Thinking about science education & life

The following is a condensed excerpt from the chapter
“Chicken Little, Paul Revere, and Winston Churchill”
in Start with a Story - The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science.
by Clyde Freemand Herreid.

Chicken Little was picking up corn in the farm yard when, whack!— something hit her upon the head. "Goodness gracious me!" said Chicken Little, "the sky's a-going to fall; I must go and tell the king." English Fairy Tales, Joseph Jacobs (ed.)

It looks like Chicken Little might be on to something: Perhaps, indeed, the sky is falling.

Concern for the status of science education seems to come from five areas, says D. W. Mullins (1993) of the University of Alabama:

  1. The results of standardized tests of students;
  2. the declining of fortunes and international competitiveness of American business and industry;
  3. the dropout of students from science and engineering programs (the pipeline problem);
  4. a prevalence of nonsense in American society, and
  5. surveys showing the degree of science literacy in American adults.

What Are the Solutions, Paul Revere?

Paul Revere, an American patriot and silversmith from Boston, . . . was reputed to call,

"The British are coming! The British are coming!"

The citizenry awoke and beat back the invaders. Can America now do likewise?

Can we solve the problems of scientific illiteracy?

The simple answer - is to teach more science; to teach better science.

What Kind of Science Should We Teach?

Scientific literacy has three major dimensions:

  1. the substantive concepts in science (facts, phenomena, content),
  2. the nature of the scientific activity, and
  3. the role of science in society (Bauer1992)
  4. [attitude or disposition for science - Sweetland]

Teaching the Nature of the Scientific Process

This cannot be accomplished by simply memorizing the steps of the scientific method.

Students must experience the process. They must make observations, ask questions, make and test hypotheses and predictions, collect data and evaluate their results. Most people don't have a clue about most of this process . . . many students . . . conclude that research labs are performing confirmatory exercises rather than generating new knowledge.

Role of Science in Society

This topic receives little treatment in traditional science teaching . . . the lack of history in our teaching tends to reinforce the notion that scientific ideas just drop from the sky or are known all along, just waiting confirmation. Consequently, students miss hearing about the revolutions which periodically occur in science and the gestalt shifts involved. Whether you agree with Thomas Kuhn (1970) that these events are revolutionary or with other authors that these events are evolutionary matters little. . . .

The scientific enterprise is affected by society and vice versa. This reciprocal relationship should be made explicit in any teaching. The obvious examples include the impact of science upon warfare (dynamite, radar, the atomic bomb), medicine and public health (water purification, vaccines, drugs), and chemistry (nylon, plastics).

So if facts, the process of science, and society's interactions with science are the three legs of scientific literacy, what do we do with our knowledge?

Paul Revere is calling "The British are coming!" and so are the Germans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans . . . and we're not ready. . ..

What can we as individual instructors do? I look first to Winston Churchill for inspiration.

Three Things We Can Do

What can the average science teacher do to fight the good fight, without surrender to the advancing armies of scientific illiteracy?

Focus on a few select topics

I argue that the major paradigms of science are the topics to be taught. The word "paradigm" is used in the sense of Thomas Kuhn (1970). Paradigms are the most major, encompassing ideas that bind an entire scientific discipline together. In geology it might be the concept of Plate Tectonics. This single idea explains much of what is known about continental drift, mountain building, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the distribution of many fossil and living organisms. ... I have two additional points.... First, the paradigms taught should be few in number. No discipline should claim more than two or three, otherwise we risk diffusing the focus. Second, the topics should be taught in sufficient depth so that students really understand where each paradigm comes from, why we believe it to be true, what weaknesses exist in the model, and what solutions the paradigm provides.

Teach in Context

Cases engage students like few other devices in the classroom. Why? Because people like stories. Learning in the context of a story is easier, more likely to be retained and is more fun.

I think the best cases to use are those that are based on real events, especially those that involve unresolved questions, are current, contentious, and involve public policy issues. If you want to teach people about radiation, use a case study on sunburn lotion.... By using cases involving public policy issues, such as those involving the government regulations for the clearance of drugs, or regulations for nuclear waste disposal, students readily see the societal interaction of science and the ethical implications of many decisions.

Use Cooperative/Collaborative Learning

Over 600 studies comparing this style of learning with the more traditional methods of individual work have been published (Johnson and Johnson 1989). The data are overwhelmingly in favor of the cooperative mode over the lecture method. Students in such cooperative classrooms retain more information, are more enthusiastic for their subject, have more social skills and tolerance for different opinions, and they have a greater sense of personal worth. Our science-teaching methods are medieval. In the colleges of the Middle Ages, before books were widespread, the professor professed—passing his knowledge on to the notes of his students. Surely, we should have progressed. . .we must change our teaching as well. We can and must do it. Winston Churchill said it well. "We must never surrender." . . .

If we can pull this off, we will leave Chicken Little in the farmyard and ride with Paul Revere through the countryside, ultimately to celebrate victory with Winston Churchill. And our problems of scientific literacy should disappear.

Book Reference

Start with a story: the case study method of teaching college science
By Clyde Freeman Herreid
Published by NSTA Press, 2006
ISBN 1933531061
466 pages


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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