Sep 05 2008

How To Improve Science Education

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The stated “mission” of the loosely defined “skeptical movement” is to promote science and reason. At the core of this mission is the promotion of life-long quality science education. The many blogs, podcasts, magazines, lectures, and books primarily serve this purpose – to popularize science and help teach scientific philosophy, methodology, and facts to the public.

But what about formal public science education? There appears to be general agreement among skeptics that the quality of science education is generally poor, and yet is critical to our goals. But what have we done about it? Too little, I think.

We have contributed to the defense of science education from coordinated ideological attack, such as from the various guises of evolution denial. I think we have helped to teach and give some tools to individual science teachers. I have lectured to science teachers about scientific skepticism and the nature of science.

In terms of the public science education infrastructure, however, we have done little more than fill the role of outside critics. We have criticized the textbook industry for generally abysmal quality and subverting facts to ideological agendas. We have examined the various state science standards (some are good, some are bad). And we have been sharply critical of the lack of critical thinking within science education.

We are largely talking to ourselves, however, and are not part of any meaningful conversation with those responsible for the quality of science education. I see the reasons for this as two-fold: the education infrastructure is simply not interested in our kibitzing, and skeptics generally don’t know what do to, other than complain.

I have heard exhortations for skeptics to get involved with local school boards, and even to work their way up in the education hierarchy. This is a good idea, but even still would have limited potential to fix science education. We need a systematic overhaul.

Here are my suggestions to improve science education.

Teach how we know what we know.

Science is a process, not a list of accepted facts. However, it is generally taught as a body of knowledge with historical references to people and maybe classic experiments that established this knowledge. Rather, science should be taught as the messy process it is. Emphasis should be placed on methodology, what constitutes a proper scientific hypothesis, and how the scientific process unfolds over time.

This will necessary include discussions of things that are currently unknown, or very controversial. If students were made to debate whether or not the dinosaurs were wiped out as a result of a single collision, or died slowly over time as a consequence of multiple factors – they would learn the relevant facts and process much better than simple memorization.

Include example from popular culture and current controversies

This is where I think the skeptical community has the most to offer. We are experts at using popular myths and misconceptions to teach scientific methodology. Science curricula should not shy away from such questions as whether or not bigfoot is likely to exist. Questions that grab the imagination and already exist in popular culture are great fodder for discussion. The goal should be to show students how to formulate scientific arguments. How to assess the quality of evidence. What are the minimum criteria for a scientific hypothesis? What are the roles played by plausibility and logic in forming scientific opinions?

Teach how to access scientific information

Higher level courses should include lessons on how to find reliable scientific information, and then assess that information to form an opinion or answer a question. The internet now provides an excellent and easy resource for such lessons, but books, magazine, and encyclopedias should also be utilized.

Such lessons could include teaching how to properly reference your sources, and the difference between a primary source and a secondary source.

Hands on

Humans learn better when they are actively involved then when just passively receiving information. Getting students to actually perform experiments is therefore an obvious idea. Recently Adam Savage from the Mythbusters made this point in an article he wrote for Popular Mechanics on how to fix science education.

However, I think we need to go beyond merely getting the student’s hands dirty. This concept has already been incorporated into science education, but the execution has failed. Students are often made to repeat experiments with a known outcome – so they are just going through the motions. Rather, I would have students design experiments to test a question, and then carry out those experiments. They can also be fed some pre-fab experiments, but should not be told what results to expect. Students need to learn that experiment and observation are tools for scientifically answering questions.

Students could also be tasked to run experiments to test certain unknowns, and the results compared among the class. This would demonstrate the variability of research outcomes and why replication is so important.

In other words – students should not just get their hands dirty, they need to get their minds dirty as well.

Demonstrations also play an important role. Here the students are more passive observers. Rather than doing an experiment they can be shown a demonstration of whatever scientific principle they are being taught. Such demonstrations are always cool and engaging.

Critical Thinking

And of course, critical thinking skills should be woven into every part of the science curriculum. Science is, first and foremost, a way of thinking about the work and figuring out how it works. The primary tool of science is the mind – and while curiosity may come naturally to humans, scientific thinking is a discipline that requires teaching and practice.

Conclusion

I am not saying that the features of good science education I outlined above are not already occurring in some science classrooms. I have met and heard from many science teachers who have told me how they incorporate one or more of these methods into their classroom. The problem is that these teachers generally are doing a good job despite the system, not because of it.

The biggest problem I see with the system is that science textbooks are generally terrible. The textbook industry appears flawed beyond hope – trapped in a quagmire of ideologies and politics, and suffering from simple poor quality.

It seems to me that the single best thing we can do to improve science education is to start from scratch and create a K-12 science curriculum that incorporates all the ideals I outlined above. Wouldn’t it be great to have science textbooks written by actual scientists – those with a special talent and inclination for teaching science? Imagine if graduating high school seniors had 13 years of a coordinated science program that taught them the methods of science, critical thinking, how we know what we know, the nature of experimentation, and the key findings of the major scientific disciplines – and in addition gave them a love and appreciation for the power and beauty of science, and prepared them either for careers in science or at least the ability to continue life-long learning about science.

This is why I have proposed to some of my skeptical colleagues that we focus our efforts on just such a project. The obvious way to do this would be by creating a free online Wiki-style series of science textbooks. This way the efforts of many authors can easily be coordinated. Supervision and editing would still be required for quality control and cohesiveness – but content would flow from many scientists and writers.

Such a project would also be highly democratic – it would provide the best quality science textbooks to even the poorest school districts.

This is a project I want to make happen. Advice and help is welcome, and I will keep readers updated on how it progresses. Right now it is just an idea, but I have found that the combination of skeptical activists and the internet is sufficient to make such ideas become a reality.

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