Claudia Cooper is the exception, not the rule.
The seventh-grader from West Hills Middle School in West Bloomfield, Mich., said she’s only recently developed a passion for science. That interest helped her and her classmates take home a second-place prize in this year’s Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision Awards, the largest student science and technology competition in the nation.
“I actually didn’t even like science before this,” the 13-year-old said in between giving demonstrations of her team’s project: the Intra-trachea Breathing System, which is meant to filter air and become a less burdensome alternative to oxygen tanks for those with breathing problems.
But across the country, teachers and scientists are facing a test tougher than any in the laboratory: how to keep young students interested in science and engineering, especially at a time when many fear the nation is losing ground to China and other competitors in cutting-edge technology and innovation.
“The younger the kids, the ideas are far better. Around fifth grade, they start losing that … creativity,” said Karen Lozano, a University of Texas professor and mother of Pablo Vidal, a 3rd-grade student at Discovery Montessori School in McAllen, Tx., which took home a first-place award in the ExploraVision contest for its “intelligent streets” invention, which would use “smart translucent film” in car windshields to receive traffic updates and warnings from satellites.
Lawmakers fear students like Claudia Cooper and Pablo Vidal are becoming more and more rare. At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Thursday, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Maryland Republican,
lamented society’s fixation on sports and entertainment, which, he argued, drain students’ interest in science.
“I watch the White House and the people that they invite there and slobber all over. They’re not scientists, mathematicians and engineers. They’re not academic achievers. They’re athletes and entertainers,” he said. “I have a huge concern that we’re not going to be able to retain our position as the premier economic and military power of the world if we’re turning out one-seventh as many scientists … as our competitors.”
When most students reach Claudia Cooper’s age, it’s usually too late.
“People get a lifelong passion for what they’re going to do before age 10,” said Bill Nye, who works with ExploraVision and spoke Friday at its Friday showcase at the National Press Club in D.C., where winning inventions were on display for the public.
Mr. Nye, a scientist, educator and mechanical engineer, is best known for his emmy-winning Disney television series “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” which ran from 1993 to 1998.
Fifty years ago, he said students were inspired by the Apollo missions and captivated by the idea that man could reach the moon. The ripple effects of that event, he said, are still being felt and serve as fuel to top scientists, government officials and others working toward new breakthroughs.
“I just hope we can achieve the same level of motivation” that the moon mission provided, Mr. Nye said.
One way to get students interested is to get them out of the classroom. What often draws youngsters away from science and toward sports is the concept that science, with its endless formulas and complex chemical cocktails, is a bore, said Arthur Eisenkraft, a professor of science education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and co-creator of the ExploraVision awards, now in their 19th year.
“Too often in the day-to-day learning of science, the fun is missing,” he said.