Science, the poor step-child of education

If you think about it, science coursework should be the gold standard for education and student achievement.  No other course combines everything that the students have previously learned with critical thinking and analysis skills that modern students must have.

Science requires knowledge and skills from language arts (reading, writing, vocabulary, context, and word formation), history (everything from Aristotle to Galileo to Mendel and Darwin and why their culture had such an impact on their lives and work), and mathematics (everything from geometry, statistics, algebra, all the way past calculus).

Science coursework should the culmination of the educational experience.  The chance for students to show what they have learned both in science and in everything else.  This is their chance to shine.  To take control of their own education.

Yet, throughout the US, funding for science programs are cut (not as much as art, music, shop, and other non-fundamental courses), class sizes are increased to the point of safety concerns during labs, and teachers have no budget for training, lab materials, supplies, or even text books in many places.  Assessment of science is also critically weak in many states.

So why is science, treated like the illegitimate step-child of the curriculum?

In no particular order:

 Lack of science educators in administrative positions

School administrators and school boards don’t contain many science teachers or scientists.  Scientists and science teachers do what they do because they love science.  They don’t love administration.  They don’t love committees and boards and the nasty, ambiguous world of politics (even at a vice-principle/principle level).  I know I’d rather be blowing something up than sitting in a school board meeting (unless maybe it’s blowing up a school board meeting).

Unfortunately, this leaves the sciences without advocates in those critical places where budget and curriculum decisions are made.  Sure, they may be a gifted amateur (or worse yet, a dentist) involved, but they don’t know the material.  They probably don’t have the love that the teachers and the scientists do for the subject.

Without someone willing to speak up for science in these places, science can never get the backing it needs.  Indeed, in many cases, there are anti-science forces in these locations and without constant vigilance; they can freely run over science.  For example, in my own case, I’ve gotten in trouble for teaching evolution.  I had to explain to the principle that the state standards required me teach evolution.  The principle didn’t even know what my goals for science education were.  How much more out of touch is a school board member?

 Lack of qualified science educators

There is no money in education.  In fact, the working conditions, almost universally, suck.  Anyone who thinks teaching is a cushy job needs to try it for a year… or even six weeks.  Ask any teacher who has stayed up until three in the morning finished six week grades or has to stand outside in the cold rain to watch the bus parking lot.

Scientists want to do stuff. They want to discover and explore.  They don’t want to do the same thing day after day, year after year.  Scientists rarely become teachers (I’m speaking here of middle and high school).  So, who becomes science teachers?

I honestly don’t know.  There are a few, like me, that love science and fell into teaching accidentally.  They seem to rarely stay long.  Then there are those that realize that science teachers are in high demand.  English teachers are a dime a dozen, science teachers are much more rare and therefore somewhat valuable.  An otherwise excellent English or history instructor may choose to go into science purely for the ability to get a job.

Many of the science teachers (and this applies to many math teachers as well) barely have enough science education to meet their degree requirements.

For example, this 4th grade through 8th grade composite science degree has only 12 science classes and one social science.  The science courses are not rigorous either; conceptual physics, biology for non-majors, intro to chemistry, and the like.

That sounds like a fine education for a middle school teacher, but keep in mind this is for people who are not science majors.  Many of the people taking these degree plans have no real background in science other than high school biology.  What happens to these instructors when the students ask questions they don’t know the answer to?  Either the teachers shut them down or tell them to look it up themselves.  Without effective and deep backgrounds, they can’t be the guides that students need.  Which brings me to…

 Lack of curiosity about the world by students

I hate to be prejudiced and I try to speak from experience here.  Keep that in mind, I’ve spent time in the trenches, so I have seen this for many years.  Students today don’t care about the world.  They care about sports, about facebook, about their cell phone and video games.  They don’t care why their phone works, they just care that it does.

I personally believe that much of this is because of the second issue above.  Teachers, once the students get to a level of knowledge that is equivalent to the teachers, can’t help the student anymore.  Especially in science.  The science course becomes a worksheet a day and maybe a neat video at the end of the month.  That’s it.

This cripples the curiosity of the young kids as they grow through their formative years.  instead, fun activities like sports and sex come to the forefront, pushing curiosity about the world to the side.

Besides, science is hard.  All that vocabulary and formulas.  Blech.

 Cultural impact of science and geek culture on student interest

How many of you remember that really geeky kid at school?  How many of you were that really geeky kid at school?  Who would want to be like that?

Sometimes I think scientists are born, not made.  The geek/nerd culture has become mainstream thanks to popular media.  Fortunately, they have gone from nobodies and sources of slapstick humor to the heroes.  There still is something of an anti-geek culture in US schools.  No one wants to be the geek and geeks only hang out with geeks.

There are a few cool people who are good at science, but they often downplay their abilities to just making the grade so they aren’t identified as a geek.  Then they go off to college and become engineers.

Again, I feel that this is turning around and soon, being a geek will be the rage.  But will they be scientists?  And more importantly, will they become effective science teachers.

 Anti-science programs and movements

This is the critical one and heavily related to the first topic.  If you are reading this, you are probably familiar with the Intelligent Design movement.  Every year there are hundreds of bills promoted in legislatures that are designed (pun intended) to cripple science education.

Science, to these movements, is evil.  They, hypocritically, use the tools of science to attack science.  They lie about what science says and does.  They misrepresent scientific knowledge.  They use logical fallacies of every stripe to convince the public (which has suffered under the problems of the first four categories above) that science is useless.  It has gone so far that even students have claimed that science is useless when coming out of a science class.  (Read the material regarding the Freshwater case here.)

That is such a dangerous condition, I can’t even begin to describe it.

Without science, without the critical thinking and analysis skills that a well done science course can provide to US students, we, as a country, as a culture, are doomed.  We will go the way of the Romans and the Mongels and the British Empire.  Passed by as the rest of the world grows.

The citizens of the US must face the fact that we are no longer the first rate country that we were.  We are not the leaders in innovation and education and science anymore.  We are now the ones playing catch up.  The above comments need to be dealt with so that we can just catch up.

 What can we do?

First, we have to realize that we can’t fix just one problem.  These issues are all interconnected.  They all depend on each other.  Kids don’t like science so they don’t become scientists.  They don’t like science because they had crummy teachers.  The teachers aren’t scientists because being a teacher is hard and not as much fun.  So we get crummy science teachers.  Through in the cool crowd and a bunch of anti-science goons and it’s a wonder that science education exists at all.

We have to get students a better education.  That means getting more scientists into the classroom.  What if we could start a grant program?  Give us six weeks of the year and we’ll fund your research for the rest of the year.  Do that with six experts.  Divide the curriculum so that the experts teach what they are good at.  Have the students help the scientists with their work.  Get them excited, let the students put their name on peer-reviewed papers.

Everyone else needs to get involved.  Scientists need to run for school board.  Good science teachers need to become administrators.  Take a hit for the team as it were.

And we must oppose the anti-science movement at every opportunity.  Every time one of them sticks their heads out of the sand, a hundred scientists need to be standing there to explain, in great disgusting detail why they are wrong.  This will have to be done again and again and again and again and again and again.  We will have to patiently explain why they are wrong.  Why using logical fallacies is wrong.  What logical fallacies they are using.  We will have to explain it to reporters and to our friends again and again and again.

Until the message gets across and the anti-science movements are crippled, not by law or the courts, but simple because the rest of the population knows enough and can think critically enough to know that they are without merit.

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4 Responses to Science, the poor step-child of education

  1. nmgirl says:

    Ogre, my question is “what can I do about this problem?” I no longer work as a scientist and I don’t have kids in public school. I testify in the legislature and school board meetings, but it seems so futile. What really should I be doing?

  2. ogremkv says:

    Probably the best possible thing you could do is run for School Board. It’s not very expensive. Send out some press releases and contact the papers. They’ll usually have a print debate or a survey of candidates. If you win, you’ll be in a position to influence a lot of the factors. If you lose, but gained some support, then go to every school board meeting and get involved. Especially in budget areas. Point to the studies that show that money for science improves scores, point to studies that show smaller class sizes improve scores. When they mention no money, ask them how much the super intendent gets paid and how much the new football stadium costs and how do those improve test scores.

    The other thing is, being a former scientist would be to contact the local teachers in your field (Chemistry, Earth science, whatever) and ask if you can come talk to students about being a scientist. That kind of direct influence could be just a powerful as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was for me.

    Finally, if nothing else, write letters to the editor of the local papers, especially in response to creationists. Don’t try to fight them with science, that takes way too long. Ask them the hard questions like why is ID specifically religious (and all the leaders say so), why doesn’t ID do any research, why can’t ID answer even simple questions. Then remind them of Dover and the 1st amendment, something must be secular to be taught. When the go the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ route, challenge them to provide the strengths and weaknesses of competing notions. Ask them what kind of science teacher wouldn’t mention the strengths and weaknesses anyway. And ask them why they never mention the strengths and weaknesses of Newton’s Laws of Motion (known to not work under extreme conditions) or germ theory or anything else. Point out that evolution (and global warming and cloning/stem cells) are put in these positions for religious reasons not secular or educational reasons.

    Say it loud, say it often.

    Yes, it seems epically futile, but that is what the other side always wants. They want you to feel frustrated and ‘what’s the point’, then you won’t do anything to try and counter them.

    I hope that helps.

  3. JGB says:

    I think it is worth pointing out that all of the science disciplines have anti-science nonsense to contend with, not just creationism. Realistically all of us suffer as a result of some of the common causes of anti-science beliefs, so it makes sense to properly frame the issue to help in mobilizing resources.

  4. Pingback: Comments on the Anti-Science Movement in the United States | Cassandra's Tears

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