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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 decade.

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," Dunn said.

Among the findings in the Illinois Survey of Critical Technologies:

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 year.

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 learn more.

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.

Illinois State Board of Education
100 North First Street
Springfield, IL 62777