What does it take to bring science alive from the pages of a book? A whole lot more than a hunk of Play-Doh.
That’s what stands out from my seventh-grade science class in Brazil, when my teacher gave us an assignment to shape the colorful clay into a model of an embryo. On that day some 30 years ago, my group proudly unveiled our flat, pizza-like creation, just like what we had seen in the book. Our classmates laughed: Everyone else had 3-D models. They had grasped a simple concept that our textbook couldn’t explain.
Fast forward to today, where my understanding of science has fortunately progressed, but where science education still is mostly limited to words and diagrams rather than hands-on, engaging opportunities that can deepen students’ understanding and interest in meaningful ways. While science is moving fast, economic and geographic limitations mean that too many high school and college students around the world don’t have opportunities to learn the latest science and explore the scientific process. And the significant gaps in gender, racial, and socioeconomic diversity in scientific fields underscore the deep inequalities in science education.
We need to fix this so our next generation is equipped to handle the challenges ahead, from curbing climate change and discovering lifesaving drugs to caring for their own families. And that means reinventing how we teach science.
Education isn’t keeping up with science
The vast majority of teens I meet tell me they find science relevant and interesting. But their science classes? Not so much.
In most high school science classrooms, teachers tend to lecture on the concepts of chemical reactions or photosynthesis while students sit in rows of desks, listening and taking notes so they can memorize the information to recall later for endless standardized tests. Through this approach, they learn that the point of science education is to commit facts to memory — and probably soon forget them — rather than to embrace a mindset of inquiry and discovery they can apply to anything else in their lives.
Instead of nurturing every child’s scientific curiosity and creativity and setting teachers up for success to spread the wonder of science, we have created a system that seems designed to stifle it.
This is underscored in one of my favorite books, “Most Likely to Succeed,” in which authors Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith imagine what it would look like if a traditional U.S. high school taught its students how to ride a bicycle. Students would learn the history of bikes, their many parts and how they interact, and, if they were lucky, the physics of balancing. But the wild joy of sitting on the seat and pedaling for the first time would be replaced by something far less exhilarating: a multiple-choice exam.
Their hypothetical example shows what we lose when we fail to give students an opportunity to observe, experiment, test, modify, and try again.
Inclusive, accessible science
To reinvent our approach to science education, we must make high-quality opportunities accessible to anyone, even when schools or communities don’t have the resources to provide a top-notch lab experience.
Imagine if any student, anywhere, could access authentic and engaging science experiences that bring together scientific videos, articles, animations, and interactive exercises. Virtual tools would allow students to design and run experiments and learn from their mistakes or build on their successes. Educators from top institutions could answer their questions or teach them key concepts. Professional scientists would be on hand through the platform to provide modeling and inspiration for the careers they could pursue.
Teachers would have instant access to a network of peers for insights and mentorship, co-creation of lessons and content, and access to cutting-edge discoveries so they could enhance their students’ in-class and online learning. With access to a computer and the Internet, classrooms anywhere could tap into rich science education at any time.
Today, Harvard University and the Amgen Foundation, which I lead, launched LabXchange, a free online science education platform that offers this and more. It brings together dynamic simulations, high-quality curricula, and social networking so anyone, anywhere, can enhance his or her science literacy. It fills a critical gap that the foundation long ago identified for science education, and we hope that it’s just the first of many platforms of its kind that grow young people’s knowledge of and appreciation for science.
Reimagining science learning through programs like LabXchange lets educators extend the reach of science instruction even further and ensure that young people are prepared to solve tomorrow’s biggest challenges. A strong science education can be a powerful way to create a better and more just world, one that everyone deserves a chance to be a part of.
Eduardo Cetlin is president of the Amgen Foundation.