In summary

There are signs that budgets and K-12 school reopening plans being shaped now may fail to recognize science as part of the academic core.

By Teresa Barnett, Special to CalMatters

Teresa Barnett is executive director at Community Resources for Science, teresa@crscience.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

California’s 6 million K-12 students have been making hard-earned gains in learning science in recent years, but engaging children in meaningful investigations to understand the world they live in are now in danger of being lost in the COVID-19 scramble. 

Even as the world is looking to health researchers, scientists and engineers to solve the many mysteries and challenges posed by the coronavirus, there are signs that the budgets and school reopening plans being shaped now may fail to recognize science as part of the academic core. To meet this moment, as a matter of educational equity, school leaders, parents and the business community must ensure that science is not once again pushed aside in schools.

Not every kid will grow up to be a rocket scientist, but every kid deserves a chance to gain the scientific literacy they will need to be ready for a wide range of jobs of the future and to be informed citizens.  Well-designed science lessons empower children to explore questions that arise from their emerging observation and understanding of the world they live in. 

For example, as schools closed this spring and learning shifted online due to the global pandemic, our organization mobilized dozens of scientists, who ordinarily visit elementary and middle school classrooms in person, to take their outreach lessons online. Through Zoom, 3rd graders explored with health researchers how a virus can jump from animals to humans, while 6th graders met with biologists to learn about virus mutations and genetics. Scientists helped kids build an understanding of the cause of this great disruption to their lives, and learn about how researchers are developing solutions.

Although California’s K-12 teachers rose heroically to meet the incredible challenge of having their carefully planned lessons, and the classroom routines that promote student social, emotional and academic growth, abruptly shut down, learning loss will be significant for many California students – especially, those most affected by poverty.  

In many communities, when the school doors closed, science teaching and learning came to a stop. Unfortunately, this pause in teaching science threatens the progress that has been made in California schools in recent years, as teachers have focused on implementing robust Next Generation Science Standards, adopted by California in 2013. Efforts to share lessons and best practices widely across the state were just gaining traction and showing results.

Unless parents and business leaders urge state and local leaders to prioritize science, the progress California has been making in science is in jeopardy. There is danger of science once again being viewed as an “extra” to sprinkle in now and then as time and funding permit.

Yet, as we have seen so clearly during this pandemic: science literacy matters now more than ever. California’s school children all deserve access to high quality, standards-aligned, meaningful science learning experiences. 

The good news is that teachers and school districts do not have to do it alone. California has an abundance of science centers, environmental education programs, university researchers, and science and engineering sector employers who will continue to be strong partners in the march toward equity in access to the learning experiences that create pathways into impactful STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) that drive our state’s economy. From The Exploratorium and the Marine Mammal Center, to state and regional park systems, to NASA and NOAA, partners to support K-12 science teaching abound. 

The next generation of doctors, immunologists, chemists, researchers and problem solvers are sitting at home – rather than in classrooms – seeing in real time how powerful STEM professionals are in rising to the challenges we face and designing solutions that will lead us out of this crisis. We owe it to the K-12 students of today to make sure they have learning experiences that allow them to wonder, explore, investigate and discover answers to their questions about the world they live in.  

Everyone can play a role: Parents, ask your school board, PTA and principal to make sure science is happening and supported. School leaders, as a matter of equity and social justice, ensure your teachers have training, support and curriculum which engages all students in critical thinking and problem solving that is relevant to their daily lives.

Business leaders, reach out to local partners – every region in California has a STEM network – who can provide skilled-volunteering and mentoring opportunities for your employees and get your sponsorship funds into high-impact projects.

If we fail, who will be there to solve the challenges when another pandemic, or inevitable climate challenges, emerge in the future?

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Teresa Barnett is executive director at Community Resources for Science, teresa@crscience.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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