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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesWHAT'S NEEDED TO RAISE THOSE SCIENCE SCORES

WHAT'S NEEDED TO RAISE THOSE SCIENCE SCORES

As recently reported in "The Nation's Report Card for Science 2000," Virgin Islands fourth graders ranked next to last in the nation in science proficiency. [See "V.I. next to bottom in 4th grade science scores".] In spite of the low average score achieved by Virgin Islands students, the score must be placed in perspective. The national average score was 147 out of 300 — just 49 percent. By any measure, the nation as a whole is failing to educate our students in science.
Thus, reforming science education is not just a challenge for the Virgin Islands, but a challenge for the entire nation. This report must be used not as a mechanism to lay blame, but as a call to action to address an issue that is critical to the future academic success of Virgin Islands students and vital to the long-term economic growth of the United States.
The challenges facing our nation because of poor performance in science education are very real. Consider, for example, my own field of physics. The "Enrollments and Degrees Report" is an annual document that tracks the production of physics Ph.D.'s. The most recent report, in August, 2001, stated that 47 percent of all physics doctorates granted in the United States today are granted to non-citizens. This number is based upon the graduates of 1999 — the most recent year for which data are available. Furthermore, this percentage of non-U.S. citizen Ph.D.'s has been rising over the last 10 years.
In other words, barely one-half of the new physics Ph.D.'s — the people who have traditionally been responsible for developing most of the advanced weapons systems that defend the nation — are U.S. citizens. Furthermore, the physics pipeline — students entering the physics major as undergraduate students — has been steadily shrinking for much of the last decade.
This report, and many, many others in all fields of science, suggest that if we cannot capture the imagination of students now in elementary school, over the next 20 to 30 years the nation will have to obtain more and more of its technical expertise from non-U.S. citizens. Therefore, the reform of science education nationwide can be seen not only as an economic issue, but as a national security issue as well.
Three components of educational reform
Reforming science education (and perhaps the educational system as a whole) in the Virgin Islands is by no means a trivial task. It requires a multi-tiered approach and a commitment that will span many years and many legislative and gubernatorial cycles — that is, there is no quick fix. I suggest that there are at least three components to solving this problem.
– The first component is real investment in the science education infrastructure. Many studies have shown that there is absolutely no substitute for hands-on experience when it comes to science education. One approach, used in central Alabama where Auburn University is located, is to have the university provide and maintain a mobile science classroom.
Using this "Science in Motion" program, a central agency — Auburn University — provides the expertise and maintains the equipment. A rotating schedule is then established among the schools within a 50-mile radius of the university to make use of the equipment. A similar program — perhaps organized through the University of the Virgin Islands Science and Math and Education Divisions — could provide a home for such a program. Alternatively, the natural environment of the Virgin Islands is an open textbook for biology and bio-diversity studies, marine biology, and solar and ocean thermal-energy research projects.
Consider the following example: Each winter, several dozen species of marine life spawn in the warm Caribbean waters. A variety of class projects could be developed in conjunction with the elementary, junior high and high school biology curricula. Students would learn about the marine life of the Caribbean, develop an understanding of marine populations, study reproductive cycles and understand the interaction between the environment and marine life.
Such projects provide hands-on, interactive learning experiences for students and provide them with critical skills of observation, measurement and analysis of information. Most important, it teaches students the value of the living world around them and the importance of critical thinking. With the proper investments and innovative thinking, it is possible to change the "limitations" of being on an island into very positive and powerful educational experiences.
– The second component is teacher training. Given the pace of technological development, the training received by science teachers as little as five years ago can be obsolete. As an example, in my own field of research of experimental plasma physics, the physical system I'm studying in my laboratory — a dusty plasma — did not exist in a laboratory setting as recently as 10 years ago. It is imperative that teachers continually make the effort to remain up-to-date on changes that occur in the subjects that they are teaching. Teachers who can show that science is not a just a series of facts in a textbook, but rather a vibrant, constantly evolving subject will transfer that enthusiasm to their students.
Simultaneously, the education bureaucracy must be willing to reward innovation and achievement in the classroom as well as to take corrective actions when teachers are not performing. This means that some mixture of quantitative — for example, student performance on standardized exams — and qualitative — for example, student and peer surveys — teacher evaluation is needed to ensure that students have access to the most highly qualified educators.
However, this also means that the education bureaucracy should take a lead role in encouraging and facilitating the self-improvement of teachers. This requires leaders who not only have strong educational credentials but also possess excellent management and motivational abilities. In the end, no matter how many programs are available to teachers, if teachers are unaware of their existence or are discouraged from pursuing self-improvement, they cannot and will not take advantage of those opportunities.
– The third component is cultural and social. It is too easy for politicians and community leaders to say the youth of our community are valuable, then call for reducing the Education Department budget. Too often in our society, we are quick to elevate those people who can hit or throw a ball while, at the same time, we denigrate those people who seek more intellectual avenues for success. We must be willing as a community to tell our students that we value their education and we value intellectual pursuits.
Events such as territory-wide science fairs and public lecture series on science and technology hosted by UVI would be excellent methods for publicizing the role of science. Additionally, after-school and summertime outreach programs are other excellent mechanisms for identifying and nurturing academically talented students. And while these ideas all need sources of funds to implement, federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation often provide grants to support many of these programs.
The need for human and material resources
The reality is that science and technology are forming the new arena for competition in the 21st century. The inability to compete in that arena will place our students — and eventually the whole Virgin Islands community — at a severe disadvantage in the years to come.
To improve the entire educational system, two key points must be considered.
– First, teachers have a duty to provide students with an intellectually stimulating and challenging educational environment. It is reasonable to demand that teachers be present in the classroom. Furthermore, it is reasonable to demand that teachers be well trained and well qualif
ied to be in the classroom.
– Second, the public must realize that education is one of the most critical services provided by the government. School is not a glorified daycare center, and most teachers work much, much longer than 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day to ensure that students have a proper education. Therefore, it is the duty of the public to demand that the educational system be properly funded and that teachers have the resources necessary to carry out the vital tasks we ask of them.
As a community, we have long recognized the importance of educators such as Ruth Thomas, J. Antonio Jarvis and Addelita Cancryn. The time has come again to place education at the forefront of our community.

Editor's note: Dr. Edward E. Thomas Jr. is an assistant professor of physics at Auburn University in Auburn , Ala. A Virgin Islander, he is a product of the St. Thomas private and public school systems.
We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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As recently reported in "The Nation's Report Card for Science 2000," Virgin Islands fourth graders ranked next to last in the nation in science proficiency. [See "V.I. next to bottom in 4th grade science scores".] In spite of the low average score achieved by Virgin Islands students, the score must be placed in perspective. The national average score was 147 out of 300 -- just 49 percent. By any measure, the nation as a whole is failing to educate our students in science.
Thus, reforming science education is not just a challenge for the Virgin Islands, but a challenge for the entire nation. This report must be used not as a mechanism to lay blame, but as a call to action to address an issue that is critical to the future academic success of Virgin Islands students and vital to the long-term economic growth of the United States.
The challenges facing our nation because of poor performance in science education are very real. Consider, for example, my own field of physics. The "Enrollments and Degrees Report" is an annual document that tracks the production of physics Ph.D.'s. The most recent report, in August, 2001, stated that 47 percent of all physics doctorates granted in the United States today are granted to non-citizens. This number is based upon the graduates of 1999 -- the most recent year for which data are available. Furthermore, this percentage of non-U.S. citizen Ph.D.'s has been rising over the last 10 years.
In other words, barely one-half of the new physics Ph.D.'s -- the people who have traditionally been responsible for developing most of the advanced weapons systems that defend the nation -- are U.S. citizens. Furthermore, the physics pipeline -- students entering the physics major as undergraduate students -- has been steadily shrinking for much of the last decade.
This report, and many, many others in all fields of science, suggest that if we cannot capture the imagination of students now in elementary school, over the next 20 to 30 years the nation will have to obtain more and more of its technical expertise from non-U.S. citizens. Therefore, the reform of science education nationwide can be seen not only as an economic issue, but as a national security issue as well.
Three components of educational reform
Reforming science education (and perhaps the educational system as a whole) in the Virgin Islands is by no means a trivial task. It requires a multi-tiered approach and a commitment that will span many years and many legislative and gubernatorial cycles -- that is, there is no quick fix. I suggest that there are at least three components to solving this problem.
- The first component is real investment in the science education infrastructure. Many studies have shown that there is absolutely no substitute for hands-on experience when it comes to science education. One approach, used in central Alabama where Auburn University is located, is to have the university provide and maintain a mobile science classroom.
Using this "Science in Motion" program, a central agency -- Auburn University -- provides the expertise and maintains the equipment. A rotating schedule is then established among the schools within a 50-mile radius of the university to make use of the equipment. A similar program -- perhaps organized through the University of the Virgin Islands Science and Math and Education Divisions -- could provide a home for such a program. Alternatively, the natural environment of the Virgin Islands is an open textbook for biology and bio-diversity studies, marine biology, and solar and ocean thermal-energy research projects.
Consider the following example: Each winter, several dozen species of marine life spawn in the warm Caribbean waters. A variety of class projects could be developed in conjunction with the elementary, junior high and high school biology curricula. Students would learn about the marine life of the Caribbean, develop an understanding of marine populations, study reproductive cycles and understand the interaction between the environment and marine life.
Such projects provide hands-on, interactive learning experiences for students and provide them with critical skills of observation, measurement and analysis of information. Most important, it teaches students the value of the living world around them and the importance of critical thinking. With the proper investments and innovative thinking, it is possible to change the "limitations" of being on an island into very positive and powerful educational experiences.
- The second component is teacher training. Given the pace of technological development, the training received by science teachers as little as five years ago can be obsolete. As an example, in my own field of research of experimental plasma physics, the physical system I'm studying in my laboratory -- a dusty plasma -- did not exist in a laboratory setting as recently as 10 years ago. It is imperative that teachers continually make the effort to remain up-to-date on changes that occur in the subjects that they are teaching. Teachers who can show that science is not a just a series of facts in a textbook, but rather a vibrant, constantly evolving subject will transfer that enthusiasm to their students.
Simultaneously, the education bureaucracy must be willing to reward innovation and achievement in the classroom as well as to take corrective actions when teachers are not performing. This means that some mixture of quantitative -- for example, student performance on standardized exams -- and qualitative -- for example, student and peer surveys -- teacher evaluation is needed to ensure that students have access to the most highly qualified educators.
However, this also means that the education bureaucracy should take a lead role in encouraging and facilitating the self-improvement of teachers. This requires leaders who not only have strong educational credentials but also possess excellent management and motivational abilities. In the end, no matter how many programs are available to teachers, if teachers are unaware of their existence or are discouraged from pursuing self-improvement, they cannot and will not take advantage of those opportunities.
- The third component is cultural and social. It is too easy for politicians and community leaders to say the youth of our community are valuable, then call for reducing the Education Department budget. Too often in our society, we are quick to elevate those people who can hit or throw a ball while, at the same time, we denigrate those people who seek more intellectual avenues for success. We must be willing as a community to tell our students that we value their education and we value intellectual pursuits.
Events such as territory-wide science fairs and public lecture series on science and technology hosted by UVI would be excellent methods for publicizing the role of science. Additionally, after-school and summertime outreach programs are other excellent mechanisms for identifying and nurturing academically talented students. And while these ideas all need sources of funds to implement, federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation often provide grants to support many of these programs.
The need for human and material resources
The reality is that science and technology are forming the new arena for competition in the 21st century. The inability to compete in that arena will place our students -- and eventually the whole Virgin Islands community -- at a severe disadvantage in the years to come.
To improve the entire educational system, two key points must be considered.
- First, teachers have a duty to provide students with an intellectually stimulating and challenging educational environment. It is reasonable to demand that teachers be present in the classroom. Furthermore, it is reasonable to demand that teachers be well trained and well qualif ied to be in the classroom.
- Second, the public must realize that education is one of the most critical services provided by the government. School is not a glorified daycare center, and most teachers work much, much longer than 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day to ensure that students have a proper education. Therefore, it is the duty of the public to demand that the educational system be properly funded and that teachers have the resources necessary to carry out the vital tasks we ask of them.
As a community, we have long recognized the importance of educators such as Ruth Thomas, J. Antonio Jarvis and Addelita Cancryn. The time has come again to place education at the forefront of our community.

Editor's note: Dr. Edward E. Thomas Jr. is an assistant professor of physics at Auburn University in Auburn , Ala. A Virgin Islander, he is a product of the St. Thomas private and public school systems.
We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.