basic programming jobs that tend to pay very well. Anyone can learn how to program, yet it's rare to find programming classes in high school. How did this audience member know that? She happened to be a programmer for a living. Here is one of the biggest elements missing from a majority of school classrooms: people talking about their careers and what it took to get the job. We all know what acting, writing, and other high-visibility jobs entail. However, most students couldn't tell you what a Ruby on Rails programmer or an endocrinologist does.
I would bet most students would write off biotechnology research as "uninteresting," despite the fact that many students are concerned about the environment, where biotechnology is particularly relevant. This is a perfect example of an area in which a school could make a big difference by having a person in the field come speak to students--or, as one school did, provide students firsthand experience in the scientific process and link it to current social issues. Many kids are concerned about the environment, and exploring a clean fuel alternative, as the class mentioned in the link above, is a great way to connect that passion to a potential career.
When I was young, my favorite class was science because of all the experiments and hands-on activities we did. Even in college, I enjoyed the science lab much more than the class that required it. Actively participating in something and experiencing the results is much more interesting and sticks with you better than a lecture about an experiment. Whether it's in the classroom, at home, or even at a science museum with interactive exhibits, getting to experience science hands-on usually has more impact than a textbook.
Many of you may be wondering how this translates into a homeschool or online curriculum. I've seen many science lab kits for sale that are a great way to get the kids involved at home. A nice microscope can go far by allowing kids to look at anything they encounter in the world, and there are oodles of kitchen experiments you can do with your kids. While you won't be actively participating in labs with the Thinkwell curriculum, we recognize the importance of demonstrations and make a point to include them in our science courses. Some of my favorite lectures are the Chemistry in Action demos with Professor Gordon Yee, especially because these are often experiments you wouldn't want kids to be involved in, but the results can make a big impact.
STEM education has become the big buzzword in education right now. Even the president is focusing on it, recognizing the importance of STEM to our country's future success. Hopefully, the folks deciding where the money goes will also see the importance of helping students get their hands dirty in science and computer labs, and will invest where the money can really help.