Passing on the Torch

National Human Genome Research Institute

National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Passing on the Torch

Three compelling reasons for scientists to become involved in science education.

I. Science and Technology Give Us Our High Standard of Living

Our nation depends on the quality of our scientists and engineers to maintain our place in the competitive global scientific community. It is indeed a tragedy that the number of young people selecting science and engineering careers has not increased during a generation in which science and technology pervades every aspect of our lives. A variety of reasons, such as the uninteresting curricula in grades K-12 and teachers who are inadequately trained and poorly rewarded, have been given to explain this phenomenon. Some steps to remedy these problems are being taken, but your help is needed to solve this problem before the predicted shortage impacts on our society, economy, quality of life, and survival. You, as a trained scientist, can make a difference by personally making contact with young people. You can share your values, motivation, and expertise with students who are still willing to listen. You can make a difference.

You can promote a general understanding of the importance of science and its impact on our standard of living. You can help students develop an awareness of science. You cannot do this from your lab or through comfortable, impersonal lectures. But as a scientist who would like to share a method of solving problems that results in cumulative successes, you can help capable young students choose a career in science.

II. Our National Educational System Is in Crisis: We Are No Longer Competitive Internationally

Though most Americans are not scientifically literate, international studies of educational performance indicate that U.S. students rank near the bottom in achievement in science and mathematics. A study of National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that despite some small recent gains, the average performance of 17-year-olds in 1986 remained substantially lower than in 1969. A look at our educational system reveals some of the reasons for this situation. Few elementary teachers have even a rudimentary education in science and mathematics, and many junior and senior high school teachers of science and mathematics do not meet reasonable standards of preparation in those fields. It is the system, not the teachers, that is to blame for this state of affairs. Science and mathematics teachers have not been provided the opportunities needed to keep up with recent technological developments. Textbooks and methods of instruction often impede progress toward scientific literacy. They emphasize the learning of answers more than the exploration of questions, memorization rather than critical thinking, and reading instead of experimentation. This passive exposure to science is not enough to entice students to pursue careers in science.

III. Sharing the Excitement of Scientific Discovery

You can communicate the true nature of science, the excitement of the pursuit of the "truth," the durability of knowledge, and the evolution of thought. You can convey the excitement of discovery that a scientist experiences. You can help students understand that the norm of science is to modify ideas in the light of new knowledge; that powerful constructs tend to survive, grow more precise, and become widely accepted. Only the scientist can help the students understand that experiments that do not go well are not failures, but just the next step on a new path.

The best way to communicate the characteristics of scientific inquiry is through examples from your research:

You can make a difference. Come and experience the rewards of stimulating the minds of our youth and opening the door for them to a career in science.

The most important contribution that a scientist can make in the classroom is the modeling of the real scientific research skills of investigation, critical thinking, imagination, intuition, playfulness, and thinking on your feet and using your hands. Some of the most exciting lessons are in content areas outside of the scientist's expertise, such as investigating a problem to which no one has an answer. The excitement of science can best be conveyed to students by involving them in investigation that is open-ended, inquiry-based, and student-driven.

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Last Reviewed: April 18, 2012