March 10, 2006

Outreach vital to improving nation’s science education

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Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D.

Outreach vital to improving nation’s science education

Scientists have a responsibility to help teachers improve science education in public schools, said Virginia L. Shepherd, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach.

“Fourth and eighth graders are holding their own with respect to other countries, but 12th graders have been declining and continue to decline on test performance in science,” Shepherd told a lunch-time audience at the Nashville Public Library last week.

“We need to increase our understanding in the areas of science and technology to compete globally,” she said.

Shepherd, professor of Pathology and Medicine and associate professor of Biochemistry, received her first science education grant to fund summer workshops for teachers in 1994. In 1999, she secured funding from the National Science Foundation to place graduate students in science classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The “GK-12” program partners teachers in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools with graduate student fellows from Vanderbilt University, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University.

Students who participate achieve higher scores on science tests and become enthusiastic about science. “They don't want to be absent on the days the graduate students are there,” Shepherd said.

The Center for Science Outreach also has a “virtual scientist” program that, through videoconferencing, has linked Vanderbilt scientists to classrooms in more than 20 states and several countries.

The center sponsors summer science camps for middle school students, a “kids and computers” program on the Vanderbilt campus for children from two Nashville public housing developments, and summer research experiences for teachers in Vanderbilt labs. Local teachers and scientists also collaborate on the production of CDs to enrich classroom instruction.

Much more needs to be done, Shepherd said.

More high school students need to be brought into research labs in all of the city's colleges and universities. “Science academies” should be established within high schools, where students could receive high-level instruction and experiences.

Shepherd also would like Vanderbilt to equip a “BioBus” with state-of-the-art laboratory and research equipment, so that programs could be offered in schools in rural areas.

Teachers need to be supported in other ways, too. Nationwide, a third of teachers are not certified or did not major in the field they are teaching, Shepherd noted.

Some of them feel uncomfortable about teaching math and science. That, in turn, may dampen their students' enthusiasm for the subject.

"I don't think we pay our teachers enough,” Shepherd concluded. “We need to hold up the teaching profession as one of the greatest and most important professions that we have in this country, and somehow we haven't done it.”

For more information about the Center for Science Outreach and to volunteer in its efforts to aid science education, visit its Web site,, or e-mail Shepherd at