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Science Education – An Endangered Species?

I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around the attacks on science and science education that have been dog-piling on since the sequester began. It is as if everyone has just lost it all at once.

What’s going on? Phil Plait does a nice job of detailing the latest attacks on science in Congress as well as the proposed “education and outreach” structuring coming from none other than the President’s office. You know, yay-science, we need better STEM education president Obama? I never saw coming. Not only that, but the spin has been that this is a “win” for science education, and that’s just plain false.

A few weeks ago, I attended the National Science Teachers Association conference in San Antonio. I watched the disappointment in MANY science teachers’ faces and heard it in their voices when they learned that the NASA educational resources they had come to love are threatened with extinction if this plan goes forward. And it’s not just NASA, but the NOAA and other agencies that will have their education and outreach offices zeroed out. Consolidating ALL the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in the US will only make it more difficult for those of us who understand both science AND communication to be able to do both. Is that the direction that we really want for STEM education? Do we really want the content experts to be divorced from the education system, forced to “choose a side?”

That’s the opposite of the direction that many of us have been going in, as I’ve learned from the many wonderful scientists and science communicators I’ve met through blogging, from conferences like ScienceOnline, and from the growing world of citizen science. The President’s office wants to honor an outstanding achiever in making citizen science a reality, but they are proposing to kill the funding mechanisms that make it possible. Does anyone in DC really know what’s happening down here in the trenches?

Thankfully, I’m not the only one raging against the madness.

Ranking Member Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) … agreed that redundancy between federal programs should require that programs be aligned, she cited a 2012 GAO study that concluded federal STEM programs were not necessarily redundant since they served different student groups. “Scaling back federal investment is not sound policy for education,” she stated, noting that eliminating programs would only further reduce the limited resources available for elementary and secondary STEM education.

– from SpaceRef

Add in the American Astronomical Society’s statement:

The AAS shares the Administration’s goal of increasing the impact and reach of the government’s sizeable science education investment. Nevertheless, the proposal to restructure NASA’s education portfolio by eliminating all mission-specific education and public outreach (EPO) programs is deeply concerning. Many NASA EPO activities serve as the government’s best examples of how to bring the results of contemporary science into a wide range of educational settings using research-validated pedagogical practices. These mission-specific EPO programs have developed powerful collaborations amongst education professionals, mission scientists, and engineers. The restructuring proposal is certain to dismantle the strategic networks and infrastructure that have been carefully built over many years.

My friend and advisor Pamela Gay hits the nail on the head with concern that we’re splitting science education away from the actual science, just when so many of us have been able to bridge that gap:

The creation of new science education programs (formal and informal) in the United States has long been distributed across multiple governmental agencies so that those generating the science content and the people translating that science into education content can work hand in hand. Across NASA, the Department of Energy, DARPA, the Department of Agriculture, and many other agencies and bureaus; we can find funding set aside to allow new science to be effectively, and in a timely manner, communicated out. These agencies fund the creation of classroom programs (including often free teacher training programs), after school programs, museum programs, NPR and PBS programming, web content, and more. If all these programs are consolidated under the Department of Education and the Smithsonian, existing partnerships will be shattered and networks of educators and scientists who have worked together for years (and sometimes decades) will go away. Entire professions will face massive layoffs, and due to lack of jobs, the experts in these fields – and this may include me – will have to find new career paths.

And yet Scientific American dares to write a headline that Obama’s proposal “revitalizes STEM education.” Bullcocky.

So what the hell are we to do? As a private citizen only, I can encourage you to write your Congresscritters and the gosh darn President to put a stop to this. Stay informed and vote and make your voice heard. Share your love of science with anyone around you, and bring up the level of discourse in your own communities.

As a scientist and educator who works to keep a citizen science project running, I have more specific concerns. I can encourage you to mark some craters, tell your friends about us, watch our Hangouts, and, if you can spare it, throw some change our way via our university’s donation fund. We actually have some interesting fundraisers planned, plus a crowd-funded science project, so there will be plenty of ways to help financially if you can. If you know of any private grants or foundations that we could apply for to keep the science and education going, send along that information, as we’re truly searching everywhere we can to replace the NASA funding that has allowed us to get this far. Heck, know of an obscure NSF grant we haven’t tried yet? I’ll apply for that, too. I truly believe in what we’re doing and would do it for free if I didn’t have to pay the rent every month. Plus, we have programmers to feed, and without them we have no project. If you like what we do, too, any help you can give to keep us going would rock. But this all only helps us in the short to mid-term.

What do we do in the long run? How do we keep science in the forefront of the public consciousness… and not just science that is easy and politically expedient, but the whole messy process? How do we let our representatives and fellow citizens know that it is important and vital to our well-being as a species? I don’t know the answers. Many of us will keep doing what we do, sharing the love of discovery and the fruits of our knowledge, but that hasn’t gotten us far enough, it seems.

Disclaimer: I am writing this post as a private individual. The views in this post are strictly my own, and no approval of an outside entity should be assumed.

Image CC sc63 on Flickr

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Nicole

Nicole

Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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