[asa] science education

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Sat May 30 2009 - 23:57:22 EDT


I agree with you that science education is generally lousy. I have a few

1. In elementary grades, science is often taught by teachers with no
knowledge of science. Most elementary teachers (at least where I live) have
their degrees in sociology, psychology, early childhood education, phys.
ed., etc. I think that at least from seventh grade on, and probably from
fifth grade on, every science class should be taught by teachers with a
four-year degree in a "core" science -- physics, chemistry, biology, or

2. In high school, while it is true that students are not going to be able
to offer brand-new scientific theories (because, as
you say, they have to learn a certain amount of basic contents before they
can do that), it does not follow that they cannot learn established science
*critically*, rather than passively. They can be taught to see science as a
process, rather than as a mere body of facts and formulas to be memorized in
order to do well on in tests so that you can make it into medical school.
For example, in high school physics, we tested notions of acceleration
ourselves, using ticker-tape machines which ran up and down the corridors
outside of the science room. And in ninth or tenth grade our teacher
explained to us the Michelson-Morley experiment, so that we learned how a
major question about "nature" was settled, and thus learned something of the
thinking process of science and the role of experiment in evoking answers
from nature and so on.
And there are all kinds of ways to get students involved in the process of
doing science. There is no reason, for example, why a high school teacher
couldn't take his students up on the roof and have them drop two balls of
unequal mass, and have other students on the ground measuring to see if they
hit the ground at the same time or not. (Not that Galileo actually ever did
that mythical experiment, but the experiment is worth doing in itself. At
St. John's College, they repeat many of the classic experiments, balls
rolling down inclined planes, etc. and some of these could be done at the
high school level.)

3. Most important: here is a proposal which I would like to fly by
everyone here. Right
now, there is no science program at any university known to me which
requires undergrads to study either the history or philosophy of science
generally, or the history or philosophy of their particular discipline.
Suppose that universities made it compulsory for *all science majors* to
a least *one semester* of history and/or philosophy of science, or of the
history and/or philosophy of their particular scientific discipline.
Suppose the students could take the course in any year they wished -- this
would fit it flexibly into their programs, no matter what their major, or
their labs were, etc. It could be taken from within the Science faculty, or
from the History department, or from the Philosophy department, or from any
other department where it was taught competently. Being only a single
course occupying only one semester, it would not require the dropping of any
core science courses -- it would take the place of a current elective in,
American History, or Sociology of Gender, or Film Studies.

I think that such a requirement would go a long way toward broadening the
education of future scientists,
and would be especially important for future high school science teachers.
It would better equip scientists to interact with colleagues in non-science
departments, and with the general public, by making them more articulate
about exactly what they are doing when they do science. And it would help
science teachers to help the students fit science into a broader human
context, which is especially important in pre-university schooling.

If this proposed requirement make some scientists here grumble, bear in mind
that in most university disciplines courses of this nature are required.
Literature students generally have to take a course on literary theory;
history students generally have to take a course on "the history of the
study of history"; sociology students generally have to take a course on the
theoretical foundations of sociology as "social science"; religious studies
students generally take a course on "approaches to the study of religion";
etc. It is taken for granted in other subjects that university education is
not just learning "stuff", not just learning formulas or facts, but learning
to be self-conscious about the foundations, goals, and intellectual
limitations of one's own discipline. Such a course would hardly be an
extraneous course distracting from "real" science; it would be an essential
part of a broad scientific education.

What do people think?


----- Original Message -----
From: "Bill Powers" <wjp@swcp.com>
To: "Cameron Wybrow" <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Cc: "asa" <asa@calvin.edu>
Sent: Thursday, May 28, 2009 9:07 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)


It is not only evolutionary theory, but all science that is presented
as if it is a final, glorious piece of work, engraved in granite from
the very depths of some Platonic heaven. The messy part of science,
where humans fear to tread, is unheard of at all levels of science

But perhaps we ought to be fair to science. At what stage in our
education was content material presented as fallible, and open to
criticism. I'd say that such an attitude is nonexistent in high school
for any course. After all, the students are still considered children.
In college this is rarely found. It is only in graduate school that
material begins to be examined critically. In the sciences this doesn't
appear to happen until the PhD level.

It may be that a critical attitude is dependent in part upon when it is
possible for students to progress beyond what is called the grammar
stage, wherein the primary activity is memorization. Because the amount
of content in the sciences is massive, most students never advance
beyond the grammar stage. In the humanities and arts it seems that the
content level is sufficiently low that students can advance beyond the
grammar level relatively quickly. This would be true it seems in
English, political science, and philosophy.

There are three stages, as I remember it, in classical education:
grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In grammar we learn the building blocks; in
the logic how they go together; and in the rhetoric there is the
integrative and critical stage. Formal education in America hardly ever
gets to the last stage. It is primarily in informal education and the
maturing of our lives that the last stage is addressed. Although our
education system makes a lot of noise about developing critical thinking,
I see hardly any being done. At best we lay the groundwork for it. I
don't think it fits well into our structured educational system.
Teachers, for the most part, don't know what to do in the critical stage,
and what to teach. It doesn't fit our industrial model. It is not easily
tested or graded. We can't tell when were progressing. It takes too much
time. It isn't linear and progressive.


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Received on Sat May 30 23:57:57 2009

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