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The U.S. Neglects Its Best Science Students

Educators must do a better job of spotting talented kids early, encouraging them and challenging them

Danny Schwartz

The U.S. education policy world—the entire country, for that matter—is on a quest to increase the ranks of future innovators in science and technology. Yet the programs that get funded in K–12 education do not support students who are already good at and in love with science. These students have potential for outstanding contributions, but without public investment they will not be prepared for the rigors of a scientific career. This is especially true for those without highly educated and resource-rich parents.

This lack of investment is not a matter of chance. It is the result of two related myths about who these students are and what they need from our education system. The first myth is that all talented students come from privileged backgrounds. A second is that students who are successful at a particular time in their school career can somehow thrive on their own, unassisted and unsupervised. We argue that all children deserve to be challenged cognitively, including the most able. Many students with low socioeconomic backgrounds never get the opportunity to develop their talents beyond the rudimentary school curriculum. Jonathan Plucker of the University of Connecticut has shown that high-achieving, low-income students fall further behind their higher-socioeconomic-status peers the closer they get to graduation. Moreover, international comparison studies show science scores improving for all students except those in the top 10 percent.

We know how to identify students who are talented in science and motivated to achieve. We find them thriving in enriched environments (think math and rocketry clubs) inside and outside of school. Standardized tests identify exceptional reasoning abilities in mathematics and spatial skills. Expressing and showing interest in science in elementary or middle school are good predictors of future pursuit of career interests in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

We also know something about the services most likely to help talented kids sustain their curiosity in science, even through advanced courses. According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, middle school is the best time to start looking for students with exceptional mathematical ability and for offering mathematics and science at an advanced level—currently widely done through university talent-search programs at Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Duke and the University of Iowa. At this age, talented students can be taught to write in the language and format employed in scientific journals. Clearly, these advanced skills and content will require teachers who themselves have the requisite knowledge and skill—particularly a strong grounding in mathematics.

Classwork, no matter how enlightening, cannot replicate the camaraderie or excitement (and sometimes frustration) of science in the workplace. Students can witness science in a university, hospital, corporation or museum laboratory through mentoring or apprenticeship relationships. Local, regional and national competitions such as science fairs and olympiads are also excellent opportunities for creative problem solving and for mastering advanced material. These venues provide students from various social and economic backgrounds opportunities to share their aptitudes and interests.

Competition can be exciting, but it can also drain self-confidence. Ask any musician or athlete how essential coaching is to get them past setbacks. Therefore, another feature of a comprehensive program for talent development would include psychological strength training tailored to the academic realm that enhances teenagers' ability to persist by learning how to “up their game” or switch tactics when the going gets rough.

If we really care about forging new generations of scientists and innovators, we should be finding scientifically talented young people and helping them reach their potential. Channeling even a small fraction of our nation's science education funding to students with demonstrated interests and achievements could have big payoffs. More fundamentally, it would challenge misguided assumptions about talent and elitism that have blinded policy makers and educators and prevented them from engaging with this population of students.

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This article was originally published with the title "The Talent Gap."

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