Tuesday, September 26, 2006

US Science Education

Apparently science education in the U.S. lags behind other nations. Gee. I wonder why. Most likely because we have a very anti science group of folks ruling the halls of power in D.C. Not that I'm bitter...

Really, though, the article is not good. First off is for the obvious: we are not doing science education very well here, okay, but there are no solutions presented.

The article itself, however, is problematic. It starts with the comment that "faults science curricula for assuming children are simplistic thinkers." While this is true, to a certain extent, the statement should really be turned around. Science curricula actually assume that the teachers are not sufficiently well educated in sciences to teach it well. This sounds somewhat nasty, but keep in mind that in many cases the first science education a child receives is from a teacher whose major was education (possibly with an emphasis) and who is qualified to teach several different subjects. There is less specializaiton in elementary and middle school, and by the time students reach high school they already have been taught to have science presented in a specific way. There are educators who are working to change this, but it is not so simple a process as just changing the science curricula. Guidelines provided by science groups like NAS (national acadamy of sciences) are content (e.g. a student should know the parts and functions of a cell) not methods and many different curricula could get the info across.

Nevermind that, though, because it isn't new, and scientists, in particular, are aware of it, if only through the poor understanding presented by friends, family, politicians, press, etc. The problem with the article is related to the prase "simplistic thinkers" opens the door for all of the psuedo science crackpots to push (including the Creationist/ID wackjobs). Science can become very complicated, very quickly, and psuedo-science advocates take advantage of that. The vast amount of accumulated scientific knowledge becomes a double edged sword because no one person can be sufficiently advanced to be an expert in every one of the things that are covered in science from K-12. Because of that the psuedo-sci supporters can often win "debates," even if they out and out lie.

Since it is a popular front, take, for example, evolution. Evolution is taught in biology, but the evidence for evolution comes from genetics, geology, species diversity, human history, the fossil record, anatomy, and biochemistry, basically many fields covering all of the physical sciences. Most biology teachers understand very basic notions related to some of the genetics, some of the fossil record, some of the diversity, the radio dating aspects of geology and anatomical aspects like vestigal appendiges (note that most bio majors will not have a significantly more advanced understanding). An anti-evolution puppet would not trash all of the science, but would pick one or two fairly specific aspects to take apart, typically ones that are not directly related to biology. A sufficiently knowledgeable scientist would decimate such attacks, but few and far between is the elementary/middle/high school teacher that could do so.

Science education is lacking in the U.S., to be sure, but the directions offered to "fix" science education are vague, misleading, and open to attack from those who seek to make science what they want it to be rather than what it is. The key to improving science education is not to focus on what science has discovered, but rather what science is, and using discoveries, theories, and changes in perception through history as examples.


Michael L. Heien said...

I think science education does not lack because of the powers that be, but because of individual attitudes. Individuals need to value education, and stress that in their homes. This will then spread to the classrooms. I grew up valuing education, and look at me (bad example).
My office mate just told me his daughter's teacher was attempting to explain mass. It went something like this:

mass:solid :: volume:liquid

This is true at the grocery store, but not in the physical world.

Jacob said...

Of course the only way for "individual attitudes" to be improved is for the "powers that be" to improve education...

Biomed Tim said...

If you have time, I highly recommend the following articles, one by Gary Becker and one by Richard Posner, both of which pertains to science education.

Prof. Becker on test scores
Judge Posner's response


Michael Tompkins said...

Isn't this what has happened in math as well? I don't remember the exact numbers, but america is dropping in that as well, right? For the longest time women were pushed out of math and science, now neither guys or girls are lighting it up in the fields.

And because of this, I'm sure there's probably a bigger cause. I just don't know what it might be.

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