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Nature Education: Changing our attitudes towards science ed

Nature Publishing Group just released a position paper on attitudes towards science education. It's a revealing look at some serious deficiencies in our approaches and outcomes.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

Nature Education (the folks who brought you Scitable) recently released a position paper on science and education and drew some powerful conclusions. EntitledTime to Decide: The Ambivalence of the World of Science Toward Education, the position paper lays out why science education is so fundamentally important to continued development and technological progress and makes it clear that even students with a focus on the liberal arts must have an appropriate depth of understanding in scientific fields.

As the position paper points out,

...there are two critical objectives that science education systems must achieve. First, today’s young science enthusiasts must be nurtured and educated so they may become the highly qualified, productive scientists of tomorrow. Second, students who are interested in pursuing non-science career paths must be well educated in thebasics of how science works and why it matters to society so that they will create the broad financial, social, political, and cultural conditions necessary for research to flourish. Unless both goals are met, the pace of scientific progress worldwide will eventually slow, leaving the answers to pressing global problems unsolved.

Sounds about right, doesn't it?

The paper goes on to point out what just about anyone who has gotten a degree at a research university has experienced first-hand:

Despite their personal feeling that education is important, many academic scientists eschew teaching in favor of research. Most top-level universities—despite having a publicly stated mission of education—direct more funding, awards, and job security to outstanding researchers than to outstanding teachers.

Of course, any good white paper can't point out the problem without suggesting a solution. The data presented in the position paper were based on a survey of university-level instructors and researchers, as well as results of standardized international tests of high school students. While the results were disturbing, suggesting a really significant gap between US high school students and those in other developed countries, and the tendency for post-secondary science education to take a back seat to research, the results also pointed to a real capacity to address these problems.

The paper proposes a significant shift in both compensation and training strategies at all levels that rewards good teaching and solid student outcomes as much or more than it rewards research.

If outstanding teaching were rewarded with the prestige and money that are showered upon outstanding research, scientists would be free to pursue either according to their desires and innate talents. In practical terms, many successful scenarios can be envisioned. For example, one scenario might be to directly compensate faculty financially for the time that teaching takes away from research and do so in a substantial way.

Be watching for more from the Nature Publishing Group as I highlight their new blogs, education-related white papers, and other areas of interest at NPG and Scitable.

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