STEM’s Crucial Role

By Lawrence Hardy

If you go to bed early, will you be wealthier than those who go to bed late? Which frog will stay underwater longer -- the albino or grey water frog? Which things in my school are covered with the most bacteria? Does the way a question is worded (neutral vs. leading) influence the accuracy of the answers people give?

Four separate queries, to which we might add a fifth: Are these the kind of questions middle-grades students typically ask?

Answer: They are if you’re fortunate enough to be part of the middle school science initiative called Urban Advantage, which was launched in 2004 by New York City’s American Museum of Natural History and is expanding this year to urban school systems in Denver and Miami.

The four hypotheses above illustrate the kind of “habits of mind” scientists talk passionately about trying to nurture in young people: habits like curiosity, wonder, and perhaps most critical of all in this media-driven age, skepticism. It’s the ability, as a famous newspaper editor once put it in a different but still relevant context, to “zag” while everyone else is “zigging.” To ask, as one middle school student must have asked of Benjamin Franklin’s spirit: “Why will I be richer if I go to bed early -- show me the evidence and let’s prove it.”

And it’s what President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan want states and school districts to foster in students as they compete for some of the $4.34 billion in Race to the Top funds for innovative school reforms. In this “race” to strengthen the public schools with cutting-edge reforms, science and math education is expected to lead the way. 

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