As science scores lag, some schools take hands-on approach

NEW BRITAIN–Despite a sobering national report released today about the state of science education in the United States, some schools are proving that science can inspire students even in the most unlikely of places.

Such is the case at New Britain High School, where students are conducting sophisticated, prize-winning science projects in a city plagued by a growing fiscal crisis and an achievement gap common to urban schools.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, reported this morning that only about one in three U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders and one in five 12th-graders demonstrated solid performance in science on an exam given in 2009.

Connecticut’s performance on the exam was only slightly better. About 40 percent of the state’s fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the proficient level. Today’s report does not include state-by-state results for 12th-graders.

As in other state and national exams, low-income and minority students lagged far behind their white and more affluent classmates. In Connecticut, for example, 53 percent of white students scored at the proficient level, but only 11 percent of Hispanic students and 9 percent of black students met that mark.

“One of the most difficult challenges facing our education community is identifying the root causes of these gaps, helping students to overcome the effects of poverty and assisting schools in addressing the dramatic differences in academic achievement throughout our state,” acting state Education Commissioner George Coleman said in a press release.

As business leaders, politicians and others stress that scientific and technological know-how is crucial to the nation’s economic health, today’s report is certain to add to the debate over how science is taught.

Employers in science-related fields “are interested in a scientifically literate population to participate in their research and to understand their products,” Coleman said. “They want kids to like science and aspire to science-related careers.”

Some schools, such as those in New Britain, are taking a more aggressive approach to science.

“You read over and over we’re not making the grade,” said Thomas Menditto, coordinator of science for New Britain’s public schools.

“What we need to do is change the way we teach these sciences… be able to have more hands-on applications and integrate with more technology and do it in a way that inspires students,” he said.

That approach is evident, for example in an automotive shop at New Britain High School, where students are modifying an engine to allow it to run on biofuel. “We’re making a car run on French fry grease. I never knew you could do that,” said 17-year-old junior Dario Lopez.

While Lopez and his classmates worked on the engine, others studied the chemical process of refining the fuel from the food waste.

“You can see it happen,” said Faras Sadig, 17, a senior, describing the process of converting the French fry grease. “You put your hand on the outside of the container. You can feel it getting hotter when you add the potassium hydroxide.”

Such projects help bring science to life, said Sadig, who is considering an engineering career.

“We’re only high school students, and we’re already using everything we’re learning in class,” he said. By refining the fuel and modifying the engine, “it opens your eyes to different things you can do” with science.

Projects such as the biofuel car introduce students to a range of scientific fields, said Paul Pelletier, a technology education teacher. “There’s chemistry, there’s physics, there’s earth science,” he said. “With biofuels, there’s biology. Kids can tell you a lot about the carbon cycle.”

New Britain has built hands-on projects into the curriculum. Students have won prizes in robotics competitions and built a solar-powered car that was featured in a documentary filmed with NASA scientists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The school district recently expanded its graduation requirements, including an additional credit in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, often referred to as STEM. The district plans to open a STEM academy at the high school next year and, at one of its elementary schools, will begin a program aimed at introducing science to first graders.

Nevertheless, New Britain, like many urban districts, continues to struggle with large achievement gaps among low-income and minority students on annual statewide tests. Menditto, the science coordinator, says much remains to be done.

That challenge could become more difficult with the threat of dozens of teacher layoffs under a worsening fiscal crisis. Menditto also worries that subjects such as science have been pushed aside by the emphasis on reading and mathematics in standardized tests used to meet requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Richard C. Cole, president of the Connecticut Academy for Education in Mathematics, Science & Technology, said the results reported today on the nationwide science exam are an important snapshot of how students perform but do not tell the entire story.

“We think what it says is we’re not helping children love science, be excited by science,” he said. “I don’t know as a nation why we are surprised by these numbers.”

He said standardized tests don’t always measure the kind of learning that students gain from projects such as the New Britain biofuel experiments.

“It’s very difficult to create a written  test that gets to the kind of hands-on learning experiences that kids get excited about… Creativity and curiosity and innovation are such difficult things to measure, and I’m not sure [this test] is able to do that,” he said.