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Even Presidential Science Advisers Can Give Boring Lectures

A senior Republican legislator unwittingly became a poster child yesterday for one of the Obama Administration's key initiatives to improve science education.

"In high school, I had won the Bausch & Lomb science award, and I aspired to be a physics major in college," Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) explained to attendees at the annual Forum on Science and Technology sponsored by AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider). "Then, as a freshman, I took a physics class taught by the chairman of the department. … Looking to either side of me, I soon realized that I was sitting next to the future Einsteins of the world, and I wasn't one of them," said Smith. "That's a little how I feel today."

Smith's self-effacing story of why he had altered his career plans—he graduated from Yale in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in American studies and became a lawyer before entering politics—was clearly meant to disarm his audience. But it also served to reinforce a message delivered barely 1 hour earlier by John Holdren, President Barack Obama's science adviser.

In a conversation with AAAS CEO Alan Leshner about the Administration's efforts to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education across the country, Holdren noted that just 40% of entering college students who declare a STEM major actually receive their degree in a STEM field. The high attrition rate, he explained, is often caused by introductory courses that are "rote, stultifying, and boring." For many students, Holdren added, their reaction is "to go off and [study] something more interesting."

Holdren didn't stay around for Smith's talk, and Smith hadn't been in the audience when Holdren spoke. But ScienceInsider caught up with Smith after his presentation to learn more about his formative academic experience. As it happened, Smith's physics class at Yale was taught by D. Allan Bromley, who 2 decades later would come to Washington to be science adviser to President George H. W. Bush. Bromley died in 2005.

"Dr. Bromley was a wonderful lecturer," Smith was quick to point out. "It wasn't anything that he did." But when asked if the course provided the type of hands-on, experiential learning that Holdren and today's educators believe is so important in retaining student interest, Smith shook his head.

"As I recall, it was all lectures. And I remember how much fun it was in high school, when we had a chance to do experiments. This course wasn't like that at all." He paused, then added, "That's very interesting."