Science Education Gets Better

Editor’s Note: We are indebted to Professor Lara K. Smetana of Loyola University, Chicago for spending time with us to tell us about the exciting developments that have occurred in science education in the last decade. Despite a number of challenges, there is now reason to believe that science education at the elementary, middle, and high school levels has been significantly improved.

Are you old enough to remember when science class in elementary, middle, and high school involved almost entirely the memorization of “facts?” Even through introductory classes in college, students were required to replicate the periodic table of the elements by heart, memorize the anatomy of frogs and other animals, and know the equations that govern the forces of nature, like gravity. It was generally quite tedious work, and many students were completely turned off to science as a result. Those classes created the misperception that everything about science is already known and that the only role of science learners is to memorize what scientists have already proven.

         At some point a few decades ago educators realized that this approach to science education was not creating a cohort of students eager to engage in scientific and engineering careers. Why be a scientist if everything is already known? So the concept of teaching science “by doing science” was introduced. Scientists work in laboratories doing experiments, it was reasoned, and therefore students should have the experience of conducting “experiments” in class to demonstrate to them how scientists actually developed all these “facts.”

         The problem with this approach, however, is that it more closely resembles what an amateur cook does in the kitchen than the work actual laboratory scientists pursue. Students were given “experiments” in which a carefully prescribed set of steps were to be performed leading to a “correct” outcome. Deviations in the protocol would yield the “wrong” answer and therefore students, like people following recipes in a cookbook, needed to carefully replicate every step of the exercise. While this might be a bit more fun than memorizing the periodic table of the elements, it once again hardly mirrors what scientists really do. The point of experiments is that you never know the outcome until you’ve finished the study. Sometimes, you get results that match predictions you made before you started; more often things happen that don’t match your initial hypothesis and you need to do another experiment and then another. Gradually over time something that looks like a fact might emerge.

Traditional Science Pedagogy Had Adverse Consequences

         The approach to teaching science as a set of already known facts and outcomes is consequential, as we have seen clearly during the pandemic. The face mask saga is a case in point. There is no question that recommendations on the benefits of face masks to reduce the likelihood of acquiring and transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19 changed substantially over the last two years. Part of the reason is there was a paucity of good data about face masks prior to the pandemic. Once the pandemic was underway, scientists scurried to study whether they are helpful or not, quickly finding that this is not an easy thing to research. Clinical trials in which people are randomized to either wear or not wear face masks are exceedingly difficult to pull off and subject to a myriad of complications that can make findings difficult to interpret. Other kinds of studies, called observational studies, finally did yield convincing data that face masks are effective for reducing the spread of COVID-19 and that has resulted in health officials recommending we wear them when in high-risk situations, like crowded indoor spaces.

         For many people, however, the uncertainty and changes in guidelines meant that the “scientists don’t know what they are talking about,” leading some to reject face mask recommendations. Many observers believe this attitude derives in large part from the way we have been teaching people about science. The notion that science is a constantly evolving process in which findings build upon each other and that every scientific concept is subject to revision when new data emerge is something left out of traditional science education. “Scientific progress as reflected in reports and public debate during the COVID-19 pandemic offers vivid examples of teachable aspects of the nature of science,” wrote Wei-Zhao Shi recently in Nature Human Behaviour. Unfortunately, as educators Sherry A. Southerland and John Settlage wrote earlier this year ”the culmination of so much of our recent global experiences suggests that the public does not share a robust understanding of how science proceeds, nor a recognition of the features of the knowledge it produces—and these factors work together to limit the utility of science’s use in problem solving at a time when our problems have become most fearsome.”

These problems with how science is taught extend to the college level. In their recent article “Redo college intro science” published in the journal Science, David Asai, Bruce Alberts, and Janet Coffey wrote “Far too often an introductory course asks students to merely repeat what they ‘know’ instead of to explain what they think. With so many facts and concepts to cover, faculty have little time to engage students in what should be the most important learning goal: to understand how the scientific process advances knowledge and arrives at evidence-based judgements on issues such as clean drinking water, climate change, and vaccination”

         The three scientists go on to call for a complete restructuring of college introductory science courses that “replace their standard ‘cookbook’ laboratories with course-based research experiences…” All of this, they say, is in the service of “preparing citizens to engage with evidence to make informed choices.”

New Science Curricula Emerge

         Teaching students at all levels how science really works is the focus of what seems to us a revolution in science education that began 10 years ago with the publication of “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Cross Cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas” by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report, which led to publication of the now widely used Next Generation Science Standards in 2013,  begins with the dramatic statement that “The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beautify and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussion on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.”  

         This Framework articulates an approach to science education that has been adopted by schools across the United States and is the subject of a great deal of research and scientific publication. It calls for helping students understand how science actually works. No longer is science to be represented as a set of immutable concepts or cookbook “experiments” but rather as a dynamic process in which questions about the natural world are investigated, data accumulated, and theories developed, only to be subjected to further testing and revision. Students are encouraged to wonder about things, to question how things work and are, and are guided through hands-on exercises they develop that do not have pre-set outcomes but rather can be used to develop ideas for further work. After all, as one tool for science teachers points out, “Uncertainty in scientific activity motivates scientists’ engagement in practices…Children can be supported to engage with scientific uncertainty from the earliest years of schooling.” As the face mask example illustrates, adults have difficulties dealing with the uncertainty that is the natural course of science, especially science that is forced to develop as rapidly as was the case during the pandemic. Instead of defaulting to an attitude that uncertainty means absolute lack of knowledge and rejecting evidence-based recommendations, even young students can be taught to not only tolerate uncertainty but to welcome and work with it.

         Now, elementary school students are working with their teachers to design experiments that interest them. In a typical scenario, the teacher might pose a question like “why does something seem louder the closer it is to us” and invite her students to speculate about possible reasons for this phenomenon and consider ways to explain it. Some of the resulting designs do not work out as planned, but according to one study, elementary teachers using a new curriculum to teach engineering are now “more comfortable preparing students for design failure experiences, and responding when design failure occurred.” Given that design failures happen with great regularity in real-life laboratories, this kind of experience helps students understand how science really works. “If an observer were to ask students ‘why are you working on this?’” explain scholars from Northwestern University, “at any point, students should respond in terms of what they are trying to figure out and why that matters to them—not in terms of accomplishing the demands of the teacher or textbook.”

Learning the Nature of Science

         In their book Teaching Science to Every Child: Using Culture As a Starting Point, John Settlage, Sherry A. Southerland, Lara K. Smetana, and Pamela S. Lottero-Perdue (Routledge, 2018) describe teaching children about “the nature of science,” which they define as “both actions of science and the characteristics of the knowledge produced through these activities” (p. 28). In addition to acknowledging that science is an empirical undertaking, they emphasize two additional aspects of the scientific enterprise: creativity and social relationships. With respect to creativity, they write “Far from being a mindless and mechanical gathering of evidence, the work of science benefits from personal creativity and the ability to shift from data to explanations” (p. 37). With respect to the social aspect of science they note that “A common caricature of a scientist is someone working in almost complete isolation…With this common stereotype, is it any wonder that many students fail to see any appeal in the prospects of becoming scientists?” (p. 40). In fact, modern science is done by teams of scientists across academic and industrial centers, who meet frequently at conferences to share data and ideas, and who interact with each other on a regular basis.  

         To be sure, the road to implementing the new approaches to teaching science has challenges. One major obstacle will be the critical shortage of qualified science teachers in the U.S. According to Steven Yoder writing in Undark magazine, “Data show many of the 69,000 U.S. middle school science teachers have no scientific background. Almost a quarter have neither a science degree nor full certification to teach science…” Furthermore, Yoder writes, “few middle school science teachers report feeling confident about all the material they are responsible for teaching.” The impressive work to advance a new model of teaching science to children is thus threatened by the lack of qualified science teachers.

         There is also clearly a lag in realizing the benefits of the new science curriculum. It is now less than ten years since the Next Generation Science Standards were introduced, so that most current adults experienced the previous generations of science education approaches, approaches as we have pointed out that emphasized memorization of supposedly established facts and deemphasized creativity, wonder, social relationships, and uncertainty that are all part of real-life science. Hence, it is no wonder that we hear many complaints about the ways in which people still lack the ability to tolerate scientific uncertainty, misunderstand the ways in which scientific consensus is developed and adjusted, and default to ideas and behaviors that lack scientific evidence. Unlike today’s students, most adults were rigorously turned off to science during their school years. It would be interesting to consider to what extent some of the ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards could be applied to today’s adults via public health campaigns.

         We should also note that as wonderful as the new science curricula are, we lack empirical evidence that experiencing them during childhood and adolescence in fact leads to more scientifically informed health decisions by adults. That is, do new approaches to teaching science lead to adults who can recognize the difference between real and sham science, tolerate scientific uncertainty, and make informed health decisions? Those are important areas for researchers to undertake.

         Reading through the Framework and Next Generation Science Standards gives us great hope that phenomena like today’s anti-vaccination advocates will be displaced by future generations of people who learn to love and embrace science, understand its power and limitations, and represent informed science consumers. Thanks to the hard work of many science teachers and education scholars we now have reason to believe that is a likely outcome.   

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