For Immediate Release
April 5, 2006
Survey finds need to identify ‘new basics’
in Illinois math, science education
A newly-released survey completed by more than 1,200
Illinois teachers underscores a 21st Century dilemma in
education: How can our schools keep pace with rapidly
expanding areas of knowledge?
The online Illinois Survey of Critical Technologies conducted
by the Public Opinion Lab at Northern Illinois University
found that a majority of math and science teachers do
not feel prepared enough to instruct their students in
cutting-edge fields of study expected to boom in the next
The study is available online at http://www.ilcriticaltechnologies.niu.edu.
At the same time, teachers who participated in the survey
expressed a strong desire to learn more about emerging
science fields, as well as some frustration about efforts
to stay current in the rapidly changing world of science,
math and technology education.
State curriculum experts say teachers' enthusiasm for
learning more about such concepts as biotechnology, alternative
fuels and stem cell research suggests a starting point
for productive conversations among educators, employers
and policy makers. Colleges and universities that prepare
new educators are also grappling with these challenges
in teacher preparation and professional development programs.
State Superintendent of Schools Randy Dunn acknowledged
the challenge. "If our state wants to continue to
be on the cutting edge of developing and implementing
critical technologies, then a focus on these concepts
must exist in schools for the students who will look to
them not just as career options, but also as global citizens
who are informed about their risks and benefits,"
Among the findings in the Illinois Survey of Critical
Too few Illinois high school and middle school students
are learning about the array of emerging technologies
that researchers and business leaders expect to drive
the new economy. Those topics include nanotechnology,
proteomics, fuel cells, bioinformatics, biodefense, gene
therapy, alternative fuels, green technology, graph theory
and quantum computing.
"For Illinois to flourish, our state's current and
future employees must be prepared to work with the cutting-edge
concepts that will drive innovation and economy vitality,"
said Dr. Penny Billman, senior research associate with
the NIU Regional Development Institute and author of an
upcoming study on math/science education in Illinois.
Billman points to this months' massive "BIO2006"
event at Chicago's McCormick Place as an example of the
importance of enhanced math/science education. The conference,
expected to attract thousands of scientists and venture
capitalists, showcases the best of Illinois' biotechnology
offerings. More than half of the concepts studied in the
Critical Technologies survey are directly associated with
biotechnology research, the area experts say offers Illinois
its best opportunities for long-term economic revival.
"The survey demonstrates a need to identify the
'new basics' in science and mathematics," said Marilyn
McConachie, NIU education policy expert and author of
the Critical Technologies study. "We hope our findings
will generate a serious conversation about how and when
to incorporate new information into coursework in Illinois
schools. The state's commitment to innovation requires
that we find ways for ensuring success of students and
workers in the technology-driven global marketplace."
In the wake of national reports identifying the declining
quality and quantity of science, technology, engineering
and mathematics professionals, the Illinois State Board
of Education commissioned the NIU-conducted survey.
In consultation with scientists and business and industry
leaders, the Illinois Math and Science Academy identified
a total of 26 technologies that are emerging as critical
to Illinois' innovation and economic vitality.
Most of the concepts examined in the Illinois report
are so new that only a few are included in teacher preparation
programs. Still, the Illinois Survey of Critical Technologies
analysis found that some concepts do seem to be gaining
traction in the classroom*meaning they are increasingly
being taught by teachers who want to learn more in these
areas. The traction topics include biotechnology, alternate
fuels, graph theory, gene therapy, natural products, green
technology and fuel cells.
Advanced and innovative concepts are making their way
into Illinois classrooms, but penetration is limited.
Thirty-eight percent of all teachers were already teaching
at least one of the concepts and 44 percent planned to
add at least one more concept to their classrooms next
About half (52%) of the teachers surveyed acknowledge
awareness of at least half of the concepts; one in five
indicated that they were teaching three or more of the
concepts, but fewer than half are including any of the
concepts at this point.
However, topics with lowest levels of classroom use and
interest among teachers included biopolymers, astrobiology,
bioinformatics, biodefense and quantum computing.
High school teachers consistently were more aware of
new concepts than their middle school counterparts. Of
the high school educators who understood concepts well
enough to teach them, 68 percent were indeed teaching
one or more of the topics. Eighty-four percent of these
knowledgeable teachers indicated they would add at least
one more concept next year. Teachers also made it clear
that many of the topics were not age-appropriate for their
students, especially at the middle school level.
Survey results show the problem isn't a lack of desire
on the part of teachers to learn and introduce new concepts
in the classroom. When teachers indicated awareness of
an advanced concept, 60 percent took the initiative to
Yet more often than not, barriers prevent new advanced
concepts from entering school curriculums. These barriers
include time constraints, a lack of financial resources,
state and local policies, and a shortage of opportunities
to acquire knowledge and teaching materials, according
to survey findings. Teachers were especially interested
in the efficiencies of the Internet for learning about
new content and finding teaching materials.
The report concludes that helping teachers develop their
expertise in emerging technologies would seem to be an
important role for higher education, regional offices
of education and other providers of professional development.
"There are so many new and important areas of knowledge,
but Illinois lacks a system for deciding when new concepts
should be added and where to focus scarce training resources,"
said ISBE science consultant Gwen Pollock. "This
study provides a blueprint for future discussions on where
to invest our time and dollars," she added.
Superintendent Dunn has offered study and commitment
to the findings of this report, focusing especially on
the realization that "It is time to define the 'new
basics' in science and mathematics".
"Our efforts in high school reform, mathematics
and science partnerships and the increase in graduation
requirements can become focused more clearly with this
directive from Illinois teachers for improving our future
together," Dunn said.