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Transforming Science Education

CHICAGO – Throughout the West, declining standards in science education are threatening future prosperity. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the West has depended on technical innovation and scientific derring-do for its influence and growth. But the West now faces serious competition from the rising nations of Asia, where education in math and science is flourishing.

In general, competition in science and technology is a blessing – the more advanced a nation is, the better a customer it is. And collaboration and exchange of people make for profitable businesses and higher standards of living. But it must be recognized that falling educational standards will eventually hit economic growth.

The West, particularly the United States, has lived through such a moment of recognition before, when the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957. The so-called “Sputnik shock” convinced America and the West of the need for radical reform of science education, particularly recruitment, training, and retention of teachers.

One reform that demands priority today concerns high school science. Mathematics, the foundation for all science, depends on its concise language and logical ordering. Physics, once the subject most dependent on mathematics, provides knowledge about the structure of atoms, and the use of mathematics there has now spread to chemistry and biology. Essentially all phenomena in chemistry find explanations in the quantum atom, while chemistry and physics undergird molecular biology, which, since the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, dominates modern biology. All other sciences – geology, astronomy, neuroscience, oceanography, and myriad hyphenated subjects – depend upon overlapping combinations of biology, chemistry, and physics.