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Dr. Gerald Wheeler on youth and science

Gerald WheelerDr. Wheeler is the interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (www.nsta.org), the world’s largest professional organization representing science educators of all grade levels. He served as the executive director of NSTA for 13 years, retiring from the association in August 2008.

Wheeler has also been involved in the creation of 3-2-1 Contact for the Children’s Television Workshop, served on advisory boards for the Voyage of the Mimi and the PBS children’s series CRO and created and hosted Sidewalk Science, a television show for young people on CBS-affiliate WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. Wheeler co-directed the National Teachers Enhancement Network, a distance learning project offering science and math courses nationwide.
Prior to joining NSTA, Wheeler was Director of the Science/Math Resource Center and Professor of Physics at Montana State University. He also headed the Public Understanding of Science and Technology Division at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and has served as president of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).
He has won numerous awards and published numerous books, research and education articles, and reviews. Hereceived an undergraduate degree in science education from Boston University and a Master’s degree in physics and a Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics, both from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Between undergraduate and graduate school, he taught high school physics, chemistry, and physical science.

Q: How would you sum up the state of science knowledge among youth in North America today?

A: We know from studies like National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that they are not performing at the level they should – that we’re in trouble. The gap between whites and blacks or Hispanics is especially huge. I wouldn’t say we’re going down, but we’re flat and definitely not in line with satisfying what we need for a workforce in the next ten to fifteen years.

Q: Your thoughts on how to improve that?

A: The new science standards are going to help if the states buy into it. The main thing is that we need more attention given to science at the state and local level. With No Child Left Behind, math and reading kind of went to the forefront and everything else got pushed back, and with the economic times being a challenge, we’ve totally lost the support for teachers’ professional development. If we’re serious about turning it around, we’re going to have to address that and set high standards.
Additionally, parents have to be much more engaged in their child’s science education. Parents don’t need to have a strong background in science to help their children learn and appreciate science. Doing science with your child can be as simple as helping him or her measure the ingredients for a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Every day is filled with opportunities to learn. Don’t let science become a weak part of your child’s education. Get involved to enhance this important academic discipline.

Q: Do problems with reading and writing affect science learning?

A: It turns out that science is actually a gift in this case. Science and technology can get struggling readers engaged, and actually improve their math and literacy scores. It’s a door opening to get them engaged in their schooling. If they really like the hands-on, real-world problems, as soon as they do these, they get immersed in mathematics and reading.
As an educational consultant, I had a fifth-grade boy in a class on electricity and magnetism. His teacher told me ahead of time that Kevin was a problem. He was more than struggling; he was angry and “not playing the game.” He was performing very poorly. Yet Kevin got so engaged in the stuff that he became the top student in that science class. Getting them engaged can turn them around, turn them into good students who actually know where math and reading fit into their learning.

Q: Is online learning suited or unsuited to science education?

A: It works pretty well, but is a challenge because a lot of science is hands-on. I think it’s a disadvantage to put too much stock in online learning for science. However, I had a very shy, naïve kid from a rural part of Montana who ended up studying at Harvard and saying that the online portion of our science program turned him around. Online has that ability to get resources to kids from rural areas who would not normally get the same science instruction. Still, in terms of engaging them with hands-on science, I’d rather have them in the same room.

Q: Does online learning work better with self-motivated kids than underachievers?

A: Well, that’s true with any kind of correspondence/independent study, so online doesn’t hold any special negative on that; it’s just certainly true. Unless they are in a very structured situation, then children who are marginal by attitude are going to tune out. They’re going to vote with their feet. What’s interesting to me is that girls often do a lot better with online science, because a lot of girls in a class with boys get kind of overwhelmed with the noise of the boys. Online, they’re much more active participants and leaders in arguments, etc., making cogent arguments. So in some ways, I would say online is not good for science education generally, but it’s very good for girls.

Q: What can parents do to help kindle or grow their childrens’ interest in science?

A: I think it starts long before high school. It’s about engaging them by answering questions and exploring things. Dinnertime is a great opportunity for your family to have discussions about science-based news stories (space shuttle missions, severe weather storms, etc.). Movies and TV shows that feature science-related themes are also good topics for discussions. Too many parents say, “Well, that’s the job of the schools, and don’t give our kids homework because it interrupts our quality time.” Also, too many families come home and eat at different times or head off to their separate computers or televisions. They need to get engaged in what’s happening in the schools, and find ways to be supportive of the teachers and the school program. For example, parents can participate in their child’s school science program by locating scientists and others to be guest speakers, or accompany their child on a field trip to a science-related place.

It’s a struggle with the disenchanted child; he is really destroying his future if he doesn’t get engaged. We have to make sure we get them engaged.

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