ConnectOC Blog

Program provides scientific roots

Posted by: Shelley Hoss on 6/17/2013
By Shelley Hoss
Published in the Orange County Register June 17, 2013

The ConnectOC Blog is a place for sharing insight, information and examples of how Orange County residents, donors and nonprofits are working to build a brighter, stronger, more vibrant community. We welcome you to share your thoughts by commenting below. 

Hands-on instruction the key to unlocking students’ individual and national success.

There is no disputing it. The United States has fallen dramatically behind other industrialized nations in the fastest-growing global industries, and we must act now if we are to regain our competitive edge. The highest-paying and highest number of jobs will be in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—the very fields where U.S. students lag most significantly.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that workers in STEM industries earn an average of 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts, and a study by Change the Equation finds that STEM job postings outnumbered the number of unemployed people by two to one. 

The jobs are out there, and the industry will only grow, but how do we prepare our students to compete?  

Enter Science@OC, an organization originally incubated by the Orange County Community Foundation to revolutionize the way science is taught in Orange County classrooms. Harnessing the impact of “inquiry-based science,” or hands-on, experiential approaches, Science@OC helps make science fun to maximize interest and retention. It then builds on multiple platforms to further develop understanding through compelling, instructive programs and expanded leadership roles and teacher education. 

“Students aren't competing against the students in the next desk anymore,” says Sue Neuen, executive director for Science@OC. “They are competing against the students from China, Singapore and South Korea, among others. Technology is changing fast. Communications are fast. It is imperative that our education system prepares them for this.” 

And research shows that if we wait beyond eighth grade, it might be too late.

“If you don’t take physics in high school, engineering in college is pretty much closed to you,” says Neuen. “If we can get kids through eighth-grade physical science feeling comfortable, particularly in physics and chemistry, they are more likely to take the elective classes in high school that can prepare them for college.”

 So what are our biggest issues?

 “We're not getting enough girls into the STEM careers,” says Neuen. Of the women entering college, only 3 percent choose engineering as a career, and of those, only 12 percent graduate. The chair of the National Academy at the Office of Naval Research cited that the U.S. ranks 28th among nations in putting talent into the STEM pipeline from high school to college.

The stats are worse for underrepresented minorities, says Neuen.

Experts say that technological innovation accounted for almost half of U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years, and almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in STEM. But in 2009, just 34 percent of U.S. eighth-graders were rated proficient or higher in a national math assessment, and more than one in four scored below the basic level.

In an international exam given to 15-year-olds in 2009, U.S. high school students ranked significantly behind 12 industrialized nations in science and 17 in math. Students in only four industrialized nations scored lower in math.

Science@OC’s inquiry classroom method identifies a specific science dynamic and explores and broadens it from the student’s level, through scientific questions, information gathering, analysis and comparison of results to develop the most-effective mode of interactive learning.

 “Learning science from a textbook doesn't work well. It’s the touching, seeing, manipulating, trial-and-error experiencing that makes a greater impact,” says Neuen.

“This is particularly true for those with language barriers. It has been proven that there are major leaps in other areas, such as writing and critical thinking, because of students recording their data and procedures in science class, using notebooks like real scientists.” 

What is needed above all else is student input into their own learning experience, additional training for teachers, continued assessment to ascertain how much the students are truly grasping and, of course, materials—how can there be hands-on learning without something tangible to grasp? 

The last aspect is administrative and community support. A momentary fix is not enough. School administrations, backed by parents and reinforced by the entire community, must remain consistent to ensure the progress of STEM education. 

The results have been dramatic. Science@OC reported that for the 2012 school year, 35 percent of Santa Ana Unified School District middle-school students enrolled in hands-on classes placed at the Advanced Level on the California STAR Test for Science, compared with only 13 percent who were in the more traditional classrooms. The Advanced Level students are now considered prepared to handle the rigorous high school coursework that is the next step in their STEM educations.

“Our global economy is one based on innovation. We have to prepare our students to be critical thinkers and innovators. Their future – and our nation’s future -- depends on it,” says Neuen.

To learn more about Science@OC, visit


Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation.

We welcome your feedback. Please comment below.


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