The U.S. is lagging in science and math education—on a 2006 international test, American teens scored below the average for developed nations in both scientific and mathematical literacy. But the U.S. has traditionally been a tech haven, bestowing on the world the iPod, Microsoft Word and Google (not to mention the predecessor to the Internet itself). So it is fitting that someone would create a tech-based solution to try to close the education gap, an American approach to an American problem.
That initiative is National Lab Day, a Web-based endeavor that matches teachers with scientists, engineers and others who use science and math in their professions. Educators design projects on the National Lab Day Web site, outlining the kind of expertise they need, and the system matches them to scientists who have volunteered their services. National Lab Day carries a stamp of approval from the Obama administration, which has promoted and supported the program from its launch in November.
Whereas May 12 is the official National Lab Day, "the day itself is really just a catalytic event," says entrepreneur Jack Hidary, chairperson of National Lab Day, who has helped build several tech ventures based on similar matching engines. Indeed, many of the projects are already under way and others awaiting fulfillment on the Web site stretch for weeks or months into the future. Hidary adds that the initiative's planners envision it as a five-year campaign, with an annual recognition day to draw attention to the program.
Some of the goals, Hidary explains, are to bring expertise into schools to help guide hands-on learning, to inspire collaborative projects involving students outside of the classroom, and to show students the diversity of science-based careers. Another major aim is to engage students for whom science and technology professions have not always been welcoming avenues. "We're not drawing on all of society," Hidary says, pointing as an example to the people who tend to get funding in the tech sector. "It's not a particularly diverse pool of people, and women are not very well represented in that group."
As an example of what National Lab Day can do for traditionally underserved populations, he cites the example of Netosh Jones, a teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary School in Washington, D.C. The school is predominantly black—99 percent, according to the most recent enrollment data—and is eligible for Title I assistance, meaning that it serves a large percentage of low-income families.
Jones came across the National Lab Day Web site and "just thought it sounded great." She says she is always looking for new ways to engage her students with inquiry-based learning, and to challenge them to do more. "We're a Title I school, but that doesn't mean we have low self-esteem," Jones says. She put up a call for scientists to come in and give presentations on their fields and their careers, and before long about 20 scientists from federal agencies as well as local organizations and companies had stepped up, she says, including a NASA representative who will bring a lunar sample to the school. "It's just exploded," Jones says.
On May 12, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will visit the site to deliver remarks on science education. Jones says her students will participate in a hands-on lesson with battery-operated cars to learn about how energy powers the objects in their lives. "The kids are very, very excited about it," Jones says. "This is the hands-on, the nitty-gritty stuff that kids can literally sink their hands into and say, 'This is something I might want to do'."
At East Side Community High School in New York City, students got their hands dirty making clean water. Cooper Union chemical engineer Benjamin Davis collaborated with Joe Vincente, who teaches 10th grade chemistry at East Side, on a lesson about fresh water use and large-scale water treatment. "The students did things like measure pH, check for nitrates, decant their sample, and perform a simple batch distillation," Davis says. Both Davis and Vincente called the experience a success. "I would definitely say my experience was positive," Davis says, "mostly because I think the students got something out of the activity and because I was able to facilitate a lesson that they normally wouldn't have been able to do."
Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., says that the grassroots structure of the National Lab Day initiative makes it especially promising. "A teacher might just need an expert to come in and talk about something, they might need an assistant for a project, they might need someone to help interpret data," Eberle says. "What's great about it from our perspective is it's teacher-driven, it's not driven by what someone else thinks is a good idea."
Hidary says that the ability of educators to tailor their projects to the needs of their students and the resources available in their schools and communities makes the project scalable. Over the next five years he hopes National Lab Day will reach "millions and millions" of students—an ambitious goal, perhaps, but commensurate with the size of the problem. Hidary adds that he frequently travels abroad on business and sees that other nations are taking charge where the U.S. is fading. "The gap is so big," he says. "We need to get back on a Sputnik pace. And I'm not just talking about popping out more scientists and mathematicians—we need to create a more science-literate and a more inquiry-based society."