Report: U.S. students lagging in biosciences

Middle and high school students across the country are generally falling behind in life sciences, and the nation is at risk of producing a dearth of qualified workers for the fast-growing bioscience industry, according to a report released May 18.

Students are showing less interest in taking life sciences and science courses, and high schools are doing a poor job of preparing students for college-level science, says the report, funded and researched by Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the Biotechnology Institute.

The deficiencies will hurt the country’s competitiveness with the rest of the world in the knowledge-based economy, the report concludes.

"Economic growth in the future, more than ever, will depend on a talented, educated, tech-savvy work force," Tom Wiggans, chairman of the Biotechnology Institute, said May 18 at the 2009 Biotechnology Industry Organization International Convention in Atlanta.

The report also found a wide disparity among the states in student performance in biosciences and science in general. Many states are turning to biosciences and biotechnology industries that require a more educated work force because they no longer can rely on the manufacturing sector.

Biosciences cut across the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, and research and medical laboratories. Nearly all states have a specialization in an industry connected to biosciences, the report noted.

"There’s a chance now to really help mobilize industry to say that we’ve got to help better develop this life sciences education," said Paul Hanle, president of the Biotechnology Institute.

Researchers evaluated student performance using four already available measuring tools: the average life sciences score by eighth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, the percentage of Advanced Placement biology students scoring a 3 or higher on the AP exam, the percentage of ACT-tested students ready for college-level biology, and average math scores on the SAT and ACT.

The report made the following findings:

– 52 percent of 12th graders are at or above a basic level of achievement in the sciences as measured by the NAEP science test.

– Average scores on the NAEP for 12th graders in the sciences and life sciences declined from 1996 to 2005.

– Only 28 percent of high school students taking the ACT reached a score indicating college readiness for biology.

The report grouped states into four categories based on performance in the four areas measured: leaders of the pack, second tier, middling performance, and lagging performance.

Leaders included eight Northeast and Midwest states, including Ohio, while those lagging in performance consisted mainly of Southern states.

The report also found a deficiency in the number of well-qualified biology teachers available in high school, with one in eight biology teachers not certified to teach biology.

To improve U.S. competitiveness in the biosciences industry, the report recommends that states incorporate biotechnology into their science standards, make sure students are ready to take college biosciences courses, and focus more on professional development for teachers.

"We think the most important recommended action from today’s report on bioscience education is that states should incorporate biotechnology as they revise their science standards," said Lynn Elfner, CEO of the Ohio Academy of Science.

Teresa Harris, a teacher at Upper Sandusky High School in Ohio, said teachers should specialize in a particular science instead of learning a little about several different branches of science. Teachers currently have an incentive to learn a little about different types of science because it makes them more marketable to administrators, she said.

"I think part of the problem with the whole system is the way we license high school teachers," said Harris, who teaches biology and anatomy.



Biotechnology Industry Organization

"Taking the Pulse of Bioscience Education in America: A State-by-State Analysis"

Biotechnology Institute

2009 Conference on Biotechnology Education

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the GIS and Geographic Inquiry resource center. "Geospatial" technologies–which include geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), and remote sensing (RS) tools–are keeping drivers on track. Now, similar technologies in schools let you chart a course to the future of learning. Go to: GIS and Geographic Inquiry

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