Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
Deborah Cornelison is happy to see that American society has started placing a higher value on science education. In the past decade, government officials, business leaders, and educators have argued that training in science, technology, engineering, and math must be a national priority—because it can help students land jobs with international giants like Google or Tesla and join the global economy. Yet references to global economic competition, Cornelison told me, often fall flat in rural communities, such as her hometown of Ada, Oklahoma. Some rural students don’t want to leave their small towns, which many of them view with deep pride and a sense of belonging.
Cornelison, who was a high-school science teacher for 26 years before she joined the Oklahoma Department of Education, designed her classrooms in a way that would engage students who don’t primarily view the benefits of education in terms of a prestigious job or college-acceptance letter—or who may not want to pursue a science career at all. When I spent a week with Cornelison in March 2018, she explained how she shows students a broader appeal of science, including how to use science projects to improve their own communities. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.