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The case for science education

There are some relevant themes in this article surrounding education, academia, and the biotechnology industry. Boston has the second highest concentration of biotechnology businesses in the country.

The case for science education

By Lance Hartford September 25, 2008

WITH THE RELEASE of this year’s troubling MCAS scores in science, it is obvious that the state must try harder to engage students in science education if it hopes to fill future life sciences jobs.

Last year, 20 percent of high school students taking the SAT in Massachusetts indicated that they planned on STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) majors in college. That translates to roughly 12,400 students. But in 2006, there were more than 86,000 job vacancies in key life sciences occupations in the state, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

If Massachusetts high school students hope to fill this gap, consider the newly released 2008 science MCAS scores. Seventeen percent of high school sophomores failed. While that is better than the 25 percent who failed last year, it indicates that there is a long way to go to increase the scientific literacy of students.

The employment gap and the MCAS results leave the Commonwealth at a crucial juncture. The industry is growing and the demand for qualified employees will continue to rise. According to a new study by the University of Massachusetts’ Donohue Institute – “Growing Talent” – 88 percent of Massachusetts life sciences companies expect modest or substantial growth in their Massachusetts workforce over the next two years, and no employers project a decline.

The New England Economic Partnership predicts that employment opportunities in the life sciences cluster will increase twice as fast as Massachusetts’ overall employment growth. If students continue to lag behind in science comprehension, it puts the state’s future economic viability at stake and will force companies to look outside the state lines to fill those jobs.

Educators know that students can learn only so much from a book. Hands-on situations drawn from the “real world” give science tangible context for students. For example, the BioTeach program, which provides schools with financial, professional, and educational resources to teach interactive biotechnology labs, brings the same lab equipment found at a biotech company into classrooms. A three-year evaluation of the program, conducted by the education research organization TERC, indicates that BioTeach helped teachers increase their knowledge of biotechnology and had a significant impact on student interest in the life sciences.

Research shows that the best time to recruit students to pursue education and careers in the STEM fields is before they enter middle school. That means before they hit their teens. How can young students decide they want to work in the life sciences if they don’t know what that means or what those jobs look like?

To introduce life sciences to students at a younger age, the governor and Legislature introduced a promising program in the Life Sciences Bill. The plan is to develop a statewide system of mobile labs to provide interactive biotechnology experiences to schools that do not have access to needed scientific resources. The hope is to engage them, capture their imaginations, expand their knowledge of biotech career opportunities, and, ultimately, seed interest in pursuing a career in the STEM fields.

Through the science MCAS scores, students are showing that they are not prepared to join the burgeoning life sciences economy. The opportunities are plentiful, but the employees who are qualified to take on those opportunities will not be home-grown unless the state continues to invest in science education.

There has been a small improvement in the science MCAS scores, but more needs to be done. Industry, academia, and government must work together to help drive student interest in science and ensure there is a prepared workforce, both of which will contribute to the sustained growth of the life sciences industry in Massachusetts.

Lance Hartford is executive director of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation.


November 13, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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