When Hank Zwally wants to do a science experiment, he climbs through a hole in his bedroom closet into an unfinished attic room where the high school senior has constructed an elaborate 10-by-12-foot cube of blue insulation.
Beside the holiday decorations and the ski equipment, Zwally is trying to test a theory about global warming. When he enters the cube, the Eagle Scout can open a freezer where he is measuring the freezing and thawing cycles of sea water in two large tanks.
Zwally is a science whiz, a Centennial High School senior driven since youth to solve problems in biology.
Maryland desperately needs more Hank Zwallys.
Just how to nurture them is a question that worries state education leaders, including William Kirwan, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
For all its powerful research universities, its biotech parks, its aerospace and technology companies, Maryland hasn't been effective in educating its children in science, according to experts. Kirwan is one of the leaders now focused on how to do that here and across the nation as the Obama administration pushes science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, initiatives.
"If we are not successful at addressing the problem, we are going to lose this tremendous advantage [in Maryland's economy]. It is a very STEM-driven economy," Kirwan said. "It is our future, but … we have this enormous challenge."
On the most recent round of national science tests, Maryland scored in the middle of the pack of states, considered a relatively poor outcome when compared to its reading and math results. While 40 percent of Maryland's eighth-graders score proficient or better in math, 28 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better in science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous test given to a sampling of students in a variety of subjects. Baltimore students had some of the worst scores among 17 urban districts in the nation.
Even top students aren't garnering the same national recognition they were five years ago. For the past few years, Maryland has had only one finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, one of the most prestigious science competitions for high-schoolers. Between 2004 and 2007, the state produced 15 finalists and six winners.
Science teachers and college presidents say the state's public schools could be doing much more to support and nurture students' interest in science.
The problem begins in elementary school, where most teachers aren't trained to teach science. Middle schools and high schools don't always have classrooms equipped for science experiments, and even when they do, class sizes are so large that teachers have a difficult time having students do experiments safely, teachers say. In addition, Maryland has no science fair, and only a few schools in the state — Centennial and River Hill in Howard, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and Montgomery Blair in Montgomery County — consistently have students in competitions, said Zwally's teacher, Michelle Bagley.
At the heart of the issue, most educators say, is improving science teaching in Maryland and the nation.
When compared to 49 other countries around the globe, the United States ranks 41st in the likelihood that a high school student will be taught by a teacher who majored in science in college, according to David E. Drew, a professor at the Claremont Graduate University in California who has written a book on STEM.
"I would rather a child be taught by an exciting teacher using a math-science curriculum from the 1950s than a boring teacher with a new curriculum," Drew said. "I think successful STEM reform comes down to recruiting outstanding people into teaching, preparing them well and providing ongoing professional development."
Kirwan has made a pledge to triple the number of STEM teachers that Maryland colleges and universities produce by 2015, which he calls a "heavy lift."
"That is the kind of urgency we feel on this issue," he said, adding that investments should be made in training teachers, new curriculum and new learning strategies.
Zwally, who said he grew up in a family fascinated by how the world works, said teachers have had an enormous influence on him. "I have had some of the most wonderful science teachers. I couldn't have asked for any better environment to nurture [me]. The passion of the teachers and the drive they have has been invaluable," he said.
Michelle Shearer, an AP chemistry teacher at Urbana High School in Frederick County and the Maryland Teacher of the Year, said the focus needs to be on the elementary grades, where science has been relegated to a subject taught when teachers can snatch time from other subjects.
"We have to understand that elementary school teachers have a tremendous burden," Shearer said, because they are teaching several different subjects and may not have expertise in science. She thinks the school systems should put a science specialist in each elementary school to bring hands-on, lab projects into the classroom.
"Elementary school teachers are scared by math and science. When they don't enjoy it so much, they're more reluctant to spend more time in class," said Anne Spence, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the principal investigator on a mathematics-science partnership for the National Science Foundation, which has been working on developing more STEM teachers in Baltimore County schools.
Susan Brown, who is chair of the science department at Central Middle School in Anne Arundel County, said some middle schools don't have the lab space they need. At her school, she said, two science classes are held in rooms without labs. While the teachers work together to address that problem, teaching science is more of a challenge than it should be.
To have students get the most out of labs, class sizes should be between 24 and 26 students, said Brown, a distinguished science teacher in the county. "We have classrooms with 36 students in them."
Science teachers also stress that students need to think of science, math, technology and engineering as interrelated subjects. An experimental program in Baltimore County, Spence said, introduced average students to an engineering class. When students had a reason to do math and science in a real-world context, she said, they learned those subjects much faster and boosted their scores above those of gifted and talented students.
One major issue that must be addressed, according to UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, is how to get poor and minority students more engaged in learning science, particularly in a state where the majority of public school children are minority students. On the NAEP test, 8 percent of black students scored proficient, compared with 44 percent of white students.
But that achievement gap is around the national average, Hrabowski said. "Many states with higher scores are far less diverse and don't have the challenge of educating the children of color."
Part of the issue is that minority students sometimes have not been exposed to science, or the natural world. Adam Kim, a cell biologist and graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University, participates in a program that brings Hopkins students into the Talent Development High School in Baltimore City.
"We are using the tools we use every day as graduate students to tell them how cool science is," Kim said. Once a month, the Hopkins students try to engage the 10th-graders with interesting experiments, and have brought to classrooms zebra fish, frogs, insects and other living creatures that students might never have seen.
Many high-achieving students like Zwally were exposed to science early. As a seventh-grader, he began entering his experiments in science fairs; Bagley first saw his potential at a middle school science fair.
And unlike students at most Maryland high schools, those at Centennial can take a class that allows them to do independent research, as Zwally does with Bagley.
In ninth grade, Zwally did an experiment that looked at how the thickness of sea ice may insulate it from warmer ocean waters. The experiment won a grand prize in physical sciences at the Baltimore Science Fair, as well as other prizes. Zwally said he took a break from science fairs in 10th grade because he wanted to play lacrosse and train for another passion: ski racing.
But he jumped back into an independent research project in his junior year, taking a course that allowed him to get support from teachers and using his prize money from other fairs to buy materials to construct the experiment in the attic.
He jokes that in his Narnia, he can sit in a small room outside of the cube where he collects his data, "cut off from the outside world." He has written a 28-page research paper and hopes someday that it will be reviewed by scientists in the field.
In the fall, Zwally will attend Carnegie Mellon University, where he wants to study computer science and biology.
For Zwally, science is cool, but Brown said a cultural shift needs to take place so that being a science geek is seen as positive.
"When you ask our students what they want to be … I don't know that they ever want to be a scientist," Brown said. "They want to be the people they see in the media, and those are never the scientists."