In an essay entitled “Redefining Science Education,” the Editor in Chief of Science Magazine, Bruce Alberts, essentially bit the hand that feeds him. According to Mr. Alberts, scientists – the ones who consume and produce the content of Science magazine – may have created the biggest problem in science education.
So what’s the problem that Alberts raises? Rather than teach students how to think scientifically what is generally happening is, “students are being told about science and being asked to remember facts.”
Mr. Alberts is disturbed. (He says it himself; I’m not saying it about him!)
In body of his essay Mr. Albert promotes an approach to “science education” that those of us working to inspire students to become engaged and inspired by science would likely find familiar and embrace. He advocates for helping students “generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations, understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge, and to participate productively in scientific practices and discourses.” In sum, Alberts calls for equipping students to develop science as a way of knowing.
Unfortunately, Alberts points out, this is not how science is taught. (Remember, Alberts is criticizing the way scientists teach science in this article, though the standards he refers to are designed for K-8 teachers to employ and he ultimately roots the dilemma in science education in problems in elementary and high school teaching). The outcome of this flawed approach to science education is large numbers of adults who don’t use evidence to solve problems or embrace non-scientific explanations of how the natural world works.
Here’s the squelcher for me: Albert’s suggested solution to the problem. He recommends what we need is new assessments; tests that would better measure the strands of science education that are getting short shrift in the face of the facts.
I disagree with this “assessment.” While certainly having thoughtful, more inclusive assessments could be helpful in understanding how students are doing, such an approach may distract us from the heart of the matter.
We have standards and goals. We even now have standards for informal science education. The big problem in science education isn’t that we’re not testing appropriately, or that we’re not teaching appropriately, though these are, in fact, well documented issues that need attention and resources (and appropriately so). The real issue in science education that science, by design, is not for all, it’s not really even for most. Science is just for some. Until this aspect of science education is embraced as a real one we likely will not see much change – regardless of how, or who, we test.
It’s critical we remember the primary sites where “real” “fun,” “engaging,” “authentic”and educational science experiences – (the ones Mr. Alberts implies we should aspire to) – happen are ones in which participants are students who are performing academically at the top. These are the places – both in and out of school – where students get to dissect pigs, launch rockets and see their own DNA. (To name just a few of the more “fun” things students, if they’re lucky, get to do).
We need act on the idea that science is valuable for everyone – not just for students who will become scientists and not just for students who are academically successful.
In this realm scientists do have a role to play – both in and out of college. If students are not interested in science by 8th grade it is unlikely that they will choose to pursue science in high school or beyond. They may take AP classes in science as part of a college-track program but if they don’t actually LIKE science they certainly won’t pursue it in college as a possible profession.
Some things could change bit by bit: Scientists could come out of the ivory tower and off the printed page to share their work in person. Museums could take their researchers from behind the glass and put them on the museum floor. Not to run “demonstrations” but to have conversations about the questions they’re asking, the way in which they are trying to answer those questions and the progress and challenges they work through along the way. Bring some show and tell, tools of the trade.
One of the arenas in which the kind of science that Mr. Alberts calls for can most increasingly happen is in out of school time settings, in learning environments like the ones created by Project Exploration, where we work to level the playing field – while also offering more time, flexibility, and personalized experiences. Students are invited regardless of what their grade point average is. Programs are free. They work on real science with scientists.
Last week I was talking with one of our students, DeAndre, at our Senior Celebration. DeAndre is about to go into 11th grade. “What keeps you coming back to Project Exploration?” I asked “This is a vacation day, and yet you’ve come to hang out with us. Why?” Here’s his answer: “What I love about science is that it can be different every day. It’s like a little surprise. It’s exciting. You can always learn something new.”
Scientists that work with Project Exploration – and we are lucky to have many – embrace a progressive approach to teaching. But they include a lot of facts. Facts take on meaning because the work the students are doing is meaningful to them. They are empowered by knowing information that they can use – and information that they can share with others.
There is a real problem in science education. Cf course teachers absolutely should have resources to become better science teachers. Students – all students – should have a chance to do science that enables them to work through problems in a hands-on way regardless of their socioeconomic or academic standing or their reading ability. Such efforts require not only cool science “stuff” but also time in the day. Until we believe that science really is for everyone and actually has value beyond a role in ensuring economic viability (aka “pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge”) at a national level, not much will really change.
Mr. Alberts, your assessment of the problem, and your assessment of the solution, may need testing. I hope that we can work together to ensure all students have the opportunity to become inspired to be curious, to observe closely, to describe their observations in detail and effectively, and to share their passion and ideas with others.
(Did I say “students?” – maybe I meant “scientists.” I might need to get my facts straight.)