Science teaching is the focus of continual but lowlevel
attention amongst US policymakers, both in Washington and
State capitols, driven by concern in universities and industry
who worry that not enough high school students are opting to do
science. However, there is no fully national agenda or national
philosophy on the teaching of science in schools and it is important
to appreciate that individual States have much discretion over
the curriculum, teaching, student assessment and funding.
In Washington, the focus tends to be on standardsetting
and assessment. There is a also general concern about the supply
of scientists and engineers, thrown into sharper relief following
the events of September 11th and the October anthrax crisis, which
highlighted the large numbers of foreign science and engineering
students. As a result more attention is being paid to improve
the flow of scientists and engineers from US schools. Last summer,
the National Science Foundation was asked by Congress to manage
an initiative to enhance the teaching of maths and science in
schools from Kindergarten through to 12th Grade (K12 MathScience
Partnerships). The program invites school districts, universities
and other organisations to bid for funds to create a partnership
to support local science teaching and has generated much interest.
The first round of applications is to be sifted over the summer.
The teaching of science in individual states is overseen
by State School Boards, and often influenced by local political
considerations. In many States, the attention given to science
teaching is driven by the nature of the local economy. In states
where hitech clusters, entrepreneurship and basic R&D
are seen as major drivers of growth - such as California, Massachusetts
and Maryland - there is a strong focus on teaching science in
schools, often supplemented by the activities of private or nonprofit
organisations. The interfaces between school and higher education,
and between higher education and industry are of much interest.
In other states, the debate on science teaching can occasionally
be hijacked by strong views on the teaching of evolution, with
creationism and intelligent design competing for attention alongside
There are two general features of science teaching
in the US which differ from the UK and are worth highlighting.
Firstly, from an early age there is much emphasis on individual
science projects, with a tradition of presenting the results at
school science fairs - from local school districts up through
to County, State and National levels. From my own experience (visiting
local elementary schools and the AAAS young scientist poster fair)
the projects can be impressive. They range from home-built apparatus
set up in the garage at home through to high school students working
out of hours on projects with research groups at local universities
Secondly, the long school summer holidays provide
ample opportunity for summer camps - another US tradition. Frequently
these camps offer students the opportunity to focus on a particular
speciality (eg sports) or to build on specific elements of the
school curriculum. The Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins
University, for example, offers a program of maths, science and
writing camps for gifted children across the US; others offer
to help improve the performance of students who are slipping behind.
Horizon Research conducted a study on practical science
work which further illuminates the role of science projects. 71%
of science classes for secondary school age students involve practical
work at least once a week, with an average of 22% of class time
spent on practical work. In the UK practical work tends to be
conducted within one science lesson, but in the US, in addition
to short classroom experiments, American high school students
participate in longterm science projects, completed over
a period of several weeks. Unlike practical work in the UK, these
long projects are conducted entirely out of school time. Students
decide what the project will be based on, which fosters creative
thinking and an interest in science. The project apparatus is
usually displayed alongside a written report in a science fair,
attended by parents, and graded by a panel of science teachers.
Students are required to briefly discuss their work with an assessor,
and prizes are awarded. Class practical work assessment is similar
to that in the UK, with the emphasis on a written report using
the scientific method.
But what does the system achieve? There is some evidence
that the assessment system in the US, particularly for science
subjects, is failing to highlight students' underachievement.
Although US students are among the most proficient in science
internationally aged 10, by 18 they have dropped to become one
of the worst performing countries. The longer American school
students study science, it seems, the worse their grasp of it
. This suggests that either the methods of instruction or the
assessment system, or both, are not serving US students effectively.
As testing is often infrequent in American high schools, recent
standardsbased reforms, supported by President Bush, encourage
more regular testing. Hence debates currently focus on the fundamental
issue of providing assessment, rather than improving the types
of assessment used.
Science Attaché Research Assistant
British Embassy, Washington