Winning the future?

Grace Tytus and Riley Merritt study earthquake epicenters. Photo by Heather Plonchak.

The day after President Obama called for new emphasis on math and science education in his State of the Union address, a national test revealed fewer than a third of elementary and high school-age students demonstrated proficiency in science. A survey of educators in Saugerties and several local universities suggest an emphasis on standardized testing, which is not conducive to the kind of “hands-on” instruction students need to really learn the subject, as a possible cause.

“Teaching to an exam is a sure way to kill any real interest in science,” said Dr. Daniel Freedman, professor and chair of the Chemistry Department at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “You have to do science to appreciate what it is, why it’s valuable, and how much fun and exciting it can be.”


Dr. Neil Fitzgerald, interim dean of science and associate professor of chemistry at Marist College, agreed. “In my view the emphasis on standardized testing in high schools has the effect of turning students away from science – especially the hard sciences like chemistry and physics – and leaves them ill-prepared them for college,” he said. “Younger children find science fun. Something happens at the high school-level that destroys the fun aspect of science. It often takes a couple of years of college for students to start being able to problem solve, design experiments, critically evaluate data, and really think scientifically. College students find the challenges and rewards of performing scientific research very exciting but we need to get more students to this level.”

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

–          Chinese Proverb

Saugerties educators seem to get it. The teachers and administrators we talked to all stressed the importance of getting students involved in lessons.

“The teachers I’ve worked with throughout the district strive to make science a hands-on, investigative experience,” said Rebecca Mulford, a fourth grade teacher at Morse Elementary. “We work diligently to connect the curriculum to real-life events and situations. The environment is front and center for our society and it is very natural to work with students in this area.”

“Science is everywhere around us,” she added. “It’s a matter of pointing it out, exploring it, analyzing what we find out, creating, new questions and exploring those.”

Mulford said the community plays a strong role in the science education. The district works with the Esopus Creek Conservancy on life science studies and each year fifth grade students at Morse build “disaster-resistant” structures with help from IBM engineers.

“The engineering experience always makes a positive impression on our students, and it helps them make another real life connection to the importance studying math, science and technology,” said Mulford.

Not all teachers feel standardized tests are a bad thing. Saugerties High physics teacher Andrew van der Poel said that while these tests limit a teacher’s options, at least they guarantee every school meets a certain standard.

Assistant Superintendent G. Michael Apostol said districts like Saugerties will need to put greater stress on these subjects to prepare students for the job market of the future.

“We’re going to have to become more intense,” he said. “It’s always changing. The emphasis is going to be even greater on math and science in the future, and we’re going to have to keep up.”

Approved and built before the district’s financial woes became so pronounced, the new science wing in the high school came at just the right time, Apostol said.

“I’ve been in other schools that have not had as up-to-date and modern labs and it’s a struggle,” Apostol said.  (It seems to be paying dividends, he said, pointing out that SHS grads have gone on to study at top-tier engineering schools like RPI.)

Dr. Freedman said the test results on their own aren’t necessarily alarming; it’s when they’re considered alongside a general decrease in science proficiency across the country that red flags should go up.

“I think we should be very concerned,” he said. “The scores from any standardized test always have to be taken with a grain of salt, but U.S. scores in math and science continually lag behind the rest of the industrialized world.  I’m not sure I buy the arguments made about competitiveness, but math and science are clearly important in understanding the modern world.”

Freedman is concerned the state’s science and math requirements at the elementary and secondary levels have actually slipped in recent years.

“I regularly teach General Chemistry at SUNY New Paltz so I see students during their first year in college,” he said. “Over 20 years of teaching, I don’t really think students have changed that much, but I do think the preparation that the average students receives in high school science is less rigorous than it has been and could be. My impression, both from teaching and from talking to the many high school chemistry teachers that I know, is that the requirements for the Regent’s chemistry curriculum have been diluted over the past five years. I should note that I have always felt that the Regent’s curriculum has lacked depth, but it has gotten worse recently.”

Freedman says hands-on learning has its place in K-12, but a science education that doesn’t incorporate a intellectual approach is incomplete.

“Students won’t remain engaged in science beyond the high school level unless the courses are taught with a degree of rigor consistent with preparing them for college level work,” he said. “You can get students interested with gee whiz demos and even hands-on experiments, but it takes years of consistent, rigorous teaching to build the kind of mental skills required to be a good scientist or engineer.”

Fitzgerald agreed that the balance is essential.

“As a college professor in chemistry I notice a disinterest or fear, of the hard, more mathematics-based sciences from high school students,” he said. “Students enter college with a good ability to memorize facts and plug numbers into equations but very poor ability to problem solve, think creatively or interpret results from scientific experiments…They can memorize an equation and plug in numbers to get an answer but have absolutely no idea what the number means.”

Fitzgerald stressed the economic necessity of science education.

“History shows us that good scientists can make discoveries that drive the national economy,” he said. “The country needs to be on the forefront of scientific research to maintain its position in the world.”