Guest Column

Empowering our students to love science

June 30, 2017
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Health sciences, medicine and biomedical research are not possible without the right technology, the right resources and, most importantly, the right people. We live in a time of incredible technological innovation, and as a global community, we face unparalleled issues that impact every aspect of life. In this new age, we rely on the tools of scientific discovery and the spirit of innovation to solve problems and make our world a more sustainable and hospitable place.

New therapies for diseases, such as cancer and Parkinson’s and new technologies that improve our quality of life, depend on the next generation of innovators, engineers and scientists to lead the way. They will be professionals who started their life’s work as students, with curious minds and unlimited potential. Their journey will have begun with a teacher, a lesson or a discovery that set their mind ablaze and illuminated a love, not only for learning, but also for seeing the impossible as possible. The next Bill Gates, James Watson or Margaret Hamilton is sitting in a classroom right now, in an American city, looking for inspiration and dreaming of the day their idea could change the world.

Changing the conversation

There is no denying that students in the United States have a great amount of potential, but when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its 2015 student performance rankings on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), there were some disturbing trends. PISA is administered to 540,000 15-year-olds in 72 countries every three years and is used globally by politicians to determine public policy. The U.S. saw an 11-point drop in the average score for math, while science and reading scores remained flat. American students placed 38th of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. A second study showed the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science among the 35 OECD member countries.

These statistics should give us pause, especially because recent U.S Department of Labor projections show that of the 20 fastest growing occupations, 15 require high levels of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) aptitude. Unfortunately, graduating students are not keeping pace with employer needs. According to a September 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, almost 6 million jobs went unfilled. The reasons for this are complex, but it is clear a skills gap is contributing to the problem. If we truly want to help our students become competitive in the modern workforce, we need to change the conversation and develop innovative new ways to inspire the next generation of great minds. If we don’t, students in the U.S. could become far less competitive in the global marketplace of ideas.

Letting students drive

In order to change the tide of STEM education in this country, we need to empower students. This can be challenging, especially in an educational system focused on knowing the right answer rather than integrating a continuum of knowledge. Van Andel Education Institute (VAEI) uses an inquiry-based approach to science education to create an engaging culture of learning that encourages students to think critically and work collaboratively. Based on the scientific process, inquiry-based science education is not about being right, but is about answering a question that will inevitably lead to more questions. Educators at VAEI encourage teachers and students to work independently, take risks and make mistakes. If education is an immersive experience, focused around problem solving, rather than finding the right answer, students become engaged, active, empowered participants in the learning process.

The institute’s science education initiatives encompass student programs, teacher educational development and new technology. In all three areas, the institute’s model emphasizes the scientific method of asking a question, making a prediction, collecting data through observation, developing an explanation and conducting ongoing evaluation to refine and improve the process. Methods and materials give teachers the tools they need to embrace inquiry in their classrooms and students the tools they need to do real science, seek out answers and feel passionately connected to their work.

If students in the U.S. continue to view science and math as bland chapters in a textbook, we will miss an opportunity to encourage generations of great scientific minds. Our world desperately needs dynamic thinkers who are both creative and collaborative. As leaders in education and the health sciences, it is our unique responsibility to give the next generation the tools they need to compete and thrive. Students deserve better than the status quo, and if we truly want to make our country a global leader in science and technology, we should start by giving our students an education that inspires and ignites their passions.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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