What passes for science these days?

Thousands of intermediate grade elementary school students will be at the Capitol building on May 19 for “State Scientist Day.” The event is sponsored by the California Association of Professional Scientists, a group that one assumes knows a thing or two about science. The kids who attend this event, however, will probably still only know literally a thing or two about science when it is over, as some of the topics covered are “Fishing in the City” and “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.”

I’m stretching a bit, as the other topics on State Scientist Day agenda do sound like hard science — chemistry, wildlife tracking and earthquakes for example. This event is my hook into discussing something I’ve been bugged by lately: the sorry state of science education in California.

My daughter attends an acclaimed public school in the Sac City Unified school district, a school praised for its high scores. However, as it turns out, students in the intermediate grades at this school have performed poorly in science in the past, showing up at middle school unprepared for the curriculum. I was shocked to find out that there was no annual science fair. Instead, they have “Science Night,” with various hands-on “science-y” exhibits manned by parent volunteers, which means they can’t explain anything or answer any of the kids questions beyond “what do you got here?” The bright spot at Science Night was a pop-a-shot robot built by St. Francis High School students (the Fembots) for the FIRST competition (I believe).

I know it sounds like I’m veering into political/religious territory, and this is sounding like a rant about how annoying it is to be told to recycle, but if you think about it, the topic of science is directly opposed to politics. What I’m annoyed by is that science is becoming increasingly watered down. It’s a problem when the catchphrase most related to science is not “E=m c squared” but “Reduce~Reuse~Recycle” or “Replace your bulbs with CFL.” Our world’s environmental problems will be helped by everybody changing their habits, sure, but the scientific problems underlying this need won’t be solved that way.

The science curriculum or lack thereof at my daughter’s school is indicative of public education all over this state. Our kids need to learn the scientific method and need to develop critical and inquisitive minds. Appropriate use of physical resources is not antithetical to science, but it’s not what kids need to learn about science in school. I worry about what it will mean when our country’s scientific community is composed primarily of children whose scientific education consisted of carnival optical illusion games and trips to organic farms.

What do you think? My kids are still in the elementary grades, so I don’t have any experience with 3rd-5th grade science. Is science education lacking in Sacramento or is it just me?

Author: CoolDMZ

"X-ray vision to see in between / Where's my kimono and my time machine?"

7 thoughts on “What passes for science these days?”

  1. Funny thing is that I was ranting on this same topic last night with my neighbor, who mostly nodded her head and waited for me to shut up. Now SacRaggers get to experience what she did…

    Mrs. cogmeyer and I are both engineers, both are the first in our families to finish college, and we have strong opinions on this topic. It seems that American society has reached a level of affluence and to some extent laziness where science and engineering (and medicine too) are simply not valued as they were a generation or two ago. There has been growth in computer engineering and the like, but overall US engineering degree output has remained flat. And once you factor in the high growth rate for foreigners being educated in the US, US engineering degrees are actually decreasing. It is similarly difficult to find qualified educators in science, technology and medicine in the US. And while disciplines such as chemical engineering continue to be among the highest paying undergrad degrees, there is limited interest since its not cool like environmental studies or web design. One could argue that this is just a natural transition as we move to a post-industrial revolution economy, but that doesn’t explain why Japan and Scandanvia are still pumping out engineers.

    Some great data here at this link. I like the final graph,. where on a per capita basis the US is solidly ranked between Syria and Mexico….

    So pretty much what you are seeing is just another side effect of a greater societal trend. Lack of interest among Americans to get advanced science degrees, to work in these fields, or to set high standards for science education eventually trickles down to a crappy science education in Sacramento for little CoolDMZ Jr.


  2. Most of my experience in teaching is at the college level, and my field was in English, so I can’t speak with any expertise about elementary science education in Sacramento. However, I recently began volunteering at our neighborhood elementary school in the Meadowview area. The students are mostly Latino and African American; a number of them participate in the federal lunch program, which tells you that many are from low income households. A lot of these kids are struggling with basics like reading and writing; and with over 20 students per classroom, the teachers barely have enough time to cover the core materials, let alone get into science fundamentals and special projects. I suspect if you gave the students I work with a test to measure their knowledge of core science principals, very few of them would even meet their own grade levels for mastery. (Sixth graders, btw, are supposed to know the order of the planets in the universe and understand the earth’s rotation and its effect on time, gravity, oceanic tides, etc. They should also be able to identify anatomical differences between warm blooded and cold blooded species and the effect of climate and environment on species adaptation—an early introduction to the principles of evolution.)

    But there’s been a lot of criticism over the years by the National Academy of Science over the way science has long been taught in the U.S. at the elementary level. There should be an introduction to laboratory and field work, so kids don’t have to learn it for the first time in college. Science fairs are great, but it would be better if kids were allowed to create projects in the classroom based on what they’ve learned in textbooks. They’d also learn about research and going beyond basics to create new technologies and ideas.

    That said, there is a lot of science in recycling. It just depends on how you teach it. My own kids received lots of teachable moments when I started a compost pile in our yard, and I showed them how bacteria and bugs create the decay necessary to convert garden and kitchen waste into soil. All of them are now enthusiastic recyclers and gardeners, and their knowledge of biology isn’t too shabby either.


  3. Yeay! Our kids can tell you all about Caesar Chavez and global warming/cooling/change of climate (whatever the term is now), and how great it is that an Afro-American/Black guy/person of colour/minority/negro/American/person “invented” the peanut. The mentally retarded/pyros/kids having kids/ignoramuses can “graduate” from high school with a REAL diploma. The Mexican kids (when not hanging out with other Mexican kids) can “talk” to other kids. Our 11th graders can put a condom on a cucumber and get an abortion without their parents knowing, but can’t talk to the ROTC without a countersigned triplicate form from their parents(/baby daddy), signed off-campus of course. Yeay us!! But our best and brightest can’t do science. At least WE ARE ALL EQUAL! Congrats America! You want to drag the best down so the stupid kids don’t “feel bad about themselves”? You did it!! NO ONE CAN DO SCIENCE NOW!! We really are all equal. I feel so much better, knowing that my kids won’t be the ones to show up the stupid/retarded/mentally challenged/non-English speaking kids in class. And it’s all about “feeling good” and “not hurting feelings.”

    Want progress in science? Support the brightest: Honors programs. Ditch the “special education” classes. Ditch the “ethnic studies” programs. Teach to the top, and not the bottom. The county will need people to build roads and ditches. No shame in that. EDUCATION is for those who WANT TO LEARN. If you want to goof off and “celebrate your heritage,” attend a La Raza function. Apply what you learn there to the real world (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!) Let those who show aptitude for learning excel. Let those who show aptitude for digging ditches, dig ditches, and those who “celebrate their heritage,” err… “celebrate their heritage,” I guess. Let us know how that works out for you when you try to buy a house or a car.


  4. The great thing about the US is that anyone could be successful with hard work.

    Our standardized tests are driving this. Teachers have no incentive to work with exceptional students. Those students can pass the standardized test without help at school. The teacher must focus all of his resources on the students at risk for failing the standardized tests in order to “game” the system. As long as we look at a pass rate on a test as our measure of teacher productivity, we will continue to see this dilution of our educational system.

    … Also we don’t spend enough on k-12 education



  5. Well, California schools were going in the crapper well before the relatively recent standardized testing craze. You may be right about the pitfalls of standardized testing, but the testing is a reaction to the root cause, not the root cause itself.

    The overbearing political power gained by the CTA in recent decades has made it a lot easier for mediocre teachers to hold their jobs and ride out until retirement, but it has been a detriment to the education of our youth.

    Add to that the fact that we have seen serious slips in parents taking basic responsibility for the welfare of their own kids. 57% of kids in Sacramento now qualify for school breakfast…and we all know this is complete BS on the part of many of these parents. Look at the huge increase in out of wedlock birth rates, and the accompanying rates of kids growing up without fathers in the household, or being raised by aunty and nana.

    And add to that you kids that speak no English sucking up already scarce school resources. When I was a kid growing up in the midwest my school would’ve thought you were crazy if you tried to enroll a kid who didn’t speak English, but now it’s so common most Californians don’t even stop for a moment to think about how crazy that sounds.

    And when the schools are teaching ESL (funny how we all know what that acronym means, eh?) they are babysitting disruptive hoodlums who are kept in classroom seats because the district gets federal dollars for every butt that is in a seat.

    We all know what the answers are here. But frankly the parents that give a damn enough to do some about either put their kids in private school or home-school. I spent lots of time in 3rd world countries like Philippines, where public schools are so pathetically bad that even the poorest find a way to send their kids to Catholic school instead. It appears that’s the glide path we are on right now.


  6. @cogmeyer- I taught ESL for several years and really enjoyed working with the students in those classes. Most of them came from countries where teachers are still respected, and they appreciated the effort I took to teach them proper grammar and writing fundamentals. My native-born English-speaking students on the other hand were the ones who had the worst attitude towards learning. They seemed to think I was there to entertain them, or that I was a teacher-bot who would happily repeat my lesson just for them because they left class to take a call on their cellphones or “didn’t feel like being there.”

    In regards to teachers and union protection, teachers get blamed for a lot of problems in the schools, but there is a matrix of factors that complicate public education. You touched on some of them—mixing underachieving/learning disabled students with students who are either naturally gifted or who receive extra reinforcement at home; parents who either don’t care about their kids’ performance in school or worst, lack in themselves intellectual curiosity and rigor; the lack of interest and unwillingness to pursue “difficult” subjects like science and math among even affluent Americans. But you add the chronic underfunding of public schools that has gone on for almost 12 years, the crappy state of teacher salaries (who wants to enter a profession that pays beginners $24,000 a year when you graduate with a debt of over $40,000 in student loans?), and other education policies that add to the burden of already overstretched teachers—the “mainstreaming” of physically and intellectually disabled students, standardized testing that places the burden on the teacher to have all of his/her students pass, state requirements to teach, among other subjects, sex education, cultural diversity (what ever happened to foreign languages?), manners, and in some places, “intelligent design” alongside evolution—and you get a system on the verge of collapse. But as someone who has worked in the public college system for most of my career, I refuse to give up on my local schools. Free, egalitarian education is key to U.S. democracy; to dump poor, underachieving students to the public system while students from affluent, educated families leave for private schools is abandoning the founding principles of our country and California in particular.


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