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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Can Scientists Reform Science Education?

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I am honored to have been invited to give the keynote bridge talk between the 2011 Midwest Regional Zebrafish Conference and the 2011 Zebrafish and Education Summit in Rochester, MN on August 5, 2011.

I eagerly agreed to speak as I am intrigued and enthused by the science education program for schools that was begun by Dr. Stephen Ekker. Most of the time, Dr. Ekker runs a genetics laboratory at Mayo Clinic Rochester researching the assignment of genes and gene sets critical in vertebrate patterning and organogenesis. And then he pours his passion into his unique school science education program, InSciEd Out. Watch this to learn more:

He is not the only scientist to have begun a significant science project with schools. UK based science educator Alom Shaha reminded me of the wonderful bumblebee project carried out with schoolchildren in the UK that resulted in a published journal paper. Read about this marvelous project in Alom’s blog post for The Guardian

My challenge for this keynote is to speak for 45 minutes on "Why should scientists care about science education reform?"

I have many ideas myself, which have been formed over the years via a blend of my experience of being surrounded by science in academia as well as applying various pedagogical concepts from teaching to many levels of students (and the public).

I'm curious about other big ideas scientists might have out there to change how science is taught. I want to hear from you. Educators and science communicators are welcome to join in, but I'm especially interested in what scientists and engineers think about this topic.

Before I offer you the challenge, here are answers from a few well-known scientists who communicate well with the general public.

I asked the question of Philip Alcabes, who is a Professor at Hunter College’s School of Public Health and in the Public Health program at the Doctoral School at CUNY. He is the author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu, Here is his thoughtful answer:

 

"Why should scientists care about reforming science education? First, because science and education share an aspiration, which is enlightenment. When the educational system isn't causing more people to be more intrigued by the world than they used to be, then it needs some repair. And I mean this even if the interest that is not being sparked is interest in art history or sign language, not necessarily genes or space exploration or phytochemistry, the science-y things. Scientists should be interested in the educational system because we share that enlightenment aim.

Second, because scientists ARE interested in more people becoming intrigued by all those science-y things, and education is a way to do that. Television and the internet are all ways to summon more interest in science among children, but why not have schools doing that, too?

Third, because of democracy. Education is an essential tool for civics, for having a strong democracy. And science needs democracy and needs to BE a democracy: Without democratic science, you get bad science or no science or you get harmful science (I'm thinking of Lysenko)."

Kate Clancy, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and a colleague of mine both at the University of Illinois and right here on SciAm with Context and Variation, offered me her opinion via twitter direct messages (she’s @KateClancy):

 

"My first thoughts are that we need science literate voters to fund the NSF and NIH, The public needs more appreciation for science work, too. If more kids are excited by science more will appreciate science and go into it, which will create more scientists and fewer premeds ;)" (I left her tongue-in-cheek comment because I, too, have educated primarily pre-med students and few future scientists).

Kate continues: "Also, every year I’m very saddened by my gen ed science teaching experience, because of the large number of students who had teachers who told them they were dumb or bad at science."

I then asked Kate what she would do if she could get into the schools to help educate some of the next generation, to which she replied:

 

"Personally, I'd want to work with girls and show them what science can really be about and focus on doing small group discussions on women's health issues. I'd want them to see that science is not all about splitting atoms." (My comment: or genomics!)

Here is the eloquent opinion of Lawrence Krauss, Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Physics Dept, Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, and Inaugural Director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University and author of several highly readable books including, Quantum Man and The Physics of Star Trek.

 

"Science is one of the most exciting intellectual pursuits humans have ever carried out, and vital for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. We owe it to our children not only to expose them to some of the most remarkable discoveries humans have made, but to equip them to deal with the modern world. A good science education is essential in this regards, and scientists, who are privileged to be a part of the exciting scientific endeavor should help pay back the gift they have gotten by providing their resources and expertise in the educational process."

Lisa Randall, who studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University and is the author of Warped Passages and the upcoming Knocking on Heaven’s Door gave me a succinct answer via twitter DM. (she’s @lirarandall)

 

"We live in a world where understanding and appreciating science matters.

Everyone--including scientists--should care. And of course, more and better-trained students will be the source of tomorrow's advances."

Zen Faulkes, Associate Professor at University of Texas-Pan America sent me his opinion: (He’s on twitter @DoctorZen)

 

"Respect.

Scientists generally rate highly in public opinion polls when people are asked who they respect and trust. But signs are not good for it staying that way.

I see an erosion of that respect. A lot of people see scientists as just another group of special interest lobbyists that can be bought. "For every Ph.D., there is an equal and opposite PhD." (The response to the Climategate emails were another example.)

Some of that, I think, is because many people get distorted views of how science works from their education. There are big long lists of facts and names, most of which are the science of decades and centuries ago. It doesn't convey how scientists go about their jobs.

I would like to think that if science education were better, people might respect science in all its forms -- not just the obviously pragmatic ones like cancer research and new smart phones."

For an educator’s perspective, I asked Alom Shaha (cited above) for his viewpoint about what he thought scientists could add to the classroom:

 

"If I were trying to be controversial, I'd reply "very little, until they properly understand how schools work". What I mean by this is that good intentions are not enough to make a difference to school education if the people trying to "help" make no effort to appreciate what it is that we teachers have to do and the conditions in which we have to do them.

On a more positive note, I feel getting scientists into schools is a good idea - so that students can see that science is a living, breathing activity, and not just something they read about in textbooks. Also establishing relationships with scientists, as I have done, means that we teachers can provide opportunities for students to do "real" science, which we simply cannot provide in schools." Then Alom reminded me of the bumblebee work described above as a great example of this.

Now it is your turn. Please login to join the discussion. I know it takes a few minutes to register, but a conversation on this topic is quite important for the future of scientific thinking in the general public and future scientists.

If you are an educator, I'd like to hear your thoughts on what a scientist can provide to you, your classroom, to the school district. What would you love to see the students get excited about? From your vantage point, what is keeping a scientist from contributing to the classroom?

If you are a scientist or engineer, feel free to chime in on any or all of these questions:

Do you feel scientists and engineers should play a role in determining what science is taught in schools? If so, what would this look like?

What are the most important concepts science education should teach about how science (or engineering) is done? (This is an area of particular interest to me).

In your field, what would be the top five things you think the average person should know even if they have no plans (or especially if they have no plans) on going into a science or engineering related career?

Do you currently have a project that is integrated into a school or school district that has shown to be successful in engaging students toward science or engineering? What are the main objectives of your project?

Do you have an idea for such a project? What would the student who successfully completed your project have learned?

And finally, feel free to contribute anything else you think I may have forgotten to pointedly ask about.

Let's begin the conversation on how science education can change for the better, with help from the people who do science everyday!

About the Author: Joanne Manaster is a faculty lecturer in Biology at the University of Illinois, currently teaching an online course on the human genome to certified teachers wishing to get their Masters in Science Teaching. She is a science outreach enthusiast who runs a girl’s bioengineering camp (GAMES at U of I) and advises the iGEM synthetic biology team there as well. This all in addition to her video rich website, Joanne Loves Science, which offers a gentle introduction to science for the young or a reintroduction to those who may have forgotten they used to really like science at one time. She co-hosts the blog PsiVid right here on SciAm.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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