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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 9, 2006

COMMENTARY
Bishop Museum will open magnet school

By William Brown

Whether it is the discovery of a remarkable new medicine or the application of a traditional medicine to present-day illness, virtually every scientific achievement can be traced to the wonder in a child's eyes, a child who became a scientist.

Today, Hawai'i's children are surrounded by incredible educational opportunities to become excited about science, yet students in our state lag well below the national average in science education.

The National Center for Education Statistics evaluated science education for fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide in 2001, and the results for Hawai'i are telling. Our eighth-graders had an average score of 132 (on a scale of 1 to 300), well below the national average of 149. Of the 41 other states and territories in that eighth-grade survey, two had lower average scores than Hawai'i, three had similar scores, and 36 had higher average scores. While 30 percent of eighth-grade students nationwide performed at a "proficient" or higher level in science, only 15 percent of students in Hawai'i did.

We have our work cut out for us. How do we reach our students and how do we interest them in the sciences?

The Hawai'i Department of Education and Bishop Museum are pursuing one answer to this complex question. The DOE and museum are partnering on an Environmental and Cultural Studies Magnet School. This public school will be on the museum's main campus in Kalihi. Pending funding, we hope to open the doors in late summer of 2009.

The concept of a magnet school is based on the idea that when a school offers a special curriculum, it would attract students "like a magnet" from across a wide geographical area. In the case of the Bishop Museum school, the students would be drawn from around O'ahu.

The planned school at Bishop Museum will have a "double magnet." The school will focus on environmental sciences and on culture, drawing upon the museum's expertise in both areas.

The magnet school will be a high school, in large part because secondary students would be best placed to benefit from close work with the museum's scientists, cultural experts and vast natural history and cultural collections. Imagine a high school sophomore working on a research project with the museum's scientists, gaining real-life experience in research and study that many college students never get to experience.

This is a wonderful way to teach science not with textbooks alone but with real specimens and real research, done under the guidance of actual scientists.

In the nationwide trend to rethink our public schools, there is a strong desire to develop schools that offer "real life" experiences rather than relying on textbook learning alone. The School for Environmental and Cultural Studies will offer these concrete, real-life experiences in the laboratory, in the collections areas, in the exhibit and public programming halls of Bishop Museum.

As its title suggests, the School for Environmental and Cultural Studies will bring science and culture together in an integrated teaching approach. Teaching science in context rather than in separate "boxes" is another means by which we hope to reach our students with the real-world significance of science.

Improving science education in Hawai'i will take many solutions from many sources. The Museum magnet school will be one exciting approach that the Department of Education and Bishop Museum hope to provide for the students of our state.

William Brown is the chief executive officer of the Bishop Museum, the state museum on culture and natural sciences. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.