Science education suffers in America due to a lack of funding. In a national survey of 696 math and science teachers, 70 percent reported that they don’t have enough support to adequately conduct their lessons. The survey was conducted by Emily Cayton, a newly hired assistant professor at Campbell University, and the implications of her research have her worried about the future of STEM performance in higher education and beyond.
The trend of chronic underfunding in math and science is similar to that of education more broadly, but one key difference is that the cost of materials for these courses tends to be much higher. Science courses are hands-on, which helps students more fully experience lessons that would otherwise be stuck on the page. Things break as a result, Cayton says. “The supplies in these classes need to be replaced frequently. There are also many laboratory experiments, such as dissections and chemical reactions, in which materials are only able to be used once.”
The temporary nature of supplies and materials is often overlooked by policymakers allocating school budgets. Cayton says they should think of equipment like beakers and eggs as recurring costs, not one-time purchases meant to last the entire year.
Costs fall on teachers—and students suffer
In the absence of such foresight, it’s the teachers themselves who are forced to pick up the slack. 94.6 percent pay out of pocket for materials—$450 on average. Some pay as much as $2,000 per year. Rather than developing the kinds of lessons that would inspire young minds to strive for careers in STEM fields, teachers are having to downgrade the quality of experimentation. They conduct fewer labs, select less intensive experiments, and sometimes run “paper labs,” which are scarcely more instructive than crunching numbers.
Without a reliable stock of equipment and supplies, the quality of American science instruction operates under constraint. As the demand for scientific literacy becomes more urgent, teachers are being asked to prepare their students for the future. Cayton warns of the risks of letting them down: “Providing teachers with limited funds for science instruction could hinder students’ ability to compete globally for jobs.”
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