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Sputnik Moment Or No, Science Fairs Are Lagging 414

Posted by Soulskill
from the joe-vs-the-papier-mache-volcano dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The NY Times is running a story about the response from some high school science teachers to Obama's State of the Union address. It's nice that he wants to celebrate science fair winners, they say, but his obsession with standardized math and reading test scores means they have no time to teach students the fundamentals of how to do science. 'I have so many state standards I have to teach concept-wise, it takes time away from what I find most valuable, which is to have them inquire about the world,' said one teacher."
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Sputnik Moment Or No, Science Fairs Are Lagging

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  • by Greyfox (87712) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @10:44AM (#35111156) Homepage Journal
    Back when I was a kid, you could legitimately blow some shit up with your Jr. Scientist kit. Enthusiast experimenting books from Dad's era suggest using hydrogen cyanide kill the bugs for your bug collection. Stop pussifying science, and maybe kids will be interested again! I'm seeking funding for the Greyfox Science Kit, which will include a 2 inch "supermagnet", samples of lithium and sodium metal, a burner you can hook up to your gas line, a 1 watt laser and... what's that? I'm being the first lawsuit has already been filed...
  • Teach for the test (Score:5, Insightful)

    by br00tus (528477) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @11:00AM (#35111214)
    I went to a public junior high school back in the late 1980s. There was a standard and advanced student program, I was in the advanced program. There were state exams students had to take, the scores of which would affect principals salary and career path. So my science classes were entirely focused not on us learning science, but getting us to pass these exams. In many ways we were like workers, working for free, to benefit the principal.

    I got into the best magnet high schools in my city, but chose to go to the best Catholic high school in the city (which due to an endowment, was free). One reason was we did not have to take state exams. As the school was very selective, and as students scored high on the SATs and got into Ivy league schools, the school felt no need to partake in state tests (the normal Catholic high schools in the city did though). Thus we got a chance to really learn. I know many graduates who say they learned more in our high school then they did in college, and for me this is has often been the case.

    While I am egalitarian, even for those who are less so, it is incredibly wasteful, for US productivity, to have the top 1% of students, which I always was on these state exams, have to do the kind of rote, teach for the test learning that the bottom 1% of students on the test take. We can be self-directed and go on a Deweyite learning curve where we would really be learning, and advancing at our own speed, not going along with everyone else and doing this rote for the test memorization.

    The real truth is the Bolshevik revolution is what made schools in the US great in the 1950s and 1960s for engineering. The Russians engineers I met who came out of the USSR school systems are the sharpest I've ever met. But beyond that, advances like Sputnik scared the US in terms of falling behind the USSR educationally, so US schools had to revamp to make sure they were staying competitive to the USSR. Not that the USSR was a big threat to the US - the US GNP dwarfed Russia's in 1917, and continued to do so. But now that such threats have abided, all of these things - teach-for-the-test, closing schools, these charter schools which will soon be on a profit model and are being pushed for by the US's billionaires and the like can all come about. There are no threats to the US so dumbing down the sheeple and pouring Glenn Beck and fundamentalist religion in their minds is seen as a better course by the elites - or else they might get smart and start causing trouble like in Egypt.

  • by Proudrooster (580120) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @11:03AM (#35111220) Homepage
    Standardization is the thief of creativity and creativity robs standardization.

    It seems that no one is ever happy. The countries with high graduation rates and high standardization like South Korea have a low dropout rate [usatoday.com]. However the annual standardized test in South Korea always coincides with massstudent suicides. [atimes.com]

    Education is the USA is moving to a point where there is no depth, no love of learning, and no respect for the transormative power of education. Much of this is a direct result of standardized tests and limited teacher autonomy and resources. The weekly cycle of cover the standard: Powerpoint Lecture -> Read the Chapter -> Do your worksheet -> Scantron on Friday. move on to next state standard then rinse and repeat crushes any love of learning.

    I would rather see a USA where we foster a love of learning, go deep on interesting topics then work on them in a meaningful project based way rather than the drive-by, inch-deep mile wide education system that we have become. If we work in a meaningful way the questions about math and science will come and apply to a realworld situation instead of being taught in abstract isolation.

    When the USA can not longer produce innovators with a love for learning and/or attract innovators from foreign countries, we will become the low-cost labor market for those who do innovate. I implore everyone who reads this to help stop this madness. When George W. Bush was in office, he had a plan to take the Perkins-IV funding and shift it away from career and technical learning programs (nursing, welding, computer programming, cad, autobody) and shift that money to fund more standardized testing [ed.gov]. If that would have happened, programs would have ceased to exist and dropout rates would have soared even higher.
  • Lame excuse (Score:4, Insightful)

    by camg188 (932324) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @11:20AM (#35111286)

    if we have no time to teach students how to do science

    Concepts about methods of scientific testing can be taught in a couple of lessons. The basic concepts like postulating and testing theories, repeatability, precision vs. accuracy, double blind studies, etc. are not difficult, so to say there's not enough time to teach them is a just lame excuse. The real reason for declining participation in science fairs is given later in the article: "One obvious reason for flagging interest in science fairs is competing demands for high school students' extracurricular attention." Nothing the president or dept of education does will change that.

  • Pay them more! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Barrinmw (1791848) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @11:36AM (#35111364)
    The first thing we need to do to fix science education in this country is to pay math and science teachers more than the other teachers. Not only is it harder to get a science or math degree than it is to be a history major, but there are many more job opportunities for science and math majors beyond teaching. They are a more valuable commodity and should be treated as such.
  • by cetialphav (246516) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @11:37AM (#35111370)

    Standardization is the thief of creativity and creativity robs standardization.

    Every time I hear teachers gripe about having to teach towards a standardized test, I think, "There goes another awful teacher." Good teachers are good at getting students to learn. When students learn a subject, they can absolutely blow away a standardized test with no effort. I had a fantastic teacher in high school for Biology and Chemistry, and she definitely did not teach towards any standardized test as she had all her own materials. After going through her class, the standard science tests were a breeze because they were way easier than anything we ever did in her class.

    It bothers me that little Johnny can pass an algebra class, but can't solve 3x=15 on a standardized test. Passing a class means that the teacher vouches that you have learned something. The standardized tests are busting teachers who are vouching for students who haven't learned anything. And to make it worse, most students learn early on that there is really no way to fail so they can be lazy and coast along.

    What is concerning to me is that passing a standardized test has become a primary goal, which is not what it was intended for. The standardized test should be a way of measuring teaching effectiveness. They make it easy to see who the good teachers/schools/districts are and then you can apply the techniques they use to those that perform lower. The standardized test just represents the lowest common denominator of required learning so by setting that as the goal, we aim for a really low target. If schools aimed for a much higher target, then the standardized test would be a non-issue because everyone would easily pass.

  • Re:Pay them more! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 05, 2011 @11:46AM (#35111434)

    No that hasn't worked. The obviousanswer are private schools and vouchers. In the world US public schools are absolutely not competitve but private schools are. Failure shouldn't be supported with tax confiscated funds.

    The public school unions must be broken and massively reformed. School is about teaching children, not about employment and ridiculously fat healh and retirement packages.

  • by FuckingNickName (1362625) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @11:47AM (#35111438) Journal

    Due to decades of flawed and failed immigration policies

    Oh, I can smell where this is going...

    There is absolutely no hope for these kids. They are failures in every way possible.

    Nope, you've just illustrated a new failure mode which these kids don't have the privilege to indulge in.

  • by Z00L00K (682162) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @12:06PM (#35111572) Homepage

    Isn't it better to ask the question: "What did you learn from this project?"

    That may be the critical key - if they can't tell what they did learn then they know that they need to better themselves.

    And when starting a science project it's important to tell the students that failure is an option - it's not the result that is important but the road to the result. So even if the result is a puddle of clay oozing out of a box when it should have been a pot the student shall be able to tell why it was that way. Not being able to understand why is the real failure. Real science is a lot of failures and a few successes.

    As a reminder. WD-40 is the 40th variation of a lubrication able to be used in Wet and Dry circumstances. The previous 39 ones wasn't good enough.

  • by malkavian (9512) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @12:09PM (#35111596) Homepage

    When I was a kid, I was the geeky enthusiastic type.
    I spent ages on work pieces, and was among the top of the class. This, however, didn't correlate to the recognition given to work/achievement.
    I can remember doing a long project, and it came out well. When it came to the judging/awards, the 'winner' was one of the most mediocre pieces of work in the set.
    Several parents asked why on earth this project won, and the answer given was "The kid came from a deprived background, which affects his self esteem. The award is to make him feel better about himself, in the hope that he'll do better and strive harder".
    The kid in questions was proud before the award that he'd got away with doing the minimum possible, and he couldn't give a rats arse about the work.
    After the award, it just reinforced that he didn't have to work, he could play victim, and he'd get rewards.
    This was back in the 70s, and about the time I realised that the fluffy optimistic approach to dealing with people really didn't work a lot of the time.
    If he'd been told his work was crap, and that he could do a lot better (he actually could), and that this kind of performance was just failing himself, then maybe he'd have tried harder. Telling someone that a piece of work is crap doesn't mean you can't help them get better, it just stops them getting that instant gratification of 'recognition and respect' for doing sub-standard and lacking work.

  • by Third Position (1725934) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @12:27PM (#35111664)

    Well, there is that, but the other side of it is that quite a few of the materials for decent science projects are no longer available or even legal. Anyone attempting to assemble the kind of chemistry set I had in grade-school (bought off the shelf of a department store's toy department) would likely be getting themselves a visit from the FBI. Come to think of it, I haven't seen a kid build a model rocket and launch it in decades.

  • by syousef (465911) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @12:41PM (#35111760) Journal

    I'm a judge at one of the major Canadian Science Fairs and we've been given direction that we can't criticize and only good comments are allowed. Some of the projects are absolute CRAP for the age level... thrown together overnight... judges should be able to say "Your project is CRAP... prepare for a job at Burger King"

    I'm all for constructive criticism, but "prepare for a job at Burger King" is nothing but abuse.

  • by Nikkos (544004) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @01:28PM (#35112050) Homepage
    "I would like to do all kinds of fun stuff with my kids, but there are two hold ups. The main one, is that kids just aren't that interested in science. They barely pay attention when we have to derive something, they do not know how to study anymore, and if anything resembles hard work to them, they turn away from it."

    GIVE THEM HOMEWORK AND LET THEM FAIL. FFS, there's the real problem. Maybe failure will make them realize they have to work and even get the parents motivated too. Instead we make excuses and let these kids skate on through.

    "One last item that I'll add, is that educators (in the states at least) do not make enough money to justify the position. The first year I started teaching (just a few years ago), I brought home about $22,000. For what I have to deal with, and the amount I actually work to teach my students, I figured I was almost making minimum wage. I make less than our gym teacher, who sits on his ass all day, and has for the last 10 years while half our students are overweight."

    Apparently you failed to do your homework too. That teachers aren't paid well is well known, and has been for 50 years or more. You still chose to go into teaching however... As for teachers in general, when they continually fail to show enough integrity to stand up to school boards and parents and instead let little Johnny make it to his senior year without being able to read adequately, maybe they are being paid exactly what they are worth. Instead there is this new idea that you have to make it interesting, entertaining, inspiring, etc. Screw that, you're not a dancing clown and you're not a babysitter - give them the material, explain it a couple times on the board, and give them homework. If they can't pry themselves away from the TV or the PS3, THAT'S NOT YOUR PROBLEM. If you accept that responsibility then you may as well pay food and rent for the kids too.
  • by wealthychef (584778) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @01:31PM (#35112058)
    In China or India, if you are an engineer, you are going to be the chick magnet of the party. In the U.S., my experience is that if you tell people you are an engineer, people call you names like "geek" or "nerd." Nobody calls a lawyer or doctor a "geek" or "nerd." Thus, for a kid looking for a career, forget about math and science, it's embarrassing. For a teenager, forget it, girls will not like you. For an adult, forget it, it's hard work for not enough money. This "It's hip to be stupid" thing used to be just the scourge of African Americans, but it has spread into the popular culture and it's going to sink our boat if we don't find a way to honor hard work and intelligence again.
  • by russotto (537200) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @01:52PM (#35112174) Journal

    If he'd been told his work was crap, and that he could do a lot better (he actually could), and that this kind of performance was just failing himself, then maybe he'd have tried harder. Telling someone that a piece of work is crap doesn't mean you can't help them get better, it just stops them getting that instant gratification of 'recognition and respect' for doing sub-standard and lacking work.

    Sure, but now he's got a cushy government job paying close to 6 figures, and he rarely has to even show up. He bought a nice house with an ARM for zero down and got his principal "adjusted" so he isn't even going to have to pay it off. Are you doing so well? Perhaps it would have been better for you if you were told to slack off a bit, play the victim, make up some sob stories.

  • by Professr3 (670356) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @02:08PM (#35112278)
    They will out-breed us and make us pay for it, because America is no longer about hard work to achieve your goals. This is what social programs do, people.

    Why should I work my ass off to bring in six figures, when the government takes half of it? If I simply don't work hard, get an easy, mindless job and earn 20-30k a year, I'll get free food (food stamps) almost free housing (low income housing) and actually end up with MORE disposable income per month than I would have if I tried to actually rise above mediocrity.

  • by winwar (114053) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @02:25PM (#35112396)

    "GIVE THEM HOMEWORK AND LET THEM FAIL. FFS, there's the real problem. Maybe failure will make them realize they have to work and even get the parents motivated too. Instead we make excuses and let these kids skate on through."

    Great, someone who doesn't have a clue. Homework is not a panacea. In fact, it is mostly worthless for learning. Failing students mostly fails to motivate them. It generally reinforces the idea that they can't succeed and so why should they bother to try. If you have a student that doesn't want to fail, then they probably aren't a problem.

    "Instead there is this new idea that you have to make it interesting, entertaining, inspiring, etc. Screw that, you're not a dancing clown and you're not a babysitter - give them the material, explain it a couple times on the board, and give them homework. If they can't pry themselves away from the TV or the PS3, THAT'S NOT YOUR PROBLEM."

    Actually, it is your problem as a teacher. There is a reason that people have been calling for teacher evaluations. It is precisely this attitude. If you don't care about the success of your students then you don't have the qualifications to be a teacher. Unfortunately, many teachers care but don't have the tools or willingness to change their teaching style. The teacher seems to fall into this category.

    And he does have a point about equipment. Lab sciences need supplies. Supplies cost money. You can't teach them effectively without the supplies. Concepts get boring when they have no practical application.

    The problem isn't that enough students aren't failing. The problem is that too many are.

  • by mallyn (136041) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @02:29PM (#35112426) Homepage
    It can also go the other way. Once upon a time, I made an oscilloscope for my junior high school science fair project. I did not get any prizes. An electronics engineer came to me later and told me privately that my project was so well built that the judges did not believe I was the one who built it. Furthermore, even now, when I wear these [allyn.com] in public, some people don't believe me when I tell them that I have made them.
  • by winwar (114053) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @02:53PM (#35112598)

    "Every time I hear teachers gripe about having to teach towards a standardized test, I think, "There goes another awful teacher.""

    And you would be wrong much of the time. And I think it is because you (like most others) are ignorant of the realities of education. Many teachers do not have the freedom to set their curriculum. It is standardized, so if they deviate, they are at risk of punishment. This is a real thing in the world. It is not uncommon. The best teachers use their own materials but not all teachers are allowed.

    "It bothers me that little Johnny can pass an algebra class, but can't solve 3x=15 on a standardized test. Passing a class means that the teacher vouches that you have learned something. The standardized tests are busting teachers who are vouching for students who haven't learned anything. And to make it worse, most students learn early on that there is really no way to fail so they can be lazy and coast along."

    And how does failing a student motivate them? I work with algebra students that have problems. If they can't solve basic problems, it is often because they haven't learned math. That isn't a recent problem. That means many teachers failed to diagnose a problem and attempt to help them. In general, they feel stupid, which causes them to try even less. The threat of failure works for students who are afraid of failure. For those who think they are a failure, it's positive reinforcement.

    Never make the assumption that what motivates you motivates others. The students I help may still fail their class and fail the tests. This means they will have to retake the class. And continue to take math until they pass the tests. And they don't like math. Yet this doesn't motivate them to learn math.

    "What is concerning to me is that passing a standardized test has become a primary goal, which is not what it was intended for."

    Of course that was the primary goal. That was the intention. If it wasn't the goal or the point, they would not implement them. Anyone who believes otherwise is pretty ignorant of how reality works. Once you implement a standard, that becomes the goal. Anything that the standard does not cover is no longer a goal.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 05, 2011 @03:13PM (#35112686)

    This is true.

    I am now a U.S. citizen but originally from China. Over there, in the last two years of high school, they put students in two specialized camps with different curriculums: the science camp, and the liberal arts camp. With few exceptions, all the cool kids as well as cool kid wanna-bes go to science, and only the stupid ones, wash-outs and most athletes (read: stupid AND wash-out) go to liberal arts. The liberal arts camp is frequently frowned upon and laughed at by both students and teachers.. it's so bad that it's borderline discriminatory.

    Imagine my initial shock and disbelief when I came to the states for graduate study, and found out that the situation here is a complete reverse.

    They have a saying in China, frequently spouted by high school teachers, "Learn your math, physics, and chemistry, and you will be fearless wherever you go."

    The writing's on the wall...

  • by Belial6 (794905) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @03:40PM (#35112842)
    You are just as bad as the judges that awarded him the win. You suggest telling the child that his project was "a good improvisation", yet you had nothing to indicate that the child improvised anything. You just made up something to say nice, and you didn't care if you were lying to the child. So, you would have simply reinforced that doing the least work possible to scrape by and doing it in a shoddy fashion was "good improvisation". It isn't. Figuring out a different material to use when the one that your project calls for is unavailable is good improvisation. Slapping together something you copied out of an encyclopedia the night before the project is due, is not.
  • by Vancorps (746090) on Saturday February 05, 2011 @03:41PM (#35112852)

    If you're making six figures exactly how does the government take half of it? Are you also referring to all government or local or federal level? I've heard this many times before from people that conveniently forget history when it comes to social programs. When those people don't get food stamps what do you think they will do? Just die of starvation? That won't happen without violence first which was a real problem for this country before a lot of the social programs were put in place.

    I don't know of anyone making 30k/year that has much if any disposable income and I know a lot of people making that much, I live in Phoenix which is a fairly cheap place to live even though it still pales in comparison to say upstate New York.

    Also, low income housing ain't exactly nice housing, you'd be hard pressed to call it a good place to live compared to where the average six figure earner will be living, there is a great disparity in this country between those making a lot and those making a little and that will eventually boil over when there is no middle-class left.

    There is still the attitude that hard work will pay off in this country. Science has been under attack for a number of years so of course you can see people's attitudes towards it change and those attitudes are changing. There was a time people that knew computers really well were ostracized and now they are rich and heroes to many.

    Sure, the ignorant are very loud these days but there are still many people out there working hard every day to achieve the American dream whether they are immigrants, come from a poor family, or are continuing a family legacy, or from any other background you can dream up. Sure it's harder these days but that's to be expected as there are a lot more of us so there is more competition, this isn't a bad thing in my opinion at least.

    Back on topic for a second, if science fairs set higher standards than the projects being entered would be of better quality. Of course it's hard to find teachers that are primarily science teachers until you get to the college level and we should look at why that is with dramatic cuts in spending when it comes to education.

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