How Not To Care About Science Education

Note:  The following is my own opinion, and does not represent the opinion of Brookhaven National Lab, or any of the personnel who work there.  Similarly, I would very much like to make a strong distinction between the scientists, educators and lab administrators whom I have worked with in the DOE-ACTS program, and the federal apparatus of the Department of Energy that handles the program.  It is entirely the latter to whom the ire below is directed.  The folks who work at Brookhaven National Lab are entirely awesome and right-minded people.  Working with them for the past two summers has been a highlight of my career.

For the past few summers, I have had the good fortune to have a fellowship through the Department of Energy, in what they call their “Academies Creating Teacher Scientists” program (acronymized as ACTS).  It is a great program.  For a three-summer commitment, I go to our local national laboratory and work with actual PhD scientists doing actual research.  I get to network with practicing scientists, and a good number of like-minded educators, all of whom are in the ACTS program, and all of whom are working on other, similarly interesting projects with similarly interesting people.  I am also compensated with a fair stipend (to take the place of another summer gig—summer school, for instance) for the 40-odd hours of work I do at the lab each week the program runs, and an allowance for conference and equipment expenditures during the school year.  My district has also given me 6 in-service credits for each summer of the program (a rate of one per week).  

During my first summer, I worked in bioinformatics, learning a bit of dilettante-level perl scripting to parse genome data, which culminated in a rather basic project analyzing dinucleotide frequencies across different bacterial genomes to demonstrate that there are, in fact, noticeable differences in such things.  Summer two brought me to the department of environmental management, where I worked with two other teachers to study populations of endangered tiger beetle species on the campus, with an eye toward informing the department where they should, and should not, dump their crushed concrete on the firebreak, research which the endeavoring soul can read about here.  It should be noted, that my experiences pale in comparison to some of my colleagues, who have done things that are so impressive to me that to list them all here would take up the rest of this post.

These summers are a great opportunity for science teachers.  We look forward to the work, and the networking.  Plus, the opportunity to actually do some science is invaluable for our actual teaching, and provides the sort of real-world experience that can’t help but make us better teachers.  Given the most recent push for STEM education at the federal level, one would think that the ACTS program is the kind of thing that the federal government would be trumpeting from on high as an example of how things should be done.

By now, you can probably see where this is going.  Yesterday, we were told that the Office of Educational Programs at Brookhaven National Lab had been informed by DOE central that the ACTS program was dead.  Immediately dead.  No more money for the program, no more work during the summer, nothing.  The contracts that we had signed at the beginning of summer #1, where we agreed to sign on for a three-summer commitment, are nullified.  The proverbial game is over.

I am sure that you can imagine how upset the ACTS fellows are about this.  The experience that is the crown jewel of our summertime has evaporated with almost no warning (we had been informed of trouble on the horizon earlier this year, but the thought was that such issues wouldn’t effect the program until after this summer).  It is a very surprising, disappointing development, to say the least.

To say a bit more, it speaks to larger issues about the state of science education in this country, and the rather conflicting messages that Washington is sending about it at this point in time.  As a science teacher, I hear a continual tide of lament about the state of science education, and the fact that students are not being provided with enough genuine experience to be globally competitive.  I hear that science teachers are not being given enough genuine experience to bring to their students.  I hear this from people like the President.  And yet, when given the opportunity to continue to fund a specific instance of progressive science teaching, the federal government abdicates its pre-established commitments to a group of teachers who elect to spend their summer vacations working close to the scientific metal.  

How can both of these ideas be held simultaneously by the folks who are making these decisions?  The answer to this question speaks to the shocking lack of focus being given to the issue of science education (and I would argue, to education in general) at the federal level.  When the Secretary of Energy visited Brookhaven National Laboratory this past week, and was asked about the abrupt cut in funding to the ACTS program, he had no idea about it.  He then proceeded to give a several-minute explanation about how wonderful it is to have teachers working at the National Laboratories, and encouraged the Office of Educational Programs to continue their efforts, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the very programs he was extolling had just been slashed, by his own department.

The manner in which this funding cut was handled, suddenly here at the end of April when most comparable forms of summer employment for teachers have already been advertised and filled, speaks to a level of uncaring, faceless bureaucracy that only the federal government could demonstrate.  Not only has the DOE decided to stop having the people who teach science to the children of the nation spend time actually practicing the craft, but they have done it in such a way as to leave a sour taste in the mouth of those same people. 

Bottom line, it seems that science education is no different from any of the other nonsense that is currently gripping the educational structures of this country.  No less beholden to the modes of thought that put economics over the interests of students.  No less immune to the hypocrisy of saying one thing while doing the other.  I wouldn’t be quite as upset if the federal government spoke the way that it acted.  While I would still have a large argument if those who make these sorts of calls proclaimed that education had to take a back seat to finances, at least I wouldn’t be left puzzled by institutions that act one way, while they profess that they are doing the opposite.  As it stands now, it’s just a lame demonstration of where the priorities really lie.

I Write Letters: To DOE Secretary Steven Chu