For decades, science and math educators have been the beneficiaries of government largesse, which has often been supplemented by corporate philanthropy. As a high school science teacher for three decades, I have often benefited from this policy along with my students and I have never questioned why it was so.
Many of my post-graduate courses were funded in whole or part by grants from the National Science Foundation. A good number of the many summer programs that I have attended were federally financed by one agency or another. Texts, videotapes, and computer software which I used were developed with government, corporation, or coalition assistance. And I have been very fortunate to have received honors and grants which have been sponsored by federal agencies and an assortment of professional societies.
I cannot warrant that every penny used to fund the variety of things just mentioned was spent wisely by the numerous government agencies and grant recipients. But overall I would have to say that from my vantage point, the taxpayers and corporate sponsors got their money’s worth.
People were trained, energized, and assisted so that they could become better teachers of science or math. Resources or teaching methods were developed which were often better than those previously utilized, or if they turned out to be worse, at least it was known for the future that that was the case. Failure was acceptable and looked at as part of the price for future success.
One might wonder, though, why science, math, and now technology teachers seemed to be among the chosen ones when it comes to getting money for training and equipping their labs and classrooms. To those in the “E=mc2″ communities the reason is so obvious that the question isn’t often asked. And if it is asked the response is something to the effect that science and technology provide the fuel which stokes the nation’s economic engines.
In addition, superiority in these areas provides for national defense which has come to rely on technically sophisticated weaponry. Many believe that the strength of the nation is closely linked to the quality of science and math instruction.
What I am about to say may seem strange coming from a science teacher, but I am a strange science teacher. I possess a social studies teaching certificate, have taught and enjoyed teaching English, and like to write about scientific and non-scientific topics. I also have been a keen observer of students as persons and not just as young people to be taught science, math, and other academic subjects.
I believe that the true strength of a community and a nation lies in having many confident, capable, and productive people possessing skills in many diverse areas.
A musician capable of inspiring people with his song, an artist capable of giving vision to a fantasy with her sketch, a writer capable of motivating a population to successfully take upon itself a challenge are as important to any society as a skilled engineer capable of designing a missile guidance system.
I believe that money like that which has been spent to improve K-college science and math education programs should also be spent to improve instruction in and build support for other disciplines as well, but particularly art, music, and drama which tend to get minimal funding in many schools. The amount of money allocated need not equal what is allocated to science and math students on a per capita basis, but it should be much more than what is currently expended.
The justification for this?
Well, repeatedly in my career I have attended school exhibits, plays, and musical presentations where a student who had failed to distinguish himself or herself academically, or a student who for whatever reason was “invisible” to most peers and teachers in the classroom, attracted the notice of everyone by virtue of an exceptional piece of artwork or an impassioned and inspired stage performance.
It is as if these young men and women are shouting out: “Here I am world! Maybe I can’t do chemistry, or trig, but I can move you to tears with my acting, or I can play a sax so well that you can’t possibly not tap your toes to the music while you listen to me!”
It may surprise many people, but it surprises me no longer, how these students can shed one image and assume another after being in the limelight for even a brief moment. Often they do suddenly demonstrate a new capability in the science and math classes in which they previously struggled; frequently they are surrounded by new friends who give them attention never before enjoyed. It seems that gaining or recovering self-confidence can have a multitude of beneficial effects for our youngsters!
I often wonder though. Supposing there were no music or art programs; no drama or dance in the schools? Many less enlightened or more poorly financed school systems than my own consider these areas to be frills to be cut at the first sign of budgetary distress. But what happens to those students whose talents are never displayed or developed as a result of these cuts?
How many people are out there now who have never been given the opportunity to shine, but only the chance to be mediocre in areas that were never among their strengths? Have they ever been able to develop the confidence to reach their full potential and contribute the most they could to our society?
Sometimes the school programs that seem to be the most superfluous to some are the most important ones for others. Students certainly have to develop a multitude of skills by the time they exit the schools. But as athletes and coaches know so well, skills without confidence are often useless. And confidence is attained by each of us in different ways.