Rethinking Science Education: An Overview
"[T]here are new troubles in the peculiar form of paradise that science has created as well as new questions about whether it has the popular support to meet the future challenges" (New York Times, 2003)
The impact of science on culture has dramatically increased in the last century. Correspondingly, there have arisen new needs for careful consideration of the scientific enterprise itself, for more deliberate thinking about its engagements with and responsibilities towards the human cultures to which it contributes and from which it needs support.
"Clearly something is turning Kate and her classmates away from careers in science" (Science, 16 December 2005)
The percentage of American students pursuing educational programs leading to professional careers in the sciences has been declining, and there are continuing under-representations of many populations among professional scientists.
"Connections between biology and the other scientific disciplines need to be developed and reinforced so that interdisciplinary thinking and work become second nature ... Equally importantly, teaching and learning must be made more active ..." (National Research Council, 2002)
The nature of professional activity itself has been evolving substantially in recent decades, not only in biology but in all areas of science. While research defined by and contributing to particular disciplines continues to make important contributions to scientific understanding, there is an increasing richness of problems and advances that not only make use of but depend for their conception on significant exchange among scientists having different disciplinary perspectives.
"In addition to full time scientists, we need educated citizens who can think critically about the science and technology choices so prominent in contemporary political life" (Science, 16 December 2005)
Science literacy is increasingly important not only for professionals but for everyone, as a source of personal empowerment, as a foundation for effective participation in civic discourse, and as an ingredient in the diverse mix of experiences and perspectives on which science itself depends.
Develop educational programs that recognize the inter-relations among this diverse array of challenges and provide a foundation for addressing them in coordinated and mutually reinforcing ways.
Resources for Addressing the Challenge:
"We researchers pride ourselves in thinking scientifically in our laboratories. We gather data, formulate hypotheses, and suspect our own conclusions enough to test them rigorously ... When scientists step out of the lab into the classroom, they can apply these same principles: finding out what their students already know, reworking their methods to enhance understanding, and applying technology to support those efforts ..." (Science, 16 December 2005)
"the evolution of understandings of science is too important to be left solely in the hands of a closed community of scientists. What is needed is ... a more diverse array of human beings who have in common a shared sense of science as a valuable component of human culture and a willingness to shoulder the burden of making it into what it has the capability to become ... a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride." (Grobstein, 2005)
Make use of the scientific practices of continual collection of observations, and of repeated hypothesis generation, testing, and revision, all in an open, public arena.
Encourage the involvement in that arena of not only professional scientists but all people with relevant interests and expertise.
Notice and make productive use of commonalities and intersections among different contexts and challenges.
Some Suggested Guidelines for Curricular Innovation:
- Recognize that science education needs to address the needs of three distinct but inter-related populations, having differing but also common needs
- people who will go on to become research scientists or to careers where a significant familiarity with research science is essential
- people who will go on to professional careers in which a background in science is useful
- people who need a familiarity with science irrespective of their future careers
- Recognize that for all populations, the most important thing to convey is a sense of science as proccess, not only in the past but also in the present and conceivable future. Actively, deliberately, and consistently avoid encouraging/allowing students to believe science is either "Truth" or primarily content.
- Appropriate content is essential to developing increasing sophistication with process but should rarely or never be the primary consideration in course design.
- Content (ideas, perspectives, skills) are almost invariably most effectively mastered by creating an appropriate arena of experiences and opportunities for exploration and allowing students to develop ideas, perspectives, and skills themselves.
- A process orientation may be more time-consuming and demanding in the short run for both teacher and student but is not only more effective in terms of longer term content mastery but also contributes to, rather than detracts from, the general objective of helping students develop their capabilities for independent, critical thought.
- A process orientation may include "hands on" activities but may also involve simply active encouragement to understand scientific statements as summaries of observations that are challengeable in the light of additional or new observations, personal or otherwise.
- Recognize that, for all populations, it is valuable to appreciate the interconnectedness of distinct disciplinary lines of inquiry and to develop the inclination and skills needed to intersect them onself.
- Disciplinary explorations should always be set in the context of related explorations in other disciplines, making clear as appropriate in particular cases what benefits are gained from more focused exploration and how these can be expected to contribute distinctively to addressing broader questions that are common to multiple disciplines.
- Recognize that, for all populations, it is valuable to appreciate the interconnectedness of scientific inquiries and broader individual and social inquiries, issues, and concerns.
- Personal as well as cultural/social understandings and issues that relate to the material of the course should always be respected, explored, and connected with. Students should be encouraged to evaluate and improve their understandings of course/disciplinary material not only in the language of the course/discipline but also by rephrasing of material in terms that will make sense to a "general" audience.
- Recognize that the three distinct populations not only have significant extent common needs but that one can also take advantage of their differences to address both common needs and distinctive ones.
- The development of needed communication skills not only within disciplines but also across disciplines and between academic and non-academic realms can be facilitated by having students work in, or with, diverse populations. Doing so can also help students learn both the strengths and the shortcomings of focused, disciplinary work, as well as acquire the useful skills of supplementing such work by communication with others having different commitments and levels of expertise.
Some Relevant Explorations, Examples, and Reflections in My Own Case
- Biology 103
- Introductury course, includes explicit lab component, intended both for potential bio majors and others, typical enrollment of 40, mostly the latter
- Biology 202 (see Biology 202 Evolving)
- Middle level course, intended both for majors in biology/psychology and non-majors, typical enrollment of 40, mixed
- Biology 223 = English 223
- Middle level course, co-taught with colleague in English, intended for majors in biology or english, and non-majors, typical enrollment 35, mixed
- Biology 361 = Computer Science 361
- New middle level course, co-taught with colleague in Computer Science, includes specific lab component, intended for majors in biology or computer science and non-majors, enrollment 20, mixed
- Biology 310 = Philosophy 310, "Philosophy of Science"
- Middle level course, co-taught with colleague in Philosophy (and sometime Physics), intended for majors in biology or philosophy and non-majors, enrollment typically 12, mixed
- Common characteristics of most or all of these courses
- A starting course "arc" including ideas and perspectives and associated observations which is subject to varying degrees of modification as the actual offering proceeds and students bring their own understanding/perspectives/observations to bear
- Assigned readings rather than textbooks
- On line forum discussion and web papers rather than examinations
- Explicit commitment on the part of students to the education not only of themselves and others in the classroom but of the general public as well
- It is in fact possible to develop and successfully teach "non-traditional" science courses for and with mixed student populations
- Doing so requires the development of perspectives and skills different from those most of us acquired in our own earlier professional education
- Doing so also requires persuading students (and colleagues) that course objectives different from those they might expect are appropriate and useful for them
- Acquiring the needed perspectives and skills takes time and requires a willingness to experiment and fail. The process can be greatly facilitated by working with colleagues from other disciplines in a variety of contexts, including co-teaching.
- Co-teaching in addition provides an effective modelling of the kind of interdisciplinary and continually challengeable inquiry one is hoping students will become better at themselves.
- The Scientist/Teacher: A Call to Arms, Journal of College Science Teaching, 1989
- This Isn't Just MY Problem, Friend: Some Thoughts on Science Education, Education, American Culture, and What to Do About It, an essay, 1991
- Getting It Less Wrong: Some Thoughts on Introductory Science Teaching ..., an essay, 1993
- Two Cultures or One?, letter, 1996
- Science as "Getting It Less Wrong", letter, 2003
- Science Matters ... How?, essay, 2003
- A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century: Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together, essay, 2003
- Theorizing Interdisciplinarity: The Evolution of New Academic and Intellectual Communities, essay (with colleagues in English, Physics), 2004
- Emergent Pedagogy: Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable and Make it Productive, essay (with colleagues in Computer Science, Psychology, and English), 2004
- Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising, Journal of Research Practice, 2005
- Education and Technology: Serendip's Experiences 1994-2004, a reflection and resource base, 2004
- Science as Story Telling in Action, a developing resource base, 2005
Extra-Departmental Organizational Connections
- Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Science Education Program at Bryn Mawr, 1989-present
- Bryn Mawr Summer Institute Program for K-12 Educators, 1989-present
- Bryn Mawr College Seminar Program, 1998-present
- Center for Science in Society, 2001-present
- Project Kaleidoscope, 2002-present
- Science Education Through New Civic Engagements (SENCER), 2005-present
Post discussion notes
Enjoyed and appreciated the diversity of perspectives brought to bear. A little disappointed by the low numbers of science faculty involved, but that may be relevant in one way or another to the conversation/issues.
A few things that stuck in my mind, for my own continuing thinking and whatever use they might be to others ...
- It is characteristic of science to "leave open" what it does not yet have a "good" explanation for (one that motivates new observations/questions) rather than to create something that is an "answer" and hence ends the exploration.
- This is closely related to Orah's quote from Popper - "science should be visualized as progressing from problems to problems - to problems of ever increasing depth" and her gloss that evolution (and science?) "moves into the chaotic leaving paths of organization in its wake" whereas other things are motivated by "leaving disorder in our wake as we traverse a predestined path".
- "Science as Story Telling and Story Revising", as "getting it less wrong" (the conceptual foundations of my talk), is very much in the spirit of moving into the unknown leaving "organization in its wake" rather than that of progress towards a "final destination".
- I very much agree with Orah that, in conflict with this, students by and large "are taught that there is a reward and rest-stasis at the point of getting-it-right". And, moreover, that this is a problem not only in the teaching of science but in the teaching of most disciplines and perhaps in education generally.
- The problem of "scientism" and its inhibiting/paralyzing effects on other disciplines/forms of inquiry is indeed, as Sandy argued, one that needs to be taken seriously.
- I'm less inclined though than Sandy to blame that problem on "science". Just as the problem of teaching in ways that encourage "getting it right" occurs in all disciplines, so too, it seems to me, the problem of disciplines choking off potentially productive lines of inquiry in pursuit of "rigor" is also not even remotely restricted to the sciences. At the same time, "science certainly encourages it, and so it is appropriate that science should contribute to correcting it."
- Part of why I'm disappointed by the relative low numbers of scientists at our discussion is that I don't think that, by and large, scientists are as aware of this problem as they need to be, and could and should be playing a more active role in correcting it. At the same time, "science" is, like all human institutions, a social construct, and attacking "science" for particular sins (that are not in fact distinctive for it) is to contribute to reifying a social construct and, in this case, one that could help to correct the bigger problem.
Much better, it seems to me, is to recognize that "the evolution of understandings of science is too important to be left solely in the hands of a closed community of scientists. What is needed is ... a more diverse array of human beings who have in common a shared sense of science as a valuable component of human culture and a willingness to shoulder the burden of making it into what it has the capability to become ... a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth".
- The issue here is very much NOT the "colonization of humanity" by science. "The stories science has to tell should of course be made more widely available and accessible, but not simply to enlighten non-scientists. Equally important is the central role that all of humanity needs to continue to play in the stories that science evolves, both about the world and about itself."
- "Scientism" = narrow conceptions of method will be most effectively opposed by an alliance of people committed to continual and open-ended inquiry rather than by attacking science. Many scientists are already committed to such an alliance, and more would become actively involved if the issues were made clear to them in their general form.
- The status of "compassion" in science is an interesting and important one. And it is an issue that, I freely admit, I didn't anticipate in thinking about the "Overview" I prepared. Which is, I think, relevant, as is item 4 in the "Suggested Guidelines for Curricular Revision" which it includes: "Recognize that, for all populations, it is valuable to appreciate the interconnectedness of scientific inquiries and broader individual and social inquiries, issues, and concerns."
- "Compassion" is NOT, I think, a starting point for science, at least not for science as I understand it. "science is inevitably a destabilizing and revolutionary force with regard to all existing understandings" and, in these terms, can (and should be) at times quite INcompassionate. Its distinctive cultural task is not to comfort but to challenge.
- It does not follow from that that compassion and caring are incompatible with science nor that science may not contribute in important ways to encouraging compassion and caring. Scientists are, and science is, a component of a broader culture that includes other components with other values ("compassion" and "caring" among them). And science most meaningfully advances in its own terms when it effectively intersects (bidirectionally) with those.
- If one's PRIMARY commitment is to "compassion" and "caring" one is probably best off with a primary commitment to some cultural entity other than science, but one can and should nonetheless find in science what is useful to oneself and contribute to science what is useful to it.
- These sorts of general issues are important to talk through but even with agreement on them (should that be achievable) "the devil is in the details". I'd intended to have more exploration of the idea that commonalities among different populations in science education actually had implications and advantages for concrete curricular revisions. Hopefully we can move further in such on the ground directions as the semester's conversation continues, using the generalities to inform the specifics and vice versa.
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