Maryland: The state of science

Science education in the U.S. faces many challenges. Our national school reform effort, crystallized in No Child Left Behind in 2002, concentrated first on mathematics and language arts. Science has not been emphasized in our teacher preparation programs. Building state-of-the art science labs for middle and high school students is expensive.

Our state has recognized the importance of improved science education, and has been working to strengthen instruction for the past several years. The Maryland State Department of Education in 2007 began awarding grants to local systems to upgrade science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and all 24 systems have received funding. Maryland also embedded STEM throughout our winning Race to the Top proposal, and the additional funding will allow Maryland to further enhance the development of our instructional staff.

At the elementary level, a STEM teacher certification is being developed to reflect an integrated STEM curriculum, using an approach that emphasizes problem solving. Many of Maryland's colleges and universities will pilot field and clinical experiences to prepare elementary STEM teachers as well as practicing teachers.

A project based on a national model seeks to recruit more science and math majors early in their college experience and introduce them to teaching careers at the middle and high school levels. Colleges of education will partner with colleges of arts and science to design a model of instruction that will strengthen science and mathematics content in all education courses.

Our efforts in mathematics and science cannot be successful if we don't start early. Maryland's unique assessment program, known as the Maryland Model for School Readiness, looks at how well prepared our students are as they enter kindergarten. Thanks to initiatives we have spearheaded at the pre-K level, our students are entering kindergarten with an improved knowledge of basic scientific concepts.

Our state in 2002 launched one of the nation's largest science-related initiatives in Project Lead the Way. The program focuses on engineering and biomedical sciences and can be found in 20 of our state's 24 systems. MSDE and its partner, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, were awarded the inaugural Joseph H. Oakey Excellence in Education Award in 2007 for this visionary work on behalf of students, teachers, and the community. Nearly 7,700 students in grades six through 12 are involved in Project Lead the Way programs across the state.

Maryland and its school systems also have forged relationships with the high-tech research and business community to further enhance science education. For example, internships have been developed with the National Cancer Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Horn Point Laboratory and NASA. When budget cuts threatened to end our state's long-running Summer Centers for Gifted and Talented Students, partners such as Honeywell, Northrop Grumman and Sciences Applications International Corp. have stepped in to assist. Finally, our state has benefited greatly from MSDE's strong ongoing partnership with the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education.

Although the results of some of these efforts will take time, others are already bearing fruit. For example:

•Maryland student success in science- and mathematics-related Advanced Placement assessments ranks as the nation's very best. Approximately 75 percent of students taking the Physics B Advanced Placement exam last year scored in the college mastery range, as did more than 70 percent taking the Physics C exam.

•Since 2005, Project Lead the Way has prepared more than 1,200 high school graduates for top-level science and engineering programs at colleges and universities.

•Maryland School Assessment science scores have risen steadily, despite the fact that science assessments are not tied to federal accountability rules regarding academic progress.

To further improve science instruction, Maryland last year signed on to the Common Core Standards Initiative, which will continue to raise standards in science and other parts of our curriculum.

Maryland has more to do in science education. I was the lone K-12 representative on the landmark "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report published in 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences. Its message: Our nation has ignored science and math education for far too long, and a serious investment in technology training at all levels is long overdue. We need more physicists, mathematicians, chemists and others with technical skills, and we need to recruit more prospective teachers in those disciplines.

Working on that report, I found myself in agreement with many of my corporate and university colleagues. We have identified world-class standards for mathematics and science, but we have not done a very good job in requiring teachers to learn, understand and impart this knowledge. As my colleague Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland System, acknowledged in a recent article in The Sun critiquing science education in the state, we need to better prepare our K-12 instructors in the STEM disciplines. Moreover, we simply need more highly qualified science and mathematics teachers at the high school level.

Maryland colleges and universities produced 919 teacher candidates in elementary education in the 2008-2009 academic year, another 157 candidates in middle and high school English, and 170 candidates in middle and high school social studies. But there were just 91 teacher candidates in middle and high school science, 64 of which were in biology. There were just 13 newly minted teacher candidates in chemistry, five in physics and none in physical science.

Such shortages lead directly to personnel deficiencies in technology-related fields. We need to interest students in math, science and technology at a younger age, spark their curiosity and help them understand how they can become part of a future that desperately needs their skills.

Maryland is fully committed to building a new foundation in science and mathematics. At its core, that means improving instruction and continuing our development of a creative, qualified teaching force. That work did not begin yesterday, and it won't stop tomorrow.

Nancy S. Grasmick is Maryland's state superintendent of schools. Her e-mail is ngrasmick@msde.state.md.us.

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