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Science Needs and Nerds

On a recent report card of science achievement, American fourth, eighth, and 12th graders scored dismally.

At each grade level tested for the National Assessment of Educational Progress report, a federal survey, fewer than 30 percent of all students reached the "proficient" level of understanding. More than 40 percent of the high school seniors who took the test could not meet the minimum academic expectations set.

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But ask what needs to be done to turn these sobering statistics around, and students themselves provide some pretty good answers. Last spring the Monitor reported the results of an opinion survey in which half of the 10- to 17-year-olds ranked science at or near the top of their list of favorite subjects. But only half said their teacher challenged them to discuss ideas and come up with their own explanation for things. Forty-seven percent said their teacher "does most of the talking" or "calls on us to see who knows the right answer."

Give us more experiments to do in the lab, these students said (88 percent). Let us use science to solve problems in our neighborhoods, they suggested (85 percent).

Good ideas. Creative exercises, rather than rote memorization of facts, likely would have helped those students taking part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey: They were asked, for the first time in the test's history, to perform and explain hands-on scientific experiments, not just answer multiple-choice questions.

Many schools already have begun to revamp the way they teach science. But teachers themselves need help. Many elementary and junior high school teachers could use better training to learn basic scientific principles. Four years of undergraduate science training often isn't enough for high school science teachers. And all teachers need to update their skills throughout their careers.

The idea of science being only for "nerds" doesn't hold true. Today's high-tech world demands all students be at least "proficient" in the subject. A failing report card isn't acceptable.

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