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Topic: Science Miseducation
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Science Miseducation
Posted: Mar 25, 2000 4:40 PM
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Special to, March 22, 2000. See
Thanks to Gerald Kulm for bringing this to our attention.
Science Miseducation

Focusing on Simple Facts Misses the Wonder of Exploration

Most children start out curious, but later science education sometimes
turns into a list of boring facts.

By Lee Dye

In a now classic video of graduating ceremonies at Harvard University in
1989, 25 graduates and faculty were asked a simple question: "Why is it
warm in the summer and cold in the winter?"

Astonishingly, 22 got it wrong. Most said it is warmer in the summer
because Earth is closer to the sun. The correct answer is the tilt of Earth
causes more sunlight to fall on the Northern Hemisphere in the summer than
in the winter. The distance from the sun varies little.

Costs of Scientific Illiteracy

Educators often cite that video as evidence of the abysmal condition of
science education in this country, and more recent research is even more
troubling. High school seniors in the United States were among the lowest
scoring students from 41 nations that participated in the Third
International Mathematics and Science Study a few years ago. There has been
some recent improvement, but it is very slight.

This is not simply a problem of kids not understanding basic science.
Science literacy among young people who will be entering the work force in
the immediate future is so poor that it threatens the economic prosperity
of the country.

Science education also helps students avoid the pitfalls of pseudo-science.
It constantly amazes me how many people pick the most unscientific
explanations for events that can clearly be explained by good science.

Presidential science adviser Neal Lane has campaigned across the United
States for better science education, warning repeatedly that science and
technology are the drivers of the U.S. economy. If we fail to improve
science education, the country simply will not have the skilled work force,
or the scientific breakthroughs, it will need in the years ahead, according
to Lane.

"Without a science-literate population, the outlook for a better world is
not promising," says former astronaut George D. Nelson, director of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061, which
is trying to address the issue.

That is not to say all kids need to grow up to be scientists. We also need
artists, politicians, ministers, teachers, and all the other disciplines
that make our culture work.

But science plays a critical role because what we learn today largely
determines what we will become tomorrow. And the workplace of tomorrow will
be far more complex than it is today, demanding workers with technical
skills who can compete in the rapidly changing global economy.

The Reasons Why

It seems a bit ironic that a nation that has led the way so much of the
time toward higher levels of scientific and technological achievement
should find itself threatened by science illiteracy. How did it come to

A growing number of educators are reaching similar conclusions.

We have tried to teach science with the "once over lightly" technique. Give
the kids a smattering of science, but don't ask them to dig too deeply, and
heavens forbid that they should become so enamored with any one field that
they turn into nerds.

A top educator once told me that all kids begin their education as
scientists - curious, investigative, eager to learn. And then somewhere
along the way, we beat it out of them.

We do that partly by boring them to death. Instead of learning how to do
science, our kids learn about science, trying to memorize the words and the
theorems and the concepts instead of understanding the science behind them.

And we try to paint with such a broad brush, making sure that everybody
knows a little science, that few students learn very much.

That's the heart of the problem, according to education professor Marcia C.
Linn of the University of California, Berkeley. Linn argues that the
attempt to cover all aspects of science spreads the material so thin that
little of it is retained.

More on Less

It would be far better, she argues, to give the students a chance to delve
more deeply into a few areas than to try to learn a little about a lot.
Only then, she says, will students retain enough information to help them
build a solid foundation in science.

It would also allow more students to get involved deeply enough to realize
just how much fun science can be.

Although we tend to blame our high schools and colleges for the problem, it
actually begins much earlier.

Donald P. Hayes, professor of sociology emeritus at Cornell University, has
found that "dumb-downed" textbooks used in elementary grades are so badly
done that students are poorly equipped to understand the more difficult
texts they receive in high school.

"There is a gulf between the two bodies of work in the schools, and the
gulf isn't getting smaller," Hayes says.

"Today's science textbooks and methods of instruction, far from helping,
often actually impede progress toward science literacy," adds Project
2061's Nelson. "They emphasize the learning of answers more than the
exploration of questions, memory at the expense of critical thought, bits
and pieces of information instead of understandings in context, recitation
over argument, reading rather than doing."

No Satisfactory Middle School Texts

Indeed, a recent study by the organization found that "most textbooks cover
too many topics and don't develop any of them well."

Not one of the widely used science textbooks for middle schools was rated
satisfactory by Project 2061, which is sponsored partly by the National
Science Foundation. (The project was started in 1985, the year Halley's
Comet came into view, and is designed to address the scientific and
technological changes in the years before the comet returns again, 2061.)

Other studies have cited a lack of adequate funding to supply the tools
students need to perform experiments, inadequate attention by the
scientific community itself, and poor teaching. I find the latter a bit
surprising because a number of K-12 science teachers I have met over the
years were both inspired and inspiring. But apparently in many cases
teachers are assigned to science classes arbitrarily, whether they are
qualified or not.

Perhaps there is a more basic reason for the condition we face today. The
nation as a whole has simply not come to grips with the scale of the

We are a smug people, with many achievements to our credit. That says
volumes about the past. But what about the future?
Questions to Ask of Schools

The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061
suggests 10 questions for parents to ask their local school about science

1) Is science literacy for all high-school graduates a major goal of the
K-12 program?

2) What provisions are made in the curriculum for students of different
interests, talents, and ambitions?

3) What is the proportion of females and minorities enrolled in advanced

4) Do teachers at different grade levels work together to clarify what
ideas will be learned when?

5) Are students learning connected concepts rather than simply memorizing
isolated facts, formulas, and technical terms?

6) Is the learning active?

7) Do teachers welcome curiosity, reward creativity, and encourage healthy

8) Are teachers given encouragement, time, and resources?

9) Do teachers look for and deal with students' misconceptions about how
the world works?

10) What guidelines do teachers and school administrators use to improve
student learning?
Lee Dye's column appears Wednesdays on A former science writer
for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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