reed magazine logosummer2007

science image

Recording data from the experiment

Teaching About the Birds
and the Bees
(and the Flowers
and the Frogs)

For the past decade, Reed’s biology outreach program has been sending Reedies—both science and humanities majors—into classrooms like this one to teach biology to elementary school students. Dozens of classes and thousands of pupils have been touched by the program, which has been funded by college and foundation grants. Untold hours of professorial time and expertise have gone into creating a unique, dynamic curriculum that teaches science more as a process, than as a series of facts about the natural world to be memorized and mastered.

The Reed program’s accomplishments come at a time of increasing anxiety over science education nationwide. Elementary and secondary math and science teachers are in ever-shorter supply, and business and political leaders regularly voice their alarm about whether U.S. universities are turning out science and technology graduates who can compete in the global economy.

In June, the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), an organization of Fortune 500 CEOs, college and university presidents, and foundation leaders, released a major report on the critical shortage of well-trained math and science teachers at the P–12 level. An American Imperative: Transforming the Recruitment, Retention, and Renewal of Our Nation’s Mathematics and Science Teaching Workforce, points to a projected shortfall of 280,000 new math and science teachers by 2015, and warns that this shortfall may threaten the national economy. Soon after the report was released, senators Edward Kennedy and Michael Enzi convened a congressional briefing on its recommendations. Also in June, Science magazine highlighted a new trend in university-level science programs, identifying several major research universities that have begun actively steering their best and brightest graduates toward K–12 teaching (“A New Twist on Training Teachers,” Vol. 316; subscription required to view article). Schools such as Brigham Young University, the University of Colorado–Boulder, and the University of Texas appear to be heeding the call of organizations such as BHEF to boost interest and achievement at an early age through better teaching at the primary and secondary levels.

The concern is not new. In 2005, the National Academies released a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, arguing that the U.S. has been losing its scientific and technological edge. The report recommended recruiting 10,000 of America’s top science, engineering, and mathematics students into the teaching profession every year.

Reed President Colin Diver expresses enthusiastic support for the biology outreach program and the work Reed students are doing in Portland’s public schools, though he’s quick to add that he doesn’t necessarily see the college’s mission as steering graduates toward careers in elementary science education. “The college needs to be relatively agnostic about the professions and sectors of the economy that our students go into,” he says, adding that this is the essence of a liberal arts education.

Yet Diver does think it’s important for Reed students and faculty to participate in pre-college education. “We’re in the education business,” he says, “and we need to see that we are part of a stream of education that starts virtually at birth. It helps us as a college to better understand how to educate students if we have some involvement with the system of education that produces them.”