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August is back-to-school month
August 2012
by Peter and Candice Kissinger  |  Email the author
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Much has been written about failing schools and our student performance ranking below other nations on standardized tests for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. We are unconvinced that Finland, with its population smaller than many American cities and less diverse than a bag of frozen peas, is a reasonable benchmark. Many gurus respond that science teachers should have deeper content knowledge and science as their primary college major. That's a noble thought, but the disincentives are many.
 
We've followed the science education debate for years, but jumping into the fray has caused us to think in new ways. One fallacy of stressing science content knowledge is the fact that it's not often a real problem. The stressors on our system derive mostly from a society that values entertainment over learning. Ours is a time where many families are badly broken, and children are having children in a cycle of poverty and despair. Technology has advanced so rapidly and been disseminated so broadly that it is hard to be excited by improvements we make today.
 
Vilifying teachers fits the idea, accepted by many, that everything untoward that happens is someone else's fault. Educators are a convenient scapegoat, but not the only one.
 
When seeking candidates for a STEM teaching job, it is illegal to ask for a birthday, but it is acceptable to ask when the candidate graduated from high school. If that date is prior to 1990, many transitioning scientists will run into a barrier called "too old, too experienced." Those fortunate to then receive an interview in many school districts will find that one of the first questions is, "What can you coach?" A satisfactory answer does not include chemistry, biology, math or physics. A beginning science teacher at any age is not going solve our STEM problem by coaching sports.
 
We find it curious that some middle-school teachers are judged on scores from standardized tests taken by students for whom the grade has no consequence at all. What is the motivation for students to get a grade that only applies in the aggregate to their teacher and school? Baseball would sure be a different sport if only aggregated batting averages were reported.
 
It's odd that academic competition among students is discouraged in school when it is the key to nearly every other activity in life. Competition is said by some to make schools as a whole better, but why not students? When we were in school, it made students better. Experiencing disappointment and failure made those inevitable experiences easier to handle later, and inspired us to try harder. The majority of great figures from history improved in the same way.
 
University professors are recruited from school to school. They are incentivized to stay or depart, just like a free-agent point guard. Schoolteachers, on the other hand, lose their salary and benefits (and/or seniority) if they trade one district for another. Imagine if Pfizer and Merck—or Harvard and Yale—exercised this constraint of trade?
 
It strikes us odd that some want to encourage competition among schools for students (via parents) using a voucher system, but don't likewise encourage competition for the best teachers. That is un-American. It is further curious that some states propose financially rewarding schools where the students perform best on standardized tests, yet these are the school districts that commonly have clientele from the highest-performing demographics. A contrary thought would be recruiting and rewarding high-performing teachers to take on the challenge of the toughest demographics. We don't send Navy Seals to Disney World.
 
What can you as a life-science professional do to contribute to our nations STEM challenge this academic year now underway? Here are a few thoughts. Science teachers have little to no budget; contribute to community foundations that give grants to educators. Mentor a science fair student or be an encouraging judge. Sponsor a science fair award. Support a science museum. Take a few kids for a walk in the woods.  Be a mentor to a disadvantaged youth. Open your business to tours by small numbers of 12-year-olds. With six at a time, you can amaze and inspire.
 
Both of us were fortunate in our youth to have been welcomed to tours of commercial research centers, often on a Saturday. What we saw cemented a lifelong interest in bettering life through better science. The "wow" factor in STEM did not come to us from classrooms as much as it did from parents and astronauts and little transistor radios. STEM advances one kid at a time, and it only takes one to make a difference in this world. Only 1 in 2,000 Americans are members of the American Chemical Society, while 100 percent of the population depends on chemistry, biology, physics and math. Make it happen. If you don't, who will?

Peter T. Kissinger is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia. Candice Kissinger is an eighth-grade science teacher, adjunct professor of pharmacy at Purdue University and former senior vice president of research at BASi.

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