French-American Science Festival promotes science education for primary, secondary students

Daniel Schlessinger

Two cultures merged in Chicago last week as French and American scientists met to discuss their different approaches to science education in primary and secondary schools.

Friday marked the Inaugural French-American Science Festival, held at Northwestern’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. The conference, called “Cross Fertilization Around Shared Experiences,” focused on promoting science outreach in education. Around 250 middle- and high-school students from the Chicago area attended.

NU graduate students assisted with a morning session of science demonstrations for American students while French primary school students video-conferenced into the session. Afterwards, science education experts presented their findings on the state of science outreach education. The festival, which was funded by the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, is the brainchild of Adele Martial and Laetitia Chauve. Martial is the attache for science and technology for the Consulate General of France in Chicago. Chauve is a visiting student from the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris who is completing her Ph.D. in Prof. Richard Morimoto’s laboratory in NU’s Department of Molecular Biosciences.

“Outreach approaches in the U.S. and France are in places very similar and in other places are very complimentary,” Martial said. “The objective was to share our experiences, try to build common projects and good strategies and put it all together.”

The main difference between the U.S. and France in science education is in 1996, France instated La main a la pate, a mandate of science reform in all primary schools, said Pierre Lena, an astrophysicist at the French Academie des Sciences and a creator of La main a la pate. The U.S. has many programs available to the public through the government and various nonprofit organizations, but there is not one unifying effort to revitalize the state of science education, he said.

Leon Lederman, a 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, was scheduled to open the conference, but could not attend as he was ill. Lena gave the keynote speech.

“No one can tell a truth in science by himself – it must be debated in the classroom,” Lena said. “In 1996, we formalized this approach for all students, not just for students interested in science, and not just for one gender.”

Lena said the results speak for themselves: before the program began in 1996, less than 5 percent of French primary schools taught science. Now, between 30 and 40 percent of primary schools teach science.

Science education is not a simple task, Lena said. Because most primary school teachers are expected to teach in all subjects, they rarely receive any in-depth training in the sciences.

“Teachers fear, ‘I don’t know the answers, I’m not a scientist, I’m afraid of doing experimental work.’ I hear it all the time,” Lena said.

Moreover, scientists fear doing too much public outreach keeps them outside the lab and may harm their reputations, said Gerald Niccolai, a research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in France and conference speaker.

“There is this perception that scientists who are doing too much communication with the public apparently aren’t doing enough science,” Niccolai said.

There is strong federal support from the U.S. and France to alleviate much of the fear and stigma surrounding science outreach, said Valentine Kass, program director of informal science education at the National Science Foundation. Drawing upon successes in other countries, including France, the NSF has created numerous programs to promote and engage the public in science education, Kass said.

“Those of us who are involved in science outreach must understand the design and ecology of new learning opportunities in science education,” Kass said.

Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, a fourth-year McCormick graduate student, assisted in multiple scientific demonstrations.

“The students were very excited and curious when we showed them the demos. Both cultures were very active,” she said.

Sue Fox, conference speaker and laboratory manager at the Morimoto Lab, said she has high hopes for the future of the conference. She said organizers may hold next year’s conference at the Chicago Field Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry.

Despite challenges in the field, Lena said he is optimistic about the future of science education.

“It is most importantly an issue of sharing the knowledge with the world, and this is what education is all about,” Lena said. “The answers are in books; the questions are in minds.”

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