Orange Lutheran High School seniors Kailey Fox and Niki Khajeh shined an ultraviolet light over a bacteria sample, looking for a gene found in a particular species of jellyfish.
Under the light's glare, the gene's proteins began to emit a fluorescent glow, enabling the duo to isolate it; then, they meticulously placed test tube samples into a centrifuge to extract and purify the protein.
The lesson is part of the private school's molecular genetics honors class, believed to be the first of its kind high school course in Orange County, and perhaps the state.
But, as rare and innovative as the class seems, it wouldn't even raise eyebrows in a number of other nations – the ones that routinely shame America in international math and science tests.
For example, South Korean seventh-graders learn quadratic functions, and polynomial and linear equations, two years ahead of the typical American student. In Finland, students begin learning chemistry and biology concepts through experimentation, observation and theoretical models as early as the fifth grade.
Other issues play a part in America's lagging performance on international tests, but the disparity in curriculum looms large as a major factor behind a coast-to-coast drive for better instruction in science, technology , engineering and math, known as STEM subjects.
"We have a systematic problem in producing students who want to pursue STEM careers. We are losing a whole generation while other countries pass us by," said Santa Ana High physics teacher Gary Reynolds, a former environmental researcher.
"Furthering STEM education is one of the most important priorities we should have as a nation."
Reynolds is part of the movement to improve STEM education efforts – a goal that has found its way into the new nationwide education standards known as the common core.
But even though these efforts could improve America's performance, the nation's sheer size and diversity makes it impossible to create an educational system that surpasses the highest achieving countries.
"We don't have enough resources in this country to make every school spotless. We have students who can compete with anyone in the world, but we also have students who struggle just to learn English and math," said James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, which works with educators, business leaders and policy makers to promote science and math initiatives nationally.
"As a country, our priority should be to create enough qualified workers to fill the demand set by industry. Right now, we're not close to meeting that goal."
MIRED IN MEDIOCRITY
The United States muddles in the middle in a series of international comparisons in science and math. America's students ranked 23rd in science and 31st in math in the latest ranking of 65 nations from the Program for International Student Assessment, which measures literacy in math, science and reading among 15-year-olds.
Another assessment, Trends in International Math and Science Study, ranks U.S. students between 11th and 17th in fourth- and eighth-grade science and math among the top 35 industrialized nations. PISA was last assessed in 2009; TIMSS results are from 2007.
Both assessments show U.S. scores gradually slipping over the past decade, with countries like Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, Finland, South Korea and the Chinese region of Shanghai continuously ranking at the top. TIMSS primarily measures what students are learning in science and math, while PISA provides a more comprehensive analysis of how students learn, including the resources provided to them.
PISA, produced by the France-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compares everything from curriculum and teacher education and salary levels, to the amount of public funding for schools.
PISA has found that curriculum, funding, class sizes and the length if the school calendar differ widely, even across high-performing education systems. However, the highest achieving countries share some traits, said Andreas Schleicher, OECD's deputy director for education.
"Their curricula tend to have a very high level of cognitive demand. They aim for depths of understanding rather than the accumulation of shallow content-knowledge," said Schleicher, one of the world's leading researchers on international education comparisons. American math and science textbooks cover two to three more concepts at a much more superficial level, he said.
Schleicher said U.S. schools should follow the lead of countries like Japan, where lessons promote deeper learning of fewer concepts, and textbooks are much simpler and more closely tied to the curriculum.
LEARNING YEARS BEHIND
Students in South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Shanghai also begin learning algebra, geometry, physics and chemistry in early secondary classes. Most U.S. students in the same age range generally review arithmetic and study life science and Earth science.
Many Orange County schools follow California's roadmap for math and science education. The state recommends that students complete algebra by the eighth grade, while geometry, chemistry and physics courses are almost always taken in high school.
Last year, about 54 percent of all local eighth-graders were enrolled in algebra. Only about 8 percent of eighth-graders countywide took geometry. Local schools outpacing the county include C.E. Utt Middle School in Tustin, where more than 90 percent of eighth-graders are enrolled in algebra each year, and Mesa View Middle School in Huntington Beach, which enrolls each year more than 30 percent of eighth-graders in geometry.
Critics have said elementary schools statewide don't prioritize science until the fifth grade, the first year the subject is included in standardized testing.
PISA also shows that each of the top countries has a consistent curriculum across all its schools, with students nationally learning the same lessons from the same textbooks. The U.S., on the other hand, has 50 different education systems, with students in one state often learning significantly different standards than peers in neighboring states.
That criticism is part of the reason why California and 44 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, an initiative that aims to create a national curriculum. Orange County schools have begun this year training teachers and preparing lessons in math and English. Implementation in these subjects is targeted for the 2014-15 school year, with science and other core subjects developed in later years.
The new standards will promote critical thinking and problem solving over memorization of vast amounts of data, narrowing the scope of what is taught, educators said. The curriculum will emulate how students in these successful countries learn.
But copying these learning models alone won't lift the nation's schools, Schleicher and others said. America needs a fundamental shift in how it prioritizes science and math education.
VALUING SCIENCE, MATH
Both PISA and TIMSS assessments show the value U.S. students place on science and math lags compared with other countries. When asked in the TIMSS exam whether they agree math or science "is boring," or if they "would like to take more" math or science, American students ranked between 15th and 22nd, far behind most Asian powers.
TIMSS concluded that students in other countries see school as more central to their lives.
Arnold Shugarman, co-president of the Orange County Science and Engineering Fair, said he believes budget cuts to education and increased participation in sports and other activities have undermined his program's numbers.
"In my first year in 1986, there were 500 kids involved in the fair. That dropped to 325 in recent years," he said. "We now have to market the fair. We have to go out to schools and convince students to participate."
Reynolds, the Santa Ana High science teacher, said making science more fun and relevant could help draw students. That's why Reynolds created the school's Robotics Engineering Club. Students build model cars with touch sensors and microcontrollers they wire and code using engineering programming software, then compete against other schools across Southern California.
Then there are public schools like Fullerton's Troy High or Cypress' Oxford Academy, renowned statewide leaders in promoting science, math and technology.
Senior Eric Chen belongs to the lauded Troy Tech magnet program, which attracts some of the brightest young minds from across four counties. Students in the program study computer science, business, leadership, engineering and architecture, and complete a 150-hour internship.
"If you're super smart at many schools, you're not nearly as popular as football players or cheerleaders. Studying hard or doing really well in school can carry a stigma. You worry about being called a nerd or a geek," he said.
"At Troy, the dynamics are a lot different. Students are proud of their grades and accomplishments," he said. "But most schools are not like Troy."
Linda Sanchez, a parent in Anaheim, is applying to send her daughter to Oxford next year.
Oxford and Troy offer a multitude of Advanced Placement math and science classes. They provide science labs armed with equipment and other features that rival labs of colleges and universities.
"The problem is that if you want your child in an intense, challenging program, the options are slim," Sanchez said. "I don't know how the quality of one public school could be so dramatically different than another in the same community."
Critics say TIMSS and PISA comparisons need to be weighed with an understanding of the vastly different demographics and economies represented by participating countries.
For example, the U.S. poverty rate of 17 percent ranks as the fourth highest among countries surveyed in the PISA exam, behind the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Croatia. Nearly every country that outperformed the U.S. posts a poverty rate less than 10 percent.
And the massive U.S., with its population of 315 million, is compared with tiny nations such as Liechtenstein, whose population of 35,000 could fit inside Angel Stadium and which has next to no poverty.
Those disparities mean the U.S. is actually a stronger performer than the results seem to indicate.
For example, 1.5 percent of Americans scored at the highest levels of the PISA's math assessment, compared with 4 percent for Finland. But the numbers represent 70,000 American students and only 2,000 Finns, Gerald Bracey, an education researcher and fellow of the Educational Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University, said folllowing the 2009 release of PISA.
That makes the U.S. 35 times more likely to produce the next great inventor or scientist.
Schleicher, however, warned against using such outliers to discount the tests' results. America is also competing with India and China in the assessments, and both of those countries produce more STEM-ready college graduates than the U.S., according to national and international surveys.
High tech companies like Irvine-based Broadcom, the nation's largest producer of chips for wireless communications, now hire a significant number of engineers from outside the U.S. because they can't find enough qualified candidates at home.
Jill Ronstadt, the teacher of Orange Lutheran's molecular genetics class, said all schools should continue promoting STEM even if it's by adding one class at a time. Ronstadt said she's met several teachers from other public and private campuses who have asked how they might add a similar course.
"I would suspect that courses such as our molecular genetics will become more and more popular," she said. "As STEM fields of grow in demand, I would think that other schools might want to equip students with the skills needed to compete for those jobs in the future."
Contact the writer: 714-796-2258 or email@example.com