Science is curiosity and wonder

In 2009, President Barack Obama launched a $260 million public-private partnership to train 10,000 new math and science teachers. In November, he announced a new initiative called "National Lab Day" (now called National Lab Network). In his State of the Union address last month, Obama reiterated his goal of improving science, technology and mathematics education.

One might wonder why science education wasn't always a national priority, but the important question is who is going to fix it and how. Parents have an important role to play and should not be left out of the equation.

The evidence is clear: U.S. students have ranked average to below average internationally in scientific knowledge for some time. Our poor showing has remained too long, and we all will eventually pay the price as other countries reap the economic and other benefits associated with strong science and math educational programs.

The fact is that educational strategies are too often driven by student test scores when that does nothing to develop children's natural sense of wonder and curiosity, key ingredients for scientific investigation and inquiry.

As Obama compared the new initiative to the American response to the launch of Sputnik, we should keep in mind that our space race win rested on thousands of bright and inspired men and women in engineering, physics, rocketry, computer technology, mathematics and other fields working together to successfully put a man on the moon. If another Sputnik-like event happens, we may not have the experts we need to win the race.

Time devoted to experimental science would mean less time for didactic lectures. We've shifted the balance the other way in our classrooms as illustrated by the decline in participation and support of science fairs across the nation. Science fairs represent an invaluable learning opportunity for students to conceive and develop an experiment, conduct it, prepare the findings and present them to student peers and experts in the field. Instead of conducting cookbook lab experiments and submitting a lab report for a grade, science fairs foster independent thinking, creativity, problem-solving and written and oral presentation skills.

The National Lab Day initiative aims to provide those kinds of "hands-on learning experiences and promote tinkering in laboratory settings." However, one doesn't need a lab to gain these experiences. The simplest of scientific experiments will promote these skills, often at little or no cost.

People may think of labs with flasks, Bunsen burners, gloves and microscopes, but a "laboratory" experiment can be conducted in your own backyard or kitchen. Observe the different colors of butterflies that begin to appear in your spring garden, the "experiments" growing in many of our refrigerators, the movement of clouds before or after a thunderstorm, the different types of bridges on your way to the mall.

Scientists, educational organizations, industry, teachers and parents all have a role to play in fostering scientific awareness and knowledge. Parents can foster excitement about science, stay engaged with their child's coursework and help connect what their child is learning in class with the real world. Bringing the science home is an important part of your child's learning and will help stimulate further interest and awareness in the importance of science to all of our daily lives.

Every day can be National Lab Day (or maybe National Science Day is a better name) with the help and encouragement of parents. Your time, enthusiasm and a little imagination are all that's needed, and it's never too early to start.

Get down on the ground and examine that anthill your child just found (so long as they're not fire ants!), start a garden from seed and watch it grow, play detective and find out where your dog has been when you're not at home.

Susanne B. Haga is an assistant research professor in the Institute for Genome Sciences Policy and the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. This commentary was originally published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.