Florida Citizens for Science

January 27, 2006

How FCAT killed outreach programs

by @ 11:30 pm. Filed under Analysis/Commentary


Folks have been kindly submitting material to me for inclusion on this website, and I am just now getting some time to edit and post these great works. I’ll try to get some others up here over the weekend, so be sure to stop back and check when you get the chance.

Tonight I have an article written by Pamela Hallock Muller, Ph.D. for you to enjoy. She kindly gave permission to have it reprinted here.


How FCAT killed outreach programs

Soon after I joined the Marine Science faculty at USF in 1983, I was recruited by the Pinellas County Speaker’s Bureau to be someone that classroom teachers could call if they wanted someone to speak to their class on coral reefs, fossils, or careers in marine science. One of my first speaking engagements was to give a slide talk on coral reefs to a kindergarten class of 30. When I arrived at the school, there were 90 students, because the other two kindergarten teachers wanted their classes to participate. I had no idea how I was going to deal with ninety 5-6 year olds, but they were very good.

One little boy though was just “Oooh, Oooh, I did that one time” and about every two minutes wanted to share something. The teachers kept all the other students to one “share”, but never said a word to that one little boy. The teacher insisted on walking me to my car so she could explain. They thought the little boy was autistic because he had not said one word all year (this happened in May). In the previous nine months, nothing had interested him enough to get him to interact. At my session he so excited he couldn’t be quiet!
(There’s more on the jump …)

Between 1983 and 1998, I generally spoke at schools at least a couple of times per semester, and I encouraged my graduate students to do so as well. I gave extra credit in some of my courses if students would speak to school classes. Through most of the 1990s, we accepted at least 6-10 invitations per semester (more when I was teaching appropriate classes) and often couldn’t meet all requests, because the science curricula had modules on reef and fossils for some grades, and there was a Careers Day in many high schools in the spring. [We had our own little "outreach" effort long before it was "the thing to do".]

In the 1999-2000 school year, requests suddenly dropped to zero. I tried to call the volunteer coordinator and was told that the Speaker’s Bureau had been discontinued and that the coordinator had been reassigned. The following year a fellow scientist’s third grader told me unhappily, “We don’t have science in school anymore!” The child’s mother, a high school biology teacher, explained that, because FCAT only tested math, reading and writing, science was considered optional and in many cases was only offered if there was extra time.

The 3rd grader said, “Sometimes I can do my writing assignments on science subjects.” But her older sister, a 7th grader, said that her teacher didn’t let the students write on science topics. FCAT does include science now, but it didn’t for five long years! In the meantime, the “Great American Teach-In” has become an annual event. While I encourage everyone to participate, it is not the same as when a teacher was teaching a module on a topic and could invite a scientist to come to the classroom and share some experiences with the class at the time the students were engaged with that topic.

Over the years I have shared this story with the public and politicians at every opportunity, and a version appeared in the “Letters” in the St. Pete Times. I am not saying we shouldn’t keep fighting, but my perspective is that we as scientists have lost ground over the past 25 years, and it is not because the schools weren’t trying to offer effective science curricula nor because scientists weren’t participating in public education. It is because the political climate over that time has become increasingly hostile to science, to teachers at all levels, and to adequately financed public education.

Pamela Hallock Muller, Ph.D.
Professor, College of Marine Science
University of South Florida
website: www.marine.usf.edu/reefslab

“The opinions expressed are those of the author of the document and have not been approved or endorsed by the University of South Florida.”

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