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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Science Committee Hearing on Science and Math Education Features "Bill Nye the Science Guy"

March 4, 1998

At a March 4, 1998 House Science Committee hearing on maintaining interest of young children in science and math, lawmakers heard from several science education experts including a winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Math Teaching and television personality "Bill Nye the Science Guy". During the hearing, committee members continually voiced their concerns over recent results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) that showed U.S. 12th grade students lagging far behind their counterparts abroad in math and science.

The hearing was the first in a series relating to the on-going study of science policy requested by House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) opened the hearing by saying that the aim of study would be get beyond simply budget policy and formulate sound principles that would guide future decisions and policies. Committee Vice Chairman Vern Ehlers voiced his hope to create a truly bipartisan effort that would involve the entire science committee. Noting that he had been chosen by Chairman Sensenbrenner to lead the study on behalf of the Science Committee, Ehlers stressed that the study would be reflect the work of the entire committee - not a select task force.

Ehlers went on to say that science and math education would be a focus of the science policy study. "I am convinced from my own experience as an educator that a hands-on inquiry-based approach to science is the best way [to improve student learning]", he said. Bill Nye and other witnesses echoed Ehlers's comments by noting that we are all scientists with innate curiosity about the natural world, and it is important science and math education to reflect this natural passion for discovery.

There was a demonstration of several activities funded by NSF at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, as well shows produced by the Children's Television Workshop. Witnesses discussed a number of ways to keep science fun and to better link the approach of science television shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy to efforts in the classroom. Panel witnesses praised efforts of the National Science Foundation to help fund informal science activities and to enable better understanding of child cognitive development and learning.

Lawmakers also were shown an example of inquiry-based learning from a group of 5th grade students from Flint Hill School in Oakton, VA that demonstrated the circular flow of electric current. One of the key conclusions of the panel was that teachers often do not have background, the tools, or the training to improve the teaching of science in the classroom. Better teacher training, both of the existing teacher corps and of the young people studying to become teachers was critical. All agreed with Bill Nye's opinion that the abysmal state of school construction - especially in underserved areas - was a serious impediment to learning.

There was some debate over the federal role in education and whether government policies were hindering or helping young people learn science. Democrats including Mike Doyle (D-PA) complained that funding schools based on property taxes allowed affluent school districts to have the best technology and teachers while poorer school districts got left behind. Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD) advocated legislation that she is sponsoring to establish a federal commission on women in science and technology to improve the representation of women in science and engineering. She also noted that she would soon introduce a bill that would establish a national commission on science and math leadership through the National Academy of Sciences.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) agreed with comments by the witnesses and by other committee members that participation of young women in science and math is critical for the future. Noting the experience of his own daugheter, Rep. Salmon commented that young girls are often discouraged in subtle ways from pursuing science and math careers during high school.

Some Republican members, including Reps. Gil Gutneckt (R-MN), Chris Cannon (R-UT) and Thomas Ewing (R-IL) advocated school choice policies and questioned whether throwing more and more money at the problem was a good policy since student performance in science has not improved over the past decade, despite rising budgets for education. Republicans generally called for schools to have more flexibility to hire and promote teachers based on performance rather than approve across the board salary increases for all teachers regardless of teaching ability or area of expertise.