Science or science appreciation?

The National Research Council’s new K-12 science framework will prepare students to be technology consumers not creators, writes Ze’ev Wurman, a high-tech engineer who’s worked on education standards and advised the U.S. Education Department.

The framework has prestigious authors in science and science education and they promise a “coherent and consistent approach” that will enable students to “actively engage in science and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of each fields’ disciplinary core ideas,” Wurman writes. Furthermore, engineering is introduced as a K-12 subject for the first time.

But “the framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science.”

By grade 12, students are supposed to be competent in “recognizing,” “expressing,” and “using simple … mathematical expressions … to see if they make sense,” but not in actually solving science problems using mathematics.

Before Lavoisier’s quantitative approach there was no chemistry, only alchemy. Before Newton’s invention of calculus, physics was more a craft than a science. Mathematics has been inseparable from science for the last 300 years, and has been largely responsible for the world we live in. Yet here we have a “21st century” science framework for our students that effectively ignores mathematics.

Wurman went back to the first page, which explained the framework’s purpose.

The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.

The framework isn’t teaching students to solve science problems, Wurman concludes. It’s teaching science appreciation.  He doesn’t think a math-free, science lite curriculum will prepare U.S. students for Silicon Valley’s high-tech jobs, many of which are filled with engineers trained in India, East Asia and Israel.


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  1. Eric Jablow says:

    I wold wager that this approach is intended to cover up that school science teachers do not understand the sciences. After all, one cannot teach a subject one does not know.

  2. The K-12 science framework is meant for all students, not just for those who are likely to pursue a career in engineering or science. For students in the low normal range of cognitive ability, these standards are going to be very challenging. Wurman is out of touch with reality if he thinks that a student with an IQ of 85 is going to be able to do science at the level that he recommends.

    H1-B visas are used by American employers as a way to get engineers who are willing to work for low wages under conditions of virtual indentured servitude. My school had a couple of teachers here on H1-B visas. (Does anyone think that elementary school teachers are in short supply in the US?) One of these teachers made the mistake of complaining about working conditions. He wasn’t just fired, he was deported.

    For what it matters, Israel has a notoriously poor education system and comes in well behind the US on international tests.

  3. I wold wager that this approach is intended to cover up that school science teachers do not understand the sciences.

    You’d lose. And next time, cover up the fact that you don’t know how to spell “would”.

    Ray–yeah, I posted a fair amount of that just now at the other site. I agree.

  4. In STEM, in the “real world”, a project may
    1) be so complex that no one person can understand it.
    2) it takes months, or longer, to understand a single facet
    3) no one really knows whether it will succeed or fail, or when
    4) the level of complexity requires abstraction for simplification.

    A teacher’s life is quite different.
    1) all projects assigned by the teacher are easy so that the slowest kid will “succeed”.
    2) the project’s been done before, by said teacher, as well as by other teachers. Many, many times.
    3) Little abstraction is required because the project is so simple. If you want to build a bridge that spans a 3 foot ditch, it can be “designed” and built by brute force requiring no formal analysis. This doesn’t scale.

    Teachers, especially those who’ve only worked as teachers, seem to have a tendency to assume that everything is far simpler and requires less knowledge than is really needed. I would hear teachers in the lounge claim that kids don’t really need to know anything because they can just google the info.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    I would say it is being done because so many teachers cannot teach the math needed to give the kids the solid foundation needed to take real high school science…

  6. Be sure and bring up the moronic SAT scores of ed majors–few to none of whom become math teachers, and most of whom have to pass a qualifying test.

    People are so utterly clueless.

  7. Quote:

    I would say it is being done because so many teachers cannot teach the math needed to give the kids the solid foundation needed to take real high school science…

    You won’t get a solid foundation in math without mastery of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, fractions, place value, and a few other things which were once taught properly in grades 1-5 (or in many cases, in the home by parents).

    In the seattle times today, a unemployed 46 year old in sales is struggling to get through college algebra (which is a mis-nomer) since this course should have been taken in high school so he can fulfill the requirements to be admitted to a computer networking and security program.

    Here is a small quote from the article:

    At age 46, with three grown kids and nearly three decades in sales behind him, Chris Mugler of Auburn is two places he thought he’d never be: unemployed and back in school.

    Four days a week, Mugler is sweating through college math, one of the prerequisites for the computer-networking program he plans to start this fall. “The algebra class I’m taking right now is kicking my butt,” he said, so he’s asked a recent high-school grad to tutor him.

    Perhaps Mr. Mugler should have had an assessment before getting started in the program to see exactly where his academic skills need brushing up on.

    As someone who works in this field, I can tell that if he’s struggling with algebra now, he’s gonna have a huge issue when it comes to pre-calculus (which is usually the math required in most programs of this type), also most programs require electronics coursework, which also requires a solid knowledge of algebra.

    The inability to teach math properly at grades 1-5 over the last 10-20 years has closed the door on many persons who would like to have a different career, but find they’ve been shut out due to a piss poor math education.

  8. I teach, physics, and when I do math in my head in front of my students, I feel like Einstein! Calculate slope off of a graph? Use that slope to predict (extrapolate) their data for further experimentation? It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
    Try teaching someone how to do pH from concentration who doesn’t know what or how to do a logarithm-ouch!-when I taught chem. we did them with charts and no calculators-I was so mean!
    You cannot do any science without any math. Sorry, that is the way it works. Until then, we will have “appreciative science” with edible cells.

  9. Cranberry says:

    Ray states,For students in the low normal range of cognitive ability, these standards are going to be very challenging. Wurman is out of touch with reality if he thinks that a student with an IQ of 85 is going to be able to do science at the level that he recommends.

    The students at the low range of cognitive ability won’t meet these standards. Is that a reason to deny a scientific education to the students at the top?

    Less math, but more engineering? That’s not possible. Less math, with time-wasting, engineering-inspired activities, is quite possible. The students will be able to wear lab coats and safety goggles. They’ll be “engaged” in the classroom, because they won’t have to think too hard.

    They’ll appreciate how smart those scientists are.

  10. Let no child get ahead.

  11. Bob, when kids have to reach for a calculator to multiply a whole number by 10, that’s what the world has come to. Place value was learned (at least when I attended public school) in grades 1-5 more than 30 years ago.

    Also, to multiply by 12 by 10, you just put a zero on the right hand side of the 12, making it 120 (school house rock – zero my hero). How is a student going to understand pH if they don’t understand logarithms…


  12. “The K-12 science framework is meant for all students”,

    Gyms are for all sorts of people with all sorts of body types. Yet we don’t expect the oldest/weakest person to benchpress at least 60% of what the biggest hulk in the gym can press, and we don’t weld the plates to ensure that the heaviest barbell is no more than 50lbs.

    Also, gyms don’t pretend that the greatest non-athlete will make it to the olympics.

  13. There is nothing about the standards that prevents students from taking more challenging classes. They are meant to be a minimum standard that all high school students should be expected to achieve. AP science and math classes can and should be offered to higher achieving students. Enrollment in AP science and math classes has surged in recent years and students are doing better on the AP exams.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Kids should know, regardless of their intended field–and not many of us are in our intended field for our entire working lives–enough science to be skeptical of people with hot new ideas, ostensibly science.
    This is not limited to AGW, although that’s a good and important start.
    The anti-vaccine campaign is another.
    And…well, I don’t have all night.

  15. SuperSub says:

    The problem is the marketing of the new curriculum to parents. If parents believe that the new courses are equivalent to traditional science courses the majority will not push their students into more challenging classes early enough for them to succeed.

  16. If you follow the link, you will see that the framework is not a set of new courses. It is a list of “the key scientific practices, concepts and ideas that all students should learn by the time they complete high school”. Please note the use of the phrase all students. AP classes and International Baccalaureate will continue to be offered to high achieving students.

  17. Cranberry says:


    For most qualified students, AP and IB kick in at the end of high school. At many schools, access to AP and IB is subject to strict gatekeeping. Removing math from science education for the majority of students, for the majority of their K-12 studies, is not a small issue.

    I had math-based science courses from seventh grade on. Our school system tracked, beginning in seventh grade. As tracking is now politically incorrect, curricular standards for all students are the standards set for all students. The NCLB tests are much more important to administrators in public schools than the AP and IB tests.

    At one time, I would have accepted the “it’s a floor, not a ceiling” argument. After witnessing the effect of NCLB exams on our local public schools, I no longer believe such arguments. Proficiency (note, not “advanced”) on the state exams become the de facto ceiling for school effort for all students.

  18. At the excellent HS my older kids attended, AP sciences did and still do have the corresponding honors-level course as prerequisites. The honors courses are rigorous HS-level classes but the APs (double period every day) are true college-level classes. Both honors and AP chem and physics are math-based (can’t remember about honors bio and my kids didn’t take AP), and the AP physics must be taken with or after AP calc BC. The kids need to be in honors algebra 2, at least by sophomore year, in order to take the top sciences. Cranberry is right; this will further weaken education.

    I recently read that, starting with this fall’s entering freshmen, all kids must take both chem and physics (I think algebra 2 is already required). Needless to say, many kids aren’t prepared for or interested in the real classes in any of the above, so I’m betting the classes will be math/science light (like this idea) – about science, not how to do science. The bigger schools will probably offer two different classes, one real and one pretend, but the large number of small schools won’t be able to do that and the kids that could do the real class will have nothing useful for future college work.

  19. When I was in high school, a college bound person was recommended to take 3 units of science (2 of which were a lab science). In terms of general requirements, you only need 1 unit of science to graduate, 2 in math, and 2 in english, 2 in history/government, 2 in phys ed, 1/2 a unit in health, 1/4 unit in careers, and 1/4 unit of driver’s ed.

    You needed a total of 19 units to actually graduate, so the rest of the courses were electives (regardless of what you took). This was 30 years ago, mind you…

  20. Science without math is just opinion.

    The company I work for has had a high-end programming position open for the last few weeks (by high-end, I mean both difficult programming tasks and math in the course of scientific analysis). So far, about a dozen resumes have made it through HR and down to my boss and to me. Of the dozen, only one was a native-born US citizen. About two-thirds were Indian-born and we’ve narrowed it down to two, both born and educated outside the US (judging from the fact that their undergraduate degrees were from India). Just one data point, but I’ll bet it’s not an outlier.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    I can think of worse ways to find immigrants. Of course, the determination and ingenuity necessary to illegally cross a border isn’t chopped liver, either. I guess it depends on assimilation….

  22. I’d like to note that this is high school level science standards we’re talking about. No one would expect a high school student to be able to work as an engineer or in a science lab doing anything except the most menial work. Those are the skills you learn in college (or graduate programs).

    The goal of these guidelines isn’t to teach high schoolers how do to real science. That would further alienate the students who are not scientifically inclined. Instead, the goal is to make science accessible to everyone–it’s to create a body of voters who can look at a scientific concept and understand the fundamentals of it, to assess if it is plausible and to see how it relates to their lives. We want to remove a fear of science and technology from students who are not scientifically inclined.

  23. High school science courses, even math-intensive or lab courses, don’t prepare students for a career in science. Even college courses don’t really do that. As with just about every career, the only thing that prepares someone for a career in a scientific field is actually beginning the career and gaining experience. A curriculum like the one proposed by the National Research Council, combining basic facts with scientific discussions based around hypotheses and observations would make science interesting and accessible to students and hopefully motivate them to study science at a higher level. This curriculum as a baseline, with honors and AP courses for students who want to jump right in to more rigorous learning, would do more to produce future scientists and engineers than simply trying to mass-produce them in high school and winding up with a bunch of uninterested students.