The Science of Science Education
Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010
Session 4A, 5B:
"What kills a subject is the lack of good teaching, the inability to communicate whatever once gave it vitality.” --Stephen Dicarlo, 2006
|What is the purpose of science education?
What material should be taught in a science course?
How should this material be taught pedagogically?
Before delving into these questions, reflect on your experience with science education. Compare and contrast your science education in high school and college.
"At the secondary school level science teacher, where it existed at all, was dominated by textbooks, rote learning, and recitation.”-- Joel Mintzes and James Wandersee's Teaching Science for Understanding: A Human Constructivist View, 1998
“Double laboratory periods, Saturday morning laboratories, and extensive field trips; all designed to ensure that first-hand experience with natural phenomena replace the ‘book science’ that had come to dominate secondary school instruction.” Joel Mintzes and James Wandersee's Teaching Science for Understanding: A Human Constructivist View, 1998
“Most science curricula found in schools today are descriptive, focused on the laws, theories, and concepts of presumably discrete disciplines,” P.D. Hurd's Scientific Literacy: New Minds for a Changing World, 1997
What is the purpose of science education?
"Science teachers and scientists argued that the main reason for social science is to increase and maintain a pool of scientists and citizens who pursue science related careers while philosophers and educators asserted that science teaching should build a more scientifically literate society." --Bracha Arieli's The Integration of Creative Drama Into Science Teaching, 2007
"Humans are conditioned from birth to follow authority figures and not to question their pronouncements. Such conditioning is done by parents and teachers using a wide variety of positive and negative reinforcement techniques. Most individuals reach adulthood in this conditioned form. The result of such conditioning is the antithesis of both scientific investigation and critical thinking: individuals lack both curiosity and the skills to perform independent inquiry to discover reliable knowledge. Individuals who think critically can think for themselves: they can identify problems, gather relevant information, analyze information in a proper way, and come to reliable conclusions by themselves, without relying on others to do this for them. This is also the goal of science education. "-- An Introduction to Critical Thinking
What is the purpose of an introductory science course?
INTRODUCTORY COLLEGE LEVEL SCIENCE COURSES
Teachers takes the position that the major goals of introductory college science courses are to contribute to the scientific literacy and critical thinking capability of all college students and to provide a conceptual base for subsequent courses taken in the disciplines. The Society defines science literacy as the knowledge and understanding of a) the nature and role of scientific knowledge and process, b) the major principles and concepts that transcend the various sciences, c) the relationship of science to technology, and d) the applications of science to the individual and society. --The Society for College Science Publications
Theme-based curricula. Drawing students into science through themes is an effective way of providing them with a comfortable classroom environment. To do this in a whole course may be a fairly radical departure from the norm. It has, however, been successfully fully applied elsewhere (Beyer 1992). It can in any case be introduced as one element of a course. Jeffry Mallow, Science Anxiety: Research and Action in The Handbook of College Science Teaching, 2006
Should history of science and philosophy of science be incorporated into science courses?
Why are we taught gravity instead of Einstein's theory in introductory physics?
"Theories are neither "true" nor "false". Theories are either useful or... less useful (if they are useless, they are no longer a theory). Aspects of Newtonian gravity are still useful, even though they have been "proven wrong". For example, Newton gravity is instantaneous (which we know to be false)... For everyday life (including most scientific applications), Newtonian gravity is still useful and accurate enough...
For advanced courses on how gravity actually works, sure, go for it. When teaching a theory just so people can apply it to everyday life, keep it workable... Next, you'll want people to stop teaching how to divide, because division is NOT a proper mathematical operation (and it is not -- but it is still quite useful)." --
http://www.physicsforums.com/archive/index.php/t-33779.html --A forum where people have debated the answer to this question
How should science be taught pedagogically?
Argument against activity based learning:
"An "authentic assessment" in "integrated science" designed to replace ordinary tests asks students to write a poem about mitosis. A journal of chemical education encourages high school science students to construct a new periodic table of the elements as it might appear on some unspecified alien planet."
"Activities enthusiasts are right not to want passive students. But they have made a dangerous error. They have substituted ersatz activity and shallow content for the hard and serious work of the mind."
"Traditional classroom activities and content lose out--crowded and trimmed in order to accommodate projects. There's only so much school day, and projects and activities consume time greedily. To make room, time allotted to reading, writing, listening, critical dialogue, and directed inquiry inevitably shrinks. Serious learning takes a back seat."
"Whole-class, teacher-led instruction is not always of high quality. But it certainly can be, frequently is, and would be much more often if it weren't caricatured as inevitably boring and ineffective, thus discouraging teachers from perfecting the art…"
"At rock bottom, projects and activities provide mere entertainment. Teachers who fear student antagonism abandon "sedentary activities." They seek to fill dead time in the classroom. Projects and activities keep kids occupied and unmutinous. One of Zahorik's points was that "artificial tasks ... detract from interest." But real knowledge needs no artificial tasks."
--excerpts from Gilbert Sewall’s Lost in Action: Are Time Consuming, Trivializing Activities Displacing the Cultivation of Active Minds?, 2000
Teaching for Conceptual Change
"If Deb O'Brien had begun her lesson on heat in the usual way, she might never have known how nine long Massachusetts winters had skewed her students' thinking. Her fourth-graderswould have learned the major sources of heat, a little bit about friction, and how to read a thermometer. By the end of two weeks, they would have been able to pass a simple test on heat. But their preconceptions, never having been put on the table, would have continued, coexisting in a morass of conflicting ideas about heat and its behavior.
However, like a growing number of educators at all levels, O'Brien periodically teaches science for "conceptual change." Her students, allowed to examine their own experiences, must confront the inconsistencies in their theories. In the process they find the path toward a deeper understanding of heat, have a great time with science, and refine their thinking and writing skills."
"But the substitution of one theory for another is not as easy as erasing the chalkboard. Certain preconditions for conceptual change must exist if the barriers in the path to understanding are to be overcome."
"Since scientists held misconceptions about heat for hundreds of years, Hawkins reminds us, understanding heat is a hurdle that will not be cleared by students in a single two-week unit."
How to help facilitate conceptual change:
1. Stressing relevance. Because children so frequently assume new information to be "stuff we learned in school," the teacher must connect new concepts to the child's everyday life.
2. Making predictions. Children who are asked to predict the results of their experiments are more willing to change their thinking than are children who function as passive observers.
"Less "stuff" will be covered, fewer "facts" will be remembered for the test, and progress will sometimes be exceedingly slow. It is definitely a process of uncovering rather than covering. "
--Excerpts from Bruce Watson and Richard Kopnicek ‘s Teaching for Conceptual Change: Confronting Children's Experience, 1990
Other arguments against direct instruction:
"Undergraduate science students regularly acquire knowledge in these lecture learning environments, but not necessarily meaningful understanding." –Debra Tomanek and Lisa Montplasir’s Students' Studying and Approaches to Learning in Introductory Biology, 2004
"…found that science majors started with a more positive attitude towards science than did nonmajors and that while attitudes of nonscience majors improved at the end of their traditionally taught course, attitudes of science majors declined. In their case, the courses were separate majors and nonmajors biology courses taught using traditional expository lecture format. The nonscience majors course included applications and material considered to be relevant to the students, and there were no prerequisite skills or knowledge required for enrollment. Gogolin and Swartz described the majors course as “Less-stimulating” and more “subject oriented”; the nonmajors course was more “student oriented.” Sundberg and Dini (1993) attributed the more positive attitudes towards science among students in their nonmajors course compared with those in the majors course to the reduced level of detail and greater emphasis on current application and social relevance in the nonmajors course."—Donnald French and Connie Russell, Improving Student Attitudes Toward Biology in The Handbook of College Science Teaching, 2006
"We should be teaching students how to think. Instead, we are teaching them what to think." --Clement and Lochhead, Cognitive Process Instruction, 1980
“Most students faintly comprehend scientific facts and then forget them. This mode of teaching science fosters ignorance more than human understanding and the usefulness of science” --P.D. Hurd, Scientific Literacy: New Minds for a Changing World, 1997
Some relevant resources on the web:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0wk4qG2mIg: How the seasons work according to recent Harvord B.S. graduates
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NydSuHoQZqk: How the seasons work
http://www.nature.com/nrm/journal/v7/n4/full/nrm1856.html: Stephen Dicarlo, Cell Biology Should be Taught as Science is Practised, 2006
http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/: Science Education on serendip
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/23/education/23educ.html:The government is pushing science as an important subject to learn, why?
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/science/space/25educ.html?pagewanted=2: How government "No Child Left Behind" does not work with effective science education and what is an effective way to teach science
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/25/opinion/25thu4.html:opinion article for why laboratory immersion is the best way to get college students interested in science
Summary of first class discussion (crystal)
At the beginning of the discussion we discussed our own experiences with science education in both high school and college. Everybody’s high school experiences were different in terms of the curriculum’s focus and the teachers’ enthusiasm. However, there was a general consensus that high school science education mostly focuses on the memorization of “facts” and the establishment of a basic understanding of core scientific principles. Since we are all biology majors at Bryn Mawr College, our college-level experiences with science education are much less diverse. We agreed that college-level science education focuses more on critical thinking and exploring how a lot of the “facts” memorized in high school science courses are not necessarily “true”, but are useful ideas in certain contexts.
We then discussed what we felt was the purpose of science education. The class felt that society should be scientifically literate at some level, but we had trouble deciding what that should mean. Most of us believe that every student should have at least a basic understanding of science and most agreed that science classes should be required in high school, but not necessarily in college. The idea was proposed that the knowledge of scientific “facts” is completely unnecessary for some people, and those people should not be forced to study in-depth something that is not useful or enjoyable to them. However, most agreed that science education is useful because it offers a perspective with which to hone critical thinking skills, which are very important for everybody. There was strong support for the availability of separate science classes geared towards science majors and non-majors, which could provide critical thinking skills to both groups while only providing in-depth scientific knowledge to those who need that knowledge. Finally, towards the end of the discussion, we settled on a definition of scientific literacy offered by Professor Grobstein: “knowing that statements are a summary of observations that can be challenged by other observations”.
Conversation and Implications To Date (first session, Dakota)
To me scientific literacy means an understanding of the building blocks or foundations of science. For example, in biology I think that would include understanding the concept of a cell and the importance of DNA. These are things that I would except every person with some sort of formal science education to understand. --lbonnell
However, I think the fact is that there are just some people who will never, ever, be interested in acquiring any of the foundations of biology, or anything of the sort...I think the idea of a non-major section and a major section is a really appealing one. With this, there is the opportunity for the non-science student body to get involved in the science community in a fashion that will perhaps give them a better opinion of the sciences, and allow them to get some very basic fundamentals—I don’t know if this would result in a significant contribution to the scientific literacy of the general population, but it might be a start?--adowton
Education should promote students to explore new things, educators often know about topics that students have never encountered, but just might find stimulating and exciting. Exposure to a liberal arts education has showed me that science is related to and very compatible with other subjects and has helped me relate to others who have not chosen science as a primary field of study.--Colette
While I do not believe that all students should be required to continue their scientific education in college, and beyond, I do feel that science is an integral part of the early education of a well-rounded individual... While the method for inspiring students is often different from school to school, I do feel that a certain level of basics need to be learned by everyone, in order for them to become productive members of society. --smaley
Maybe that's what we could usefully be focusing on in intro courses with both student populations (where they could, among other things, learn to talk better to each other), and we could rely on upper level courses to provide the material needed to be a professional biologist--Paul Grobstein
I like the idea of two different intro classes (majors/non-majors or pre-med/non-pre-med). If I recall correctly, the students are to look up information online regarding the more technical aspects, which I think is too much to expect of students taking an intro level class.--Riki
Yes, the basis of introductory science is memorizing core facts. That's the bottom line. Why are we manipulating this? To attract humanities majors by not forcing them to only memorize facts and allow them to stray from this by not giving them a standard biology test and instead grading them on work that lets them incorporate what they prefer, and feel they are “better at”, or more interested in using, their writing skills? I don't think this is fair or right. I can’t go to my Middle East anthropology class and tell my professor that I’d rather give her my punnett squares that I had to write out for my genetics homework during intro bio because I’m better at them than I am at writing a 7 page paper on (the lack of) women’s rights in Iran...I have to follow the humanities department rules.--mlhodges
The main focus of any class should be the development of critical thinking skills, which will be useful to the student throughout their life, regardless of what career that student pursues...If any of the basic information is left out of an introductory course, the student will just have to work harder in their later classes to learn that basic information in addition to learning the material in their current class. --Crystal Leonard
*There is a need for educators and educational institutions to reevaluate how science is being taught.
*Educators need to become familiar with their student audience and the reasons behind why these students enroll in their class.
*Educators should consider the implications of having a majors and non-majors introductory science class.
*Science classes should convey some basic information. Science educators, scientists, and the rest of society have to come to some consensus as to what this basic information is.
Summary of second class discussion (collette)
Dakota began today’s discussion with a recap of last week’s dialogue about scientific literacy. We had tried to identify the “building blocks” of scientific literacy. Some thought the building blocks should encompass all topics of biology, micro and macro, while others argued that the building blocks were only those that were relevant to their concentration of biology. A realization arose that perhaps the buildings blocks were familiarization with vocabulary and had nothing to even do with concepts. This brought us back to a discussion about what audience is being catered to in an introductory biology class and what should be presented to it. Since everyone is different and has different interests, maybe science should be presented in a way that relates to each person. This led us to question the way materials were presented in classes.
There was a consensus that the presentation of topics in intro biology was rushed and that perhaps if we had gone slower and been exposed to less, we would have been able to retain more. We agreed, however, that details gave a deeper understanding of a topic and that the reason we did not retain many concepts was that we rushed over them. We also entertained the possibilities of different learning techniques. For instance being more engaged as in labs, hands on activities, group projects, etc as contrasted with lectures and power point presentations. We concluded that the root of the problem was how the subjects are presented. Maybe we do not have to learn the basics before we can appreciate the mystery of a topic or discussion. Skipping over materials quickly does not seem useful/. Hawkins reminds us “understanding heat is a hurdle that will not be cleared by students in a single two week unit.”
Conversation and Implications To Date
Science education is important, period...Science and scientific literacy are just a few of the many and varied ways of knowing in the world.-- Kwarlizzle
The idea that familiarization with vocabulary was the answer to the building blocks appealed at first. It makes sense that they make a marginal contribution to an individual having a general sense of science. Like languages, without the vocabulary, you cannot communicate or form sentences. With some vocabulary you can at least build on context and have a general idea as to what a scientist may be talking about...When you pick up the vocabulary you pick up a concept.--Colette
I think it is important for an introductory course to show students examples of processes from different areas of biology...A good scientist can take information and concepts from other areas and try to apply them to whatever subject he/she is interested in. We've talked about how co-constructive inquiry can happen between people, but I also think a form of co-constructive inquiry can happen between fields or even different areas of biology.--lbonnell
On the other hand, maybe the intro class equipped me with a subconscious knowledge bank that has helped me to perform better in my upper level classes?... If professors are acknowledging our forgetfulness, and essentially re-teaching the material, did learning these basics in intro do any good?--adowton
I believe that most of what is taught in intro is useless, as shown from class most people do not remember a lot from their intro class...The intro class offers a lot of general (and specific) information about the "bases" of biology. But, even with this, I have heard people complain that it is similar to the biology that they had in high school.--Kendra Norrell
I think every one's experience is that they learn best/most satisfyingly when material is presented in a way that allows them to personalize it, think about it, fit it into their own contexts...we should indeed focus more on "teaching for conceptual change," understanding that different students will have different reactions to particular context and need different supports to make it relevant to "conceptual change." The issue isn't, I think, whether to teach "building blocks," but rather how they're taught, whether students are told what they are or encouraged to help find them for themselves.--Paul Grobstein
Instead of learning the basics, that I could later build upon, I learned, and later forgot, quite a bit that I do not consider basic. In addition to that, many of the courses I have later taken have assumed that we never learned the basics, and these basics were re-taught, taking up valuable time in the semester...Until a set definition of "basic" is obtained, I feel that little improvement can be made to intro classes.--smaley
*As mentioned last week, there is a need to reevaluate how science is taught. Instead of focusing specifically on what material should be taught in science courses, educators should first focus on how to teach the material.
*Science education could benefit from the incorporation of mystery into the curriculum.
*Educators need to reinvent science education in such a way that makes the material more memorable.
Continuing conversation in on-line forum below