This morning I sat at a breakfast fundraiser for the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Surrounded by business leaders and philanthropists, I felt strangely out of place because although I was invited as a member of the media to cover the event, I had really come as a mother, a mother hoping for answers and ideas, a mother frustrated with the gaps I'm already noticing in the public school system.
Although we decided not to homeschool our children, Dan and I are not naive enough to expect the government to be responsible for their complete education. Our philosophy has been to take what we can from the public school experience and fill in the blanks at home, following the kids' interests, using the questions they ask as an opportunity to study and learn together. However, Laylee, who has a passionate curiosity for all things scientific, often comes home and describes school as "boring." She complains that she's not learning enough and I think she's right.
What drew me to the breakfast this morning was the keynote speaker Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I am so impressed with the work they do both globally and here at home and he spoke about the importance of STEM education: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. I wanted to hear him talk about a magic solution for improving education, some fabulous and fast-acting way to bring quality, hands-on, experiential learning into our classrooms…yesterday. I wanted him to paint a picture of a public school system that doesn't require a passionate member of the PTA to spend two years working with teachers, administrators and the local science center in order to schedule, get permission, and raise funds for a science van to bring these experiences to kids for just 2 days per year.
Let me insert here that I love the Pacific Science Center's Science Van program and I am so grateful to my friend on the PTA board who worked tirelessly to bring it to the school. The day that Laylee spent with those resources was by far the most exciting day she's had in her elementary school career. I just want more. I remember going to the school science lab as an elementary school student, conducting experiments, looking at living things under a microscope and living science with Mr. Beattie. It wasn't a special event. It was school. Now it seems that our teachers don't have the funding or the support to bring those kinds of experiences to the classroom on a consistent basis.
Bryce Seidl, the President and CEO of the Pacific Science Center, said that often the spark that ignites a love and desire for knowledge in the sciences comes outside of the classroom. He also said that early interest in the sciences is a better indicator of a future career than early academic achievement. Essentially some mediocre math and science students end up pursuing and succeeding in the Engineering and Technology fields because they had experiences early in life that fueled their imaginations and encouraged them to seek to learn more.
A lot of statistics were shared about the need for improving the quality of and access to education. They were compelling and if I were a wealthy donor or a large tech company, they would have persuaded me to donate money to the Science Center and to the Gates Foundation. Their goals are lofty and I think they will have a big impact on students of the future, encouraging curiosity, improving teachers and therefore classroom experiences. Jeff Raikes said that effective teachers are more important than class sizes. A quality teacher can do more with a large class than a lesser teacher can do with a small class. I agree that we need to raise the bar for teachers, value them more and offer them more support.
I stood up after the event feeling hopeful for the future, excited to get involved but not overly optimistic for my own children's classroom experience. I asked Jeff what he thought I could do now on a practical level to improve my kids' STEM education, not ten years from now but right this minute. He said that it's all about me. It's all about you. As parents we need to give our kids experiences that will excite them, instruct them and make them thirsty for more knowledge. In the end, we are the teachers. It's up to us. Let's ALL go to the Science Center and look up volcanoes online for fun.