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Despite U.S. Sweep of Nobels, Science Teachers Are Worried

October 07, 2006|From the Associated Press

The American sweep of Nobel Prizes in science this year has filled the nation's science educators not only with pride over what's done well in U.S. labs and classrooms -- but angst over what's not.

"We are the best in the world at what we do at the top end, and we are mediocre -- or worse -- at the bottom end," said Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University, who studies the role of science in American society.

A total of five American researchers won Nobels in medicine, physics and chemistry this week, the first all-American club of science laureates since 1983.

The U.S. dominance reflects decades of excellent research and training at this country's universities and strong public financing of basic research, scientists said.

But they stressed that younger students needed more than inspiring role models.

"This is great that we had so much success this year, but I'm actually worried about the future," said Judith Opert Sandler, who runs the nonprofit Center for Science Education at the Education Development Center Inc. in Newton, Mass.

"I think it should be science for all. I don't think it should be just science to produce scientists."

Science advocates said the American public showed a poor grasp of science on such issues as stem cell funding and global warming.

A 2001 survey by the National Science Foundation found that about half the public thought dinosaurs and humans had walked the Earth together and that half didn't know electrons are smaller than atoms.

Science advocates say science education for most students is second-rate through high school.

"If you look at the intellectual horsepower that is now becoming evident in places like China, Singapore, Australia ... then we're in for extraordinary competition," said biochemist A. Stephen Dahms, who heads the Valencia-based Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Biomedical Engineering.

Engineer Charles Vest, a former president of MIT, said future American leadership would be harder to maintain with the weakening of basic scientific research at U.S. industrial labs in recent years.

"I think that in science we're still king of the hill, but we're going to have a lot of challenges in the decade ahead," he said.

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