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Sep 2, 2009

Needed—One Giant Leap for Science Education

  • In 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 into Earth’s orbit, effectively beginning a space race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Twelve years later, by planting its flag on the moon, the U.S. staked its claim as the world leader in science and technology.

    Since that landmark day in 1969, American scientists have contributed significantly in fields from computer technology to life sciences and medicine. The pioneering and competitive spirit of the Apollo 11 moon mission has continued, as year after year the U.S. provides a benchmark against which other countries measure their scientific achievements.

    Recent studies, though, bring disturbing news: The U.S. is failing to inspire and educate enough future scientists. Students in U.S. middle and high schools are lagging in science and math learning. A recent study released by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) cites disheartening evidence showing a decline in American students’ interest and aptitude in the sciences. Only 28% of high school students taking the American College Test (ACT), a national standardized test for college admission, reached a score indicating readiness for college-level biology study.

    The average 12th-grade science score in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the only national evaluation of student knowledge across subjects) has dropped from 1996 to 2005. Lower-income students are failing to reach the science literacy levels of their higher-income peers (though at least some progress has been made to close the gap).

    And as a whole, U.S. students are not keeping pace with their counterparts in other advanced industrial nations. In a recent study of students from 30 countries, Americans ranked 21 in science and 25 in math.

    Our understanding of biology in particular and the technology for expanding and applying that knowledge to address obstacles that challenge mankind’s well-being, has accelerated at a pace beyond anything imaginable at the start of the space race. It is ironic because sadly, that prospect has seemingly not captured the imagination of enough young people in the U.S. to sustain the effort. The home of what is arguably the most dynamic and flourishing biotechnology industry in the world is in danger of running short of its most critical ingredient: the curious, talented, and educated scientist.

    It is almost as if we need a 21st century “biotechnology race;” not one fostered by the fears and politics of another Cold War, of course, but a more altruistic form of competition in which we seek to advance science in the world’s service. To do that, we need to make the sciences accessible, relevant, and rewarding. Many industry leaders including Amgen, Biogen Idec, and Bayer are attempting to do just that by creating or providing support for fresh and original science education programs. Here are just a few examples of successful programs that are infusing new energy into science classrooms around the country.

    The Amgen-Bruce Wallace Biotechnology Lab Program is named in memory of one of Amgen’s first staff members. This program provides high school students with flexible hands-on, inquiry-based experience with some of the same materials, tools, and techniques used by professional scientists. The three-week program, funded by the Amgen Foundation, allows teachers to introduce recombinant DNA technology, a fundamental of biotechnology, into their science curriculum and provides all needed equipment, supplies, and reagents at no cost to the teacher or school.

    Bayer’s “Making Science Make Sense” helps to raise science literacy levels of both students and teachers through this program, which combines hands-on science learning, employee volunteerism, and public education. Bayer staff members volunteer in schools, at science centers, and community events and serve as role models for students.

    Biogen Idec’s Community Lab program takes middle and high school students out of the classroom and brings them into the company’s teaching laboratories in Cambridge, MA, and San Diego. Students interact with Biogen Idec's scientists, learn about careers in the life sciences, and conduct real-world science experiments using sophisticated and innovative equipment. Since 2002 nearly 17,000 students have participated in programs at the Community Labs. The Community Labs are also used for life science teachers, with the San Diego campus offering special summer institutes for 7th grade and high school teachers that enhance their effectiveness in the classroom.

    New Science Teacher Academy was formed to help new science teachers stay the course by the Amgen Foundation and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Data suggests that nearly half of all beginning teachers leave teaching altogether within the first five years. Lack of support and a dearth of professional development opportunities are critical factors. The academy provides 185 new teachers each year with mentors in their own discipline, web-based activities and resources, and support to attend the NSTA’s annual science education conference.

    The Amgen Foundation has worked closely with NSTA to engage other corporations and funders. Last year Agilent Technologies, Astellas Pharma US, and Bayer all came on board to support additional Academy Fellows.

    The Amgen Scholars program provides hands-on lab experience for undergraduate students at leading universities across the U.S. and Europe. The students engage in a scientific research project under a top faculty mentor and also have the opportunity to hear firsthand from leading industry and academic scientists at a national symposium.

    This summer, in the U.S., more than 260 Amgen Scholars, representing 136 schools from 39 states, are working with faculty mentors to explore areas of research that they may never otherwise have encountered. In last year’s class, one Amgen Scholar studied the effects of peripheral vision on human psychology. Another studied the role of microtubule proteins in asthma. The program provides financial support to help enable all eligible students accepted to participate regardless of their financial status.

    I’m excited about the momentum being created by these and similar programs and optimistic that we as an industry and as individuals can harness our passion and expertise to create new partnerships and find ways to help inspire our next generation of scientists. Engaging effectively in our education system, whether at the local, regional, or national level, will help ensure that the sciences will survive and flourish and that our society will be better equipped to face the challenges of the future. Be it tackling global climate change or halting a global pandemic, let’s make sure we’re ready to take that next giant leap for mankind.


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