No Child Left Behind in Science

OpEd – October 01, 2007
By Pergams and Zaradic

Owl pellets and Chicago public school 4th graders. Not much in common except for the biologist guiding the class: Oliver Pergams, dad to Matthias, age 9. But it shouldn’t take a parent volunteer or biology Ph.D. to teach science in elementary schools. However, it is now common that elementary schools have little-no science education until 4th grade, and even then only sporadically thereafter. Why? Science has lost its priority in the American school system. This lack of exposure to science is evident in other disturbing trends. The proportion of U.S. graduate students in science and engineering has declined from 76% American citizens in 1993 to 69% in 2003. We increasingly import science and engineering graduate brainpower from outside the US, up almost 40% from 105,666 foreign visa holders in 1993 to 146,871 in 2003. The problem is not so much a brain drain as a lack of science brain food for our kids. As enjoyable as teaching owl biology to 4th graders is, we feel a broader effort is needed to keep our children engaged and competitive at the forefront of world science.

We propose a national solution to our low science diet. We should rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (U.S. Public Law 107-110) to include “hands-on” science and experience in nature. Since science is not mandated at present, teachers are in effect forced to teach math and reading in great preference to science. Elementary school nature immersion has already been shown to increase test scores in general, not just in science. In California, one such project yielded a 31% increase in composite scores for the total student body, and a 40% increase for Hispanic students (the fastest growing segment of the school population). A rewrite of No Child Left Behind would be a mandate from the top that would have much more effect than a lot of smaller, often volunteer and outreach grassroots efforts.

With the widespread publicity and national interest that author Richard Louv has generated through his bestselling book “Last Child in the Woods”, and with the help of Louv’s Children and Nature Network, perhaps parents and science teachers now have a better chance to put nature and science back into children’s elementary education. Louv, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Conservation Fund recently hosted a National Dialogue on Children and Nature in Washington, D.C. Speakers included U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, Yale’s Stephen Kellert, with many policy makers and foundation representatives in attendance. The purpose of the meeting was to find nationwide solutions to the problem of children’s increasing dissociation with nature.

We were invited as speakers and presented our most recent work, showing that a significant decline in population-weighted visits to U.S. National Parks since 1987 could be explained by increased time spent on movies, Internet, and video games (which we term ‘videophilia’), as well as increased oil prices. The average person in the U.S. spends over 6 hours/day or about 2226 hours/year, on TV, movies, video games, and Internet. This is almost 2 hours/day (about 687 hours/year) more spent on electronic media than in 1988.

This increase in videophilia is especially prevalent in children. Children living in the U.S. spend an average of only four minutes per day of unstructured time outdoors, as compared to over two hours a day in front of a TV screen (for the average toddler). Yet, from a developmental viewpoint, outdoor play and nature experience, especially for early impressionable ages, has proven extremely beneficial for cognitive functioning, reduction in symptoms of ADD, and increase in self-discipline and emotional well being at all developmental stages. Conversely, videophilia is correlated with negative psychological and physical effects including obesity, loneliness, depression, attentional problems, and greater social isolation due to reduced time with friends and family.

Much like the No Child Left Behind Act, Richard Louv’s call to address our children’s “nature deficit disorder” seems to be gaining bipartisan support. Let us meld these efforts. Math, reading and writing are the tools of successful science. By rewriting No Child Left Behind to include science we can use “hands-on” science and nature experiences as the focal subject to bring our children up to speed in mathematics, reading, & writing. Heartbeats, butterflies, and owl pellets can be not only tactile, relevant, experiential foci for math, reading and writing, but pathways to global leadership in research and food for the hungry science mind.