Mathematics and Science Education: Parallel Challenges

Bruce Alberts, President

National Academy of Sciences

Washington, DC


Science and mathematics education face many parallel challenges. The National Science Education Standards (1996) propose that science should become a core subject that is taught along with reading, writing, and mathematics in every school year, starting in kindergarten. I am not referring to science as most students currently experience it, as the memorization of science facts and terms. Science education should instead emphasize empowering experiences in problem-solving that take advantage of the curiosity in children and increase each studentís understanding of the world. Through activities carefully designed through research and development cycles by experts, schooling can become exciting even for those students who currently find little to attract them or motivate them in schools. This type of hands-on inquiry learning can also serve as a core from which meaningful mathematics, writing and reading lessons are spun off.


But there are many challenges ahead. We need outstanding curricula, continuously improved and disseminated widely through the Worldwide Web. Parents need to be convinced that this type of learning makes sense for their children and to understand its nature and its value. Teachers need to be reeducated to teach this type of science, which means that inservice activities of high quality must be designed and become an integral part of school districts. But most importantly, none of this will happen without the energetic and informed participation of our colleges and universities. If our first year science courses for undergraduates do not change to emphasize science as inquiry, there is little hope that the nature of the science we teach at lower levels can be reinvigorated. Such a change will also help to create citizens who understand and appreciate science as a special way of knowing, one whose evaluations deserve special weight in formulating public policy.


The National Academies are focused on "making a science out of education", which means creating continuously improving education systems based on evidence-based analyses of how people learn and what works in our schools. For free access to the full text of our many studies and books on this subject, see