Monday, March 03, 2008

Meager science education threatens California's future


by Abby Sobrato and Anita Parsons - San Jose Mercury News

3/2/08 - Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave his State of the State address to Californians. He said, "California, if a nation, would be the sixth largest economy in the world - California is home to three of the top six universities in the world. California has more Nobel laureates, more scientists, more engineers, more researchers, more high-tech companies than any other state."

Therefore, it seems that within our great state, and through our schools, we should be educating and producing these talented scholars.

Unfortunately, that is not reality. Based on a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, 80 percent of California's elementary classrooms spend an astoundingly short amount of time - less than an hour a week - learning science. Even worse, 16 percent spend no time on it at all. These statistics do not speak highly for science-based education in California.

So, where are all these scientists, engineers and researchers coming from? According to a 2006 study by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, "leading high-tech states (California) rely heavily on their university sectors and a highly educated workforce, yet they are increasingly importing talent while neglecting investment in the education and skills of their native population."

How will California's youth compete for acceptance in our top universities? How will our children learn about the natural world around them? How will they learn about sustainable living for their future? If students are not being taught in our schools' classrooms, where will the knowledge come from?

If we truly understand the importance of science education, then we must also accept the responsibility to ensure that every child in California receives a comprehensive science-based education. There are a few programs that are thriving, such as the Santa Clara County Office of Education's Walden West Outdoor School, which provides a comprehensive residential science camp located next to the 3,500-acre Sanborn County Park.

At Walden West every year, more than 8,000 students discover varied ecosystems, practice environmental consciousness and develop an understanding and commitment to the natural world. Instead of being inside the concrete walls of a traditional school building, the children move outdoors to learn the history of giant redwoods, the diversity of wildlife and our connection to the indigenous tribes who used to live here. The Youth Science Institute, Camp Campbell and Web of Life Field School also provide unique outdoor science opportunities. Programs like these can foster the learning process - but we need to do more. We need to hold our legislative leadership, our teachers and ourselves accountable to ensure that our children will be California's next generation of scientists, engineers and researchers.

With the very real threat of budget cuts to core educational programs, our traditional ways to raise money, like fundraising clubs and the PTA, will be severely challenged. Budget shortfalls will create a domino effect for science programs, which typically get the majority of funding from school-affiliated fundraising groups. It may be that science-related courses will be viewed as non-essential, and therefore be further jeopardized.

Silicon Valley has a rich tradition of collaboration. We have to do the same as we approach our science education crisis. As simplistic as it sounds, it really is about being heard. We can all collectively write letters, send e-mails and make phone calls to our state representatives. We should also let state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell hear our concerns. If we cherish our reputation as the epicenter of the high-tech world, we need to place a far greater emphasis on the importance of science education in our own community.

ABBY SOBRATO is president of the Walden West Foundation. ANITA PARSONS is the director of Environmental Education at the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

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