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Teens: The Unacknowledged Experts in Science Education

Guest Post Written by Claus von Zastrow, Change the Equation

In education policy circles, we spend so much time talking about young people that we sometimes forget to listen to them. Young people can have critical insights on schools and learning that escape the researchers and policy wonks. As we adults struggle to reform science education, we could stand to learn a great deal from students who, after all, have the most to gain from our efforts.

That realization spurred Change the Equation and the Amgen Foundation to survey high school students about what would get them more engaged in science — either in school or in their future careers. The findings of that survey, Students on STEM, reveal that high schoolers are very savvy: They know what good science education looks like, and they also know that their own science classes do not always measure up to this vision. They wish they had more opportunities to explore careers in fields like science.

Ask teens what they want out of biology class, for example, and they’ll tell you they would like opportunities for hands-on, real-world learning. The five teaching methods they would find most engaging bear this out: hands-on lab experiments, field trips to learn about biology outside the classroom, projects that relate biology to real life, simulated experiments and the power to choose topics they would like to explore further. Decades of research on science education confirm that methods like these are among the most effective for teaching science.

Ask teens what they actually get in their biology classes, and the picture becomes less rosy. Hands-on lab experiments are common, thank goodness, but “teaching straight from the textbook” is even more common. The result? Teens are lukewarm about their science classes in general and their biology classes in particular. Seventy-three percent of students say that they are interested in biology, but only 33 percent say they like their biology classes “a lot.” Science classes as a whole do a bit better, garnering 37 percent approval on average. Classes outside of science perform much better, however, with an average approval rating of 48 percent.

Teens are even less likely to encounter truly engaging science experiences outside of school than in school. High schoolers report that they don’t get much exposure to science outside of class, and few have opportunities to explore science careers. A mere 33 percent of teens have ever been involved in a science club or group, either in or out of school. Among lower-income teens, that number is lower still: 27 percent. And though large majorities of teens say they would like more opportunities to explore science careers, few have such opportunities. Eighty-three percent would like to shadow professionals in their jobs, for example, but only 19 percent say they have the opportunity to do so. When teens have so few options to explore science outside of school, they are unlikely to have experiences that inspire them to further their science education.

Fortunately, there are steps policymakers, educators and employers can take to make science much more engaging for young people. States can continue improving their science standards, supporting more engaging science curricula and helping prepare teachers to teach those curricula. Public and private funders can support more afterschool and summer school science programs in communities where young people have little access to such opportunities. (For an example of programs that meet a high bar, have a look at STEMworks Change the Equation’s honor roll of top STEM education programs.) Finally, businesses and other employers can help by sending their scientists into classrooms, helping create real-world science curriculum like the Amgen Biotech Experience or even providing hands-on, work-based learning opportunities.

At a time when science is playing a growing role in everything from our jobs to our health care, Americans can ill afford to squander teens’ natural interest in science.

For more on the survey, go to www.amgeninspires.com/studentsonstem, and join the conversation on Twitter with #TeensTalkSci.