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2004 World Technology Awards Winners & Finalists
Please describe the work that you are doing that you consider to be the most innovative and of the greatest likely long-term significance.
There are times in the history of this country where circumstances combine in unintended ways to provide an unusual opportunity for change. These have usually been times in which some widely perceived crisis pulls us together as a people to address a challenge head on. I believe this to be the case for the challenge of public education. Moreover, scientists and engineers have a special part to play in the next decade, inasmuch as a revolution in science education, beginning in kindergarten, can serve as a wedge to drive a general K-12 education reform effort of great importance for the future of the United States.
Our institutions change only very slowly, reflecting the tremendous inertia inherent to all human affairs. But it is well past time to recognize that the accelerating impact of science and technology on everyone's life makes a basic understanding of science and mathematics an essential part of any education for the 21st century. Science must therefore become a core subject that is taught as "the fourth R" in every school year, starting in kindergarten.
I am not talking about science as most students currently experience it - as the dry memorization of science terms - but about science as an exciting and empowering experience in problem solving that takes advantage of the curiosity of young children and increases each student's understanding of the world.
This means that an enormous change must take place in our schools: not only must teachers find time for science in an already crowded curriculum, they must also learn new teaching skills to capitalize on the joy of discovery and build critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, these are learning experiences that most teachers have not experienced in school themselves.
Teachers are the key for any meaningful educational reform effort. Thus, for example, teachers must not only be made aware of the outstanding hands-on science curricula that have been developed in this country for elementary schools, but they must be introduced to this unfamiliar kind of science teaching by experienced teachers who have used this approach and are convinced of its value. The teachers must also be provided with the appropriate science materials by their districts, and they must be given the opportunity to improve their science teaching gradually through a combination of expert coaching and frequent discussions with their peers.
Scientists and engineers working in partnerships with local teachers represent an essential new force that will be required for effective science education reform. As explained in the accompanying sidebar by my colleague Jan Tuomi, a dynamic teacher with 20 years of experience, technical profes- sionals bring critically needed skills to this partnership. But to be effective, we scientists must first be willing to be educated about the opportunities and problems in our schools. This means that we must approach this problem with a humility that reflects how little most of us really understand about how children learn, as well as our respect for the tremendous energy, devotion and skill required to be a successful K-12 teacher in today's schools.
We also need to do something that comes very naturally to scientists and engineers, but is unfortunately all too rare in the education world; to focus on learning from the experience of others, so as to apply the elements that have been successful elsewhere to local science education reforms. In this way, we can help develop and refine a successful general strategy for reform that will be applicable to many different sites.
A revolutionary change in the way that school systems view science cannot occur in one or two years, and to some it may seem impossible to achieve in a lifetime. But we know from experience in a variety of localities that a dramatic reform is possible on a 4 to 6 year time frame. When I examine the ways that local scientist and engineers have been able to catalyze major advances in K-12 science education, I am especially struck by the opportunity for a major improvement of science education in elementary school.
My message is therefore a simple one: if you are motivated enough to devote four hours a week to this important national issue for the next five years, I urge that you form an alliance with some outstanding science teachers in your local district, take the time to become informed on this important issue, and work to become an effective advocate in your local area for major education reform.
To help you, Project RISE (Regional Initiatives in Science Education) stands ready with information and advice for scientists and engineers who want to get involved. Project RISE is a project of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academics of Science and Engineering.
Bruce Alberts is president of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the National Research Council, which with the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine form the National Academies.
A respected biochemist recognized for his work in biochemistry and molecular biology, Alberts is known for his extensive molecular analyses of the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1966, moving to the medical school of the University of California, San Francisco in 1976. In 1980, he was awarded an American Cancer Society lifetime research professorship. In 1985, he was named chair of UCSF's department of biochemistry and biophysics. He was elected NAS president in 1993.
Alberts is one of the original authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, now in its fourth edition, considered the leading advanced textbook in this field and used widely in U.S. colleges and universities. His most recent text, Essential Cell Biology, now in its second edition, is intended to present this subject matter to a wider audience.
Alberts is committed to improving science education at all levels. He helped to create City Science, a program for improving science teaching in San Francisco elementary schools. At the National Academies, he formed the Center for Education to provide strong support for an evidence-based, continuously improving system of public education in the United States.
As NAS president, Alberts has focused on promoting science-based decisionmaking throughout the world. Currently, he is co-chair of the InterAcademy Council, a new organization governed by the presidents of science academies from 15 nations, designed to provide science advice to the United Nations and other international organizations.
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