K-12 Education Workshop Report
For most of the 20th century, the U.S. was considered the world leader in a broad range of areas from economic stability and international diplomacy to technological discovery and biomedical research. Recent events have significantly challenged this status and elevate the importance of implementing proactive measures to stabilize our position in a global environment. The status of our educational system and science education in particular, has also fallen prey to global challenges. Numerous reports from a diverse array of sources, such as the National Research Council, have indicated that the U.S. workforce is becoming increasingly international and that on average, U.S. students are ill-prepared to compete globally. The magnitude of this problem is immense. Encouragingly, there has been interest at the highest levels of the NIH to consider what the NIH might do to help address deficiencies in science education. It is thought that the interdisciplinary field of neuroscience may have the potential to provide a unique vehicle by which efforts to address science education can be invigorated. This group was charged with exploring what the collaborative NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research might consider in the area of K-12 educational efforts.
On August 5–6, 2008, the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research held an invited workshop to gather expert input on the types of efforts or initiatives the National Institutes of Health (NIH) might consider in the area of K-12 education. In preparation for this event, the NIH (Neuroscience Blueprint) published a Request for Information (RFI: NOT-MH-08-012) soliciting input on what role NIH might play in developing neuroscience-related educational materials for the K-12 community. The major themes distilled from responses to the RFI were:
- Neuroscience content is not typically covered in a classroom and if it is, it is typically incidental to other science/health courses.
- Content on basic brain function and brain related illness would be the most useful to teachers.
- The gap between research and education must be bridged through a broader dissemination of relevant findings, professional development for teachers, sharing of best practices, and integration of scientists into the development of science-based curriculum.
- The most useful teaching materials are those that reflect the variety of ways kids learn and communicate today – hands on, open-ended activities and a variety of online resources to name a few.
- Teachers have limited flexibility, time, and resources to introduce neuroscience materials that haven’t been shown to directly cover content that is mandated by school districts.
The meeting Co-Chairs, Drs. Alan Leshner and Nancy Moreno, led a lively discussion with approximately twenty five extramural participants including teachers, representatives from non-profit organizations, representatives from government agencies and other science education experts. Dr. Tom Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), presented a brief overview of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and goals of the Blueprint, charging the group to think creatively about multiple issues such as how the Blueprint might enucleate a cultural change in science education, what impediments must such an effort overcome, and where the “sweet spot” is for change to begin? Dr. Bruce Fuchs, Director of the NIH Office of Science Education (OSE), provided a sobering summary of the state of science education in the United States elucidating the need for improvement in science and mathematics skill development and performance of children and adolescents. Through the presentation by Dr. Fuchs and the ensuing discussion, a number of particularly salient points were raised:
- The 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report indicates that the USA placed near the bottom of all the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations and lower than many other non-OECD countries in science, math, and problem solving skills.
- By 7th grade 40% of girls have lost their interest in science, suggesting that middle-school is the age group to initially target.
- The funding of science and science education is a task that is shared, in part, by the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF). While the two federal agencies have different missions, it was noted that the NSF has an annual budget that is approximately ¼ that of the NIH, yet the NSF allocates approximately 10 times the amount that the NIH does to science education.
- There are more than 1.5 million teachers of science in our country, yet most have little, if any science background, particularly at the K-8 level.
- A plethora of learning strategies are being touted as “brain-based,” yet very little empirical data support these claims.
The question of what countries that scored well in the PISA report are doing to produce high student achievement in science versus what the U.S. is doing was raised. The answer to this question appears to be, in part, a significant difference in the culture of education. It was suggested that the NIH might be uniquely positioned to strengthen K-12 science education in the U.S. by using a broad-based content area, such as neuroscience, as the vehicle for delivery of targeted content. It was suggested this goal might be accomplished by both expanding existing NIH educational resources and by developing novel strategies that capitalize on the “team science” approach. By illustration, it was felt that such efforts could significantly contribute to helping the public better understand the role of animals in research. A discussion about who should be targeted ensued and it was offered that such resources should be available to all students, not simply the highest achieving. This wide-spread approach would help foster an environment whereby all students were empowered to achieve to their potential and from that would spawn a more technical workforce and richer cadre of scientists to address biomedical research questions of the future. As part of a strategy to reach this goal, the OSE supports a number of resources such as 16 curriculum supplements that are aligned to national and state standards, teacher resources, and career information. Likewise, several funding initiatives such as the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award (SEDAPA), and general R25 funding mechanism support general science education. It was suggested that a central web-based repository of these, and other related materials and sources, might facilitate a wider dissemination and use of these resources. It was unanimously concurred that rigorous evaluation would be necessary for any effort the Blueprint might consider.
Each participant then provided a brief overview of their neuroscience/education efforts and experiences. Topics included opportunities at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the University of Southern California Science Technology and Research (STAR) program, Society for Neuroscience initiatives, Howard Hughes Medical Institute efforts, DANA Alliance for Brain Initiatives activities, NSF outreach and Math and Science Partnership programs, the BioEd Online and BrainU programs, the Genetic Science Learning Center, teacher collaborations with the Pharmacology Education Partnership (PEP) program, general resistance to changing curriculum, school district-wide struggles in science education, novel approaches to teaching neuroscience, summer programs, after school approaches, science networks funded through the private sector, university-initiated efforts, application of research in learning theory, web resources, curriculum development, and measures of educational efficacy.
Breakout groups were formed on three separate occasions to discuss strategies that might 1) expand existing neuroscience education initiatives, 2) integrate strategies that have been used by other disciplines, and 3) develop novel approaches to inject neuroscience content into the classroom. While many different strategies were discussed, several themes emerged from these sessions that have the most potential for traction, and might be within the scope of what the Blueprint could consider supporting.
1. Capitalize on what the NIH already does well
- Continue to support research on delineating learning and memory across the lifespan.
- Expand existing initiatives such as the SEPA, SEDAPA, R25 programs.
- Disseminate this research in a manner that is understandable, and useable by teachers
- Much like we have witnessed for science in general, we need to move away from the traditional “silo” approach to science education and foster interdisciplinary environments to bring together experts from the multiple disciplines and walks of life (such as scientists, educators, and curriculum experts) to elicit change.
- The NIH might consider taking a lead role in bringing about changes in science education; this might be considered a Grand Challenge in NeuroEducation.
- Initiate change by publishing a white paper on the comprehensive nature of the problem and what the NIH could do to help address these issues.
- Use existing training mechanisms (e.g., F, T, K) to promote community engagement and science education advocacy.
2. Infusing neuroscience into the classroom must be progressive and individualized
- The grade level where change is most likely to have a long-term impact is the early middle-school years (4th – 7th grades).
- Any proposed strategies must be sensitive to available (local) resources.
- Consider initiatives that are portable and scalable to settings beyond the traditional classroom (biology, psychology) to courses such as health and language arts, and after school programs, science centers, and museums.
- Capitalize on communication resources that students embrace, namely the vast opportunities available via on-line networks, gaming, and virtual settings.
- Professional development is necessary to ensure teachers feel adequately prepared to incorporate neuroscience content into their lessons.
3. Novel strategies must have an evaluation component that is rigorous, feasible and meaningful
- Milestones of success must be developmentally guided, progressively laminar, and integrated across the curriculum.
- Look beyond typical partnerships – e.g., expand into Schools of Education.
- “One-shot” efforts will not work, and partnerships must be established to ensure sustainability.
- Assessment must be embedded in the curriculum and should target higher-order thinking skills.
- The time is right for neuroscience to inform educational practices.
4. Science education efforts must be championed, embraced, and valued
- We must develop targeted strategies to market these efforts.
- Teachers must see the value in exerting the effort to implement change.
- Scientists who partner with educators must be recognized for these important efforts.
- We must rally behind this cause, invigorate efforts that lead to a cultural change, and rekindle the desire to be lifelong learners.
- Academic administrators need to understand the critical nature and value of these efforts.
- The NIH should consider opportunities to collaborate with other federal agencies, private foundations, industry, and professional societies in this endeavor.
5. A comprehensive inventory of resources is needed to better disseminate existing resources
- The NIH might consider supporting a web-based clearinghouse that collates existing neuroeducation programs and initiatives, funding opportunities, partnership opportunities, strategies that have been used to integrate neuroscience into the curriculum structure, etc…
- This web resource might also serve to facilitate teacher-scientist networking and the sharing of “best practices” between science teachers.
- The NIH might consider supporting a magazine that translates basic research findings relevant to education (already funded by the NIH) into a language and form that is useable by the educational community. Considerable interest in this initiative was expressed and there appears to be wide-spread interest from multiple extramural entities for this idea.
The overarching sentiment of the group was that the United States is approaching a critical juncture in science education. The urgent need to address deficiencies in educational practices in general, and science education in particular is evident not only in comparisons of international test scores, but also in the rapidly changing globalization of our workforce. Much of this, it is believed, is due to the heightened emphasis placed on science education in other countries and the relatively stagnant practices on these issues in the U.S. A proactive, transformational plan is necessary to effectuate change and such an initiative must incorporate changes in both content and delivery mechanisms. The continued viability of science in the U.S. is dependent upon not only cultivating the next generation of scientists, but also on establishing a meaningful dialogue with the public regarding the critical role that science will play in shaping our country’s standing in a global environment. The direct connection between neuroscience and our understanding of health and disease, the intrinsic human interest in fundamental brain processes such as learning and memory, and the need to translate basic research to inform our educational practices all suggest that neuroscience is uniquely poised to facilitate change. This workgroup has outlined a number of suggestions that the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research might consider in the area of K-12 educational efforts. Numerous agencies, institutions, and organizations have expressed interest in becoming partners in this initiative. It appears that historic opportunities to effectuate a cultural change in science education are on the immediate horizon. While the scope of this problem might appear to fall beyond what the NIH typically supports, the NIH may have the opportunity to be a key player in enucleating significant and meaningful change.