On April 27, 2009, The President of the United States, Barack Obama, addressed the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). He noted the importance that Americans have placed on science and scientific discovery throughout our nation’s history, citing the circumstances under which Abraham Lincoln signed into law the very act that created the NAS—a civil war in which the future of the United States was, at best, uncertain.
Among the many topics the President addressed was the need to improve science and math education in our public schools in order to encourage young people to innovate and create, to become “makers of things, not just consumers of things.” In his speech, President Obama said that “we are restoring science to its rightful place.” While I agree that the United States has let science and math education deteriorate, I would argue that the President’s vision is too limited. It isn’t science that needs to be restored to its rightful place in society; it’s thinking.
What we need is not a new generation of scientists and engineers; what we need is a generation of Renaissance thinkers.
A series of studies funded in part by the DANA foundation illustrated the relationship between study in the arts (music, visual art, dance) with higher performance in math, science and reading. While the studies have not demonstrated cause and effect or described a mechanism to explain the results, the correlation between study in the arts and performance in “academic” subjects was significant.
Science does not happen in a vacuum; it occurs against a backdrop of society and history, in a world where there is music, art, literature, drama, politics and economics, and our next generation of scientists needs to be informed by the milieu of the world in which science occurs.
My experience as a college professor and teacher showed me that we have produced a generation of students who have difficulty reading a paragraph of text and extracting the main points. They are accustomed to being fed bullet points on a PowerPoint® Slide and tested, via multiple guess, for their ability to regurgitate those same points. They often cannot extend a written argument beyond the page where it is written. While they can summarize and understand story of a scientific principle or experiment once it is told, today’s students often cannot create their own stories or redirect the plot of existing ones.
To create the Renaissance thinkers that we require to move our world forward to sustainability, peace, and global human rights, we need to look seriously at how “education” is evaluated. Multiple choice tests are simply not sufficient. Highly prescribed lesson plans and highly specific educational objectives do not give teachers the wiggle room needed to help students learn and think independently. Facilitating learning is difficult work, requiring more than teaching prescribed subject content, and we do not reward teachers with the respect or the remuneration that such work deserves.
Maybe you were fortunate enough to encounter an inspiring teacher during your schooling: someone who went above and beyond what the teaching contract required, someone who was a lifelong learner, fascinated not just by one subject, but by many, and someone who could help you make connections among subjects and between what you learned in the classroom and what you experienced in life. Every student deserves such a teacher, and we need the very best, cream of the crop, teachers we can get, if we want to address successfully the challenges of this millennium.
President Obama talked about the Apollo 8 mission at the end of his speech. In 1968, Apollo 8 put humans into orbit around the moon for the first time. Bill Anders, an astronaut on that flight, talked about what he saw when, on the fourth orbit around the moon, the space capsule rotated and revealed the Earth.
Anders said that first view of the Earth from space forever changed him: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Fortune favors the prepared mind, and so does scientific discovery. Although Anders set out to discover the moon, his mind was well enough prepared for him to discover the Earth. The Earth has “risen” over the moon’s horizon many times since the 16th century, but perhaps the most important thing we can do, when we ask how we can best prepare the minds of next generation for the challenges of this millennium, is to rediscover the Renaissance.
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