Can we fill our classrooms with potential scientists?

When I was a youngster, I always thought the new year began the day after Labor Day – the first day of the school year. It was a year of new teachers, new classrooms, new clothes and shoes and new learning.

When I entered the sixth grade, however, something changed. In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, and it was orbiting the earth. My class and I went immediately into an enhanced program of mathematics and science. Over the next few years, we received an evolving set of textbooks in different fields of science and math. We began to do experiments in our sixth grade classroom, which was not set up for them.

Camp Med, Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan

Science and math emphasis

The emphasis continued through junior high and high school. We began our higher mathematics training a year early. We did experiments in a newly built science building at our high school, where I learned the importance of precise measurement. Our teachers went to school to learn to teach us.

Yet many of those students who successfully completed the “advanced courses” as they were called are today nearing retirement. In the decades since, we’ve lost the enthusiasm for pushing new boundaries in teaching science and mathematics at all levels. Today, our politicians worry that higher level algebra is just too hard, that chemistry is not necessary for a service-based economy. We risk losing the pre-eminence we have gained in the hard and biological sciences.

Children deserve better

Our children and our future deserve better. At Baylor College of Medicine, we have partnered with the Houston Independent School District to launch the Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan, a middle school program that will focus on educating students in the fields of science and math. Many of them will pursue careers in medicine; others may go into the laboratory, marine science, geology, physics or chemistry. The program at Ryan is a complement to the existing Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions, which has been in operation since 1972. It is ranked high in the nation.

Yet I wonder about the children who are not going to Ryan or DeBakey. How many of them have the potential to become scientists and mathematician and are just waiting for that spark to put them on the road to advances in those careers? With luck, some of them will become part of our Saturday Morning Science program, begun by Dr. James L. Phillips, senior associate dean, to lure inner city children in Houston into the work of the laboratory and higher math. The Saturday Morning Science Research Program gives high school students who are members of underrepresented minorities the chance to work with a BCM faculty member and learn about science hands-on.

Undergraduates

The Baylor SMART (Summer Medical and Research Training) Program for undergraduate students interested in a career in scientific research provides a great opportunity for those already in science to learn about life in the laboratory and the careers that are available. The Michael E. DeBakey Summer Surgery Program offers similar opportunities for college students interested in a medical career.

Bioed Online and K8 Science, products of BCM’s Center for Educational Outreach, strive to produce six to nine weeks of instruction integrating guided inquiry science with mathematics, reading and language arts, helping teachers provide the best in science education to their students. The Center also provides professional development workshops for teachers, including the Science Learning and Leadership Collaborative that provides year-long guidance and is offered in collaboration with Houston Independent School District.

Yet the need is great, and many students are not receiving the exciting education that would direct them into careers in science and mathematics that could be fulfilling for the rest of their lives. Perhaps we need another Sputnik, that kick in the pants that tells the United States that it is time to put education into high gear again, making it exciting and affordable for the next generation of its children.

Read more about educational programs at the College

This story originally appeared in From the Laboratories, a monthly online newsletter about research at the College. Subscribe to From the Laboratories online.

-By Ruth SoRelle, MPH

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