Many educators and employers liken the state of science education today to a chemistry project gone awry: A bad mix of factors has come together–and it spells trouble.

By law, making students better at reading and math is the nation’s priority, at least for now. When it comes to science, however, a quiet crisis is engulfing schools, say many scientists, educators, business leaders, and entrepreneurs.

It begins when young students skip challenging science courses. Later, it produces an understaffed or ill-trained corps of science instructors. The result is lagging U.S. performance in jobs, research, and innovation.

“The public is not hearing this,” said Gerald Wheeler, a nuclear physicist and executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “It’s troubling that, at one level, we understand that we live in a technological society, but it’s not playing out that way. Science is on the back burner.”

Not everyone is pessimistic. The country remains a dominant force in the advancement of science. Also, some observers say the picture of an “emerging and critical” problem in the labor force, as it was put by the government advisory National Science Board, is overblown.

But teachers in the field say they need help, mainly in professional development and enough class time to be creative. They also say the new federal emphasis on test scores and assessment is taking away from the opportunity for discovery and wonder in their classrooms.

“Is the goal now a set of scores, or is the goal a set of scientists?” said Janis Elliott, who teaches physics at a high school in Bellevue, Neb. “That’s the difference–and you don’t achieve those goals in the same way.”

Teachers attending the National Education Association’s annual meeting spoke about the state of science education in a group interview July 2 with the Associated Press.

Elliott, who trains other teachers in science trends, says she often must seek her own training from outside sources. They include military weapons experts, a private engineering company, and a cancer research institute.

“In physics, with infrared imagery, I have to tell kids how to use it, how they’re going to need to know it, what computer applications come with it, how they’re going to use it in medicine and in looking for bomb shelters in war … We don’t get that training in college,” Elliott said.

Carol Bauer, an elementary school teacher in Yorktown, Va., says she sees inquisitive students who do not know what they are missing, either in school or in their own free time.

“The kids today don’t have a chance to discover,” she said. “They don’t even get to go check out their own neighborhood. We have to know what they’re doing all the time. They just don’t know what exploration is.”

Education Department leaders say science is not a second-class subject. They have led efforts aimed at improving teachers’ skills, and they are watching for results. By 2007, under the No Child Left Behind law, all schools must test students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

But compare that, advocates of science education say, with the law’s requirement that all students in grades three through eight be tested annually in reading and math.

The science news of late has not been uplifting–from national test scores, to teachers’ confidence in their science skills, to parents’ satisfaction in course offerings. Business leaders say they have seen declining interest in science among students.

“It’s going to cause a steady weakening of U.S. leadership in technology and related fields,” said Gary Bloom, chief executive of Veritas Software and one of several technology executives to ask Congress to put greater focus on science in schools. “More and more creativity, new ideas, patents, engineering, and businesses will begin to creep overseas.”

Faced with the problems of science education today, some schools and educators are experimenting with creative ways to make science more fun and relevant for students, while others are bringing in outside help. Even the U.S. Energy Department is getting into the act, launching a campaign to help America regain its footing as a science superpower.

Targeting young girls

Danielle Orr wants to be an airplane mechanic when she grows up. Her friend Leia Gravon is thinking about becoming a veterinarian. They’re science geeks, at a pivotal age.

“Now that I turned 12, I’m starting to get into girly stuff,” Orr said.

But rather than poring over Lip Smacker flavors at Target, Orr and Gravon spent the summer in a chemistry lab at Augsburg College in Minnesota learning how to concoct their own cosmetics. Their science teacher, Jennifer Rose, hopes the experience will help them realize that girly stuff and science are not mutually exclusive.

Orr and Gravon were among 42 seventh- and eighth-grade girls participating in MakeUp Your Mind, a new program Rose developed to get girls excited about science. The class taught them how to analyze the chemical properties of cosmetics and make their own lip gloss and lotion.

“They’re learning how to apply science in the real world,” Rose said.

Rose was awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Science Teachers Association to launch the class at Girls in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science camp, a free program for 115 Minneapolis students put on by the Minneapolis Public Schools and Augsburg College.

Studies continue to show a significant gender gap in science achievement. As girls grow up, they become less likely to participate in science or have a positive attitude about science and, as a result, they don’t excel at it.

Rose thinks that’s partly because of the disconnect between laboratories and the real world. When she asked her female students at Olson Middle School to name jobs for chemists, they couldn’t come up with anything other than mixing generic potions. So Rose set out to show young girls the science behind something they are interested in.

“It’s cool,” said Orr, clad in goggles, gloves, and a plastic apron to heat up a beaker of gooey white stuff that will eventually give her lips a shimmer. “You make your own product and you get to, like, wear it. Plus, you get it for free and you don’t have to pay Lip Smackers.”

Before Rose could teach the class, she had to learn cosmetic formulation herself. She spent hours in a lab at Blaine-based Aveda Corp., which provided recipes and the raw materials for her class. At the end of the 10-week program, the MakeUp students brought their finished products to Aveda and reported on their lab work.

Pat Peterson, Aveda’s executive director of research and development, was glad for the opportunity to show that science isn’t always dorky. “We don’t all wear pocket protectors,” she said. “I hope the young women in this program recognize that you can go to work in the morning and have fun making good science.”

Science volunteers

Getting middle schoolers interested in science also is the goal of computer engineer John Cohn. He never liked sports much, so he put on science experiments at home for his three sons, and the kids loved it. That sparked an idea: If he could make science fun for children, maybe he could dispel the myth that it’s boring.

When he stood before Sharon Corologos’s fourth-grade class at Richmond Elementary School in Vermont for a 45-minute presentation near the end of the school year, the young audience was captivated.

He threaded a dill pickle on two wires attached to a generator and zapped it with electricity, making it glow. Purple jolts of electricity crackled in the air, making 10-year-old Alison Desautels’ hair stand on end.

“I love to share this. It’s not that I want to go out and make every student a scientist,” Cohn said. “I’m hoping that … some of the kids get jazzed by what they see in my shows, dig further, then pass on that love to others.”

As more Americans pitched in to help their communities, the numbers of volunteers rose to 63.8 million last September, an increase of 4 million over the year before, the Labor Department said. Although the survey does not keep track of the number of science volunteers, more than 27 percent volunteer in education or to work with children.

For the last 12 years Cohn, a frizzy, gray-haired, and bearded IBM computer engineer in his other life, has spent roughly three to fours hours a week performing in classrooms and museums. He wants to reach the children who are nonplussed or apathetic about science and says fourth through seventh grade is the best time.

Mrs. Corologos’s class was studying electricity when she invited Cohn to visit Richmond Elementary. She had seen him perform for another class at the school, where his youngest son is now a student.

During his demonstration, he mentioned the names of a few female scientists to counter the stereotype that science is for men. He even coaxed Alison, who wants to be an electrician, to place her hand on a generator that puts out about 400,000 volts of static electricity. Strands of her hair floated above her head as if she were underwater.

“Electricity is cool,” she said. It was just the reaction Cohn was looking for.

“I worry that people have sort of lost that curiosity, or [it’s] been replaced by & computer games,” Cohn said. “When I was a boy we took things apart.”

Corologos believes that volunteers like Cohn are expanding her children’s horizons. “He helps them think about the future,” she said. “He’s passionate about what he does.”

Putting energy into science

Count U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham as among those concerned about the state of science education today. In July, Abraham announced a campaign to boost the number of American students interested in becoming scientists and engineers.

The “Scientists Teaching and Reaching Students” program will award scholarships at national labs for math and science teachers. It will require the labs, including Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories, to host a total of 2,000 fifth and eighth graders for at least one day each year.

“The risks of a scientifically illiterate nation in the 21st century are too great for business as usual,” Abraham said. “Right now it appears that, despite our grand national lab structure, despite the lasers, accelerators, electron microscopes, experimental fusion reactors, and billions of dollars in research funds, we could fail to maximize our potential.”

The effort, like the others appearing in this feature, will focus on students and teachers in middle school–a time when research shows that American children’s curiosity in math and science often wanes.

The Energy Department and the labs also will sponsor an annual science expo, Science Appreciation Days, and Career Days, where government and industry scientists, including Nobel laureates, will visit public schools.

Abraham said the department has not yet “costed out” the program, but he expected the country’s 17 national labs to contribute money, equipment, and employees.

“Young people are inspired to take up things like sports, music, and acting,” he said in announcing the new initiative. “I believe it’s time we start putting our science leaders on the same footing as other celebrities.”

See these related links: National Education Association

National Science Board

National Science Teachers Association

U.S. Department of Energy