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Early education key to scientific career choice

Teenage career preferences are a more reliable indicator than mathematical aptitude for predicting which students become scientists, suggesting a flaw in federal education strategies, a University of Virginia study found.

The federally funded survey of 3,359 students who were in the eighth grade in 1988 found that those who expressed interest in science yet made only average math scores had a 34 percent chance of graduating college with a science or engineering degree.

Among those with above-average math scores and no preference for science, only 19 percent of the college graduates earned such degrees, according to the study led by Robert Tai, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia.

The findings suggest that mandatory testing policies, such as the No Child Left Behind Law promoted by the Bush administration as a solution to low-performing US schools, might worsen the nation's output of scientists by distracting teachers from field trips and other activities that stimulate student interest in sciences, Tai said.

``We've been focused, in terms of national policy, so focused on achievement, getting students to do better, we've pretty much ignored their interest," Tai said in an interview. ``And it's their interest that's going to pull them through."

President Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, warned that the country is in danger of losing its technological preeminence, and he proposed spending $5.9 billion next year on education and research initiatives. Bush's plan, now being debated in Congress, includes funds to train 70,000 additional teachers to lead advanced-placement math and science courses, which provide high school students with a college-level curriculum.

Tai said his research, published in the May 26 issue of Science magazine, suggests that such efforts might be too late, since many children have already decided career preferences by high school. In some instances, students with no interest in science are taking the advanced-placement science courses merely to avoid them in college, he said.

The author of legislation to fund the 70,000 new teachers, Representative Joe Schwarz, a Republican of Michigan, said Tai ``is probably right." Schwarz agreed his measure is aimed primarily at funding teachers in the upper grades, and after being told about the study, he said he would review the bill ``to make certain" it also encourages hiring in the lower grades.

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