Testimony about the
National Science Education Enhancement Act (H. R. 4272)
Presented to the
House Committee on Education and the Workforce
September 21, 2000
Dr. Leon M. Lederman
Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee,
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the National Science Education Enhancement Act.
LEON LEDERMAN’S BACKGROUND
For over 30 years I was a research physicist and university professor who really taught—even or especially Physics 101, freshman physics. However, I spent 10 years as Director of Fermilab, outside of Chicago where I managed the construction of the TEVATRON, the world’s most powerful atom smasher. I also spent a dozen years as consultant to the Department of Defense on issues of national defense. I believe I understand the awesome power of science to shape the course of human affairs.
I have been deeply involved in science education for the past 20 years. As Fermilab Director, I made sure that our laboratory reached out to the nearby community to make sure they understood what our particle accelerators and supercomputers were all about. I brought high school students in every Saturday, to hear lectures from our researchers and to get their hands on what we did. We did lots of workshop with local teachers, and provided the opportunity so they could work on one of our experiments for a summer. We even built a special science education center, and they were kind enough to name it after me when I retired.
I worked to establish, in 1986, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a public boarding school that teaches the gifted students in Illinois about math and science. It’s been a model for similar schools in thirteen other states, and over 60% of the graduates stay involved in science and technical careers. I expert that these students will pay back to society their superb education and I’m hoping that one of them will find a cure for senility (soon!).
I am also a founder (in 1990) of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science on the south side of Chicago. This organization provides professional development to Chicago public schools at the K-8 level, and has been so successful it’s expanded its operations to help schools in Joliet and East Saint Louis as well. We learned that inner city primary school teachers can be brought to a level which engages children in the joy of learning, but it takes at least three years and hundreds of hours of instruction.
WHY SCIENCE EDUCATION?
A very recent report from the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, chaired by Senator John Glenn, makes the following statement:
First, the commission is convinced that the future well-being of our nation and people depends not just on how well we educate our children generally, but on how well we educate them in mathematics and science specifically.
This may seem like excessive rhetoric, but if it is, it has been repeated countless times, in countless reports of bipartisan commissions, panels, committees at least since Vanavar Bush’s seminal report Science the Endless Frontier (1946) and most eloquently in the 1983 report of the National Commission on Educational Excellence, under President Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell. The latter report was called A Nation at Risk (and the title tells the story). Today, in the year 2000, we are still a nation at risk.
WHY CONGRESSIONAL ACTION?
I am a firm believer in local control and implementation of education, but we are in a war on ignorance and in a war, we need a guiding strategy, a kind of cerebral cortex, a general staff that recognizes the national peril of a failed educational system. Just imagine operating our 16-cylinder technological society with citizens who cannot read and write! I believe we must raise the priority of science literacy so that our high school graduates are as science savvy as they are street savvy.
So, could we have survived as a nation if our national defense were left as a responsibility to the states? "Minnesota, protect us against the Canadians, Texas is to watch Mexico and California watch the Far East. New Jersey, you . . . oh, never mind!"
We need the leadership of this Congress to recognize the role of science in the 21st century, where exploding technology, based upon scientific understanding, is changing the way we live, think, and behave. If you are even slightly bewildered by the pace of technology, let me assure you that "you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!". Progress in our most exotic edge of quantum science can quite possibly increase computer speeds by as much as one billion times with unimaginable consequences. We now know that not all technologies are beneficial and that even life preserving and leisure enhancing technologies may have serious, albeit unintended, dangers. Decisions to control the deployment of new devices for maximum long-term benefit to the nation must have popular consensus. Our environment, our health, our economic prospects, our national defense, the foods we eat and the air we breathe, even our genetic futures will depend upon how wisely we apply the technologies that become available. And to do this we need a population of scientists—yes, but also of citizens, of workers, of administrators, of policy makers, yes—of Congressmen, who can grasp the "Science Way of Thinking". We need to give our children the knowledge and thinking skills to participate in this new and often bewildering technological world. They must also be protected from the people who will sell them astrology, fortune telling, pyramid magic, peach pit cancer cures, alien encounters and so on.
In contrast to this communication and information-based
society, we have a population that is, according to careful pollsters,
incredibly ignorant of how science works. Our schools are not yet responding to
the need for a seamless K-12 science education. We have 16,000 independent
school boards, but the incredible changes in society brought about by the
scientific revolution demands some coherence that only a federal role can
WHY IT CAN WORK
To effect the kinds of changes that we need to create a science literate population is not easy, or it would have been done. The key of course is with the teachers. New techniques of science teaching based on cognition science are having very exciting results. Here, a great deal of research indicates that the engaging, relevant and meaningful situations so typical of high-quality math and science instruction create the best conditions for acquiring language. Similarly, development of early skills of sequencing, pattern recognition and decoding play a crucial role in building the foundation for reading skills, as well as for math and science.
Children trained in the hands-on inquiry methods not only learn science, but they experience the joy of learning. They even do better on their reading skills. I’ve seen a teacher in one of our inner city schools in Chicago bring her class to instant attention by threatening them: "If you kids don’t settle down, we won’t do science!" Teacher training, raising the economic and social status of teachers, raising the consciousness of school boards, parents, local legislatures, the media—in short involving every facet of our society—is what it will take. And it will take a new ethic of continuous professional development, not a one-shot workshop—but continuous, scheduled collegial work to build content knowledge and ease of relating the excitement and the benefits of science thinking to their students.
Reform requires will, leadership, and resources—but we know that it can be done. We know of schools where the natural curiosity of children is kept alive and nurtured, where teachers are well-trained and full of enthusiasms, where the community around the school is involved and where the students understand that science is more the art of asking questions rather than answering them.
I sincerely thank the committee for the opportunity to offer testimony on this important legislation. I salute the foresight of Representative Ehlers in drafting and introducing these bills which are a crucial step forward in ensuring that our country has the human capital needed to sustain our prosperity in the coming decades. I commend Chairman Goodling for holding this hearing to bring needed attention to the issue of science, mathematics, technology and engineering education.
I will be pleased to respond to any questions you might have.