Re: [asa] science education

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Sun May 31 2009 - 02:36:56 EDT

"Suppose that universities made it compulsory for *all science majors* to take a least *one semester* of history and/or philosophy of science.... I think that such a requirement would go a long way toward broadening the education of future scientists...."

As an English major who made a slow transition into graduate physics and in the process took upper level courses in philosophy, economics, psychology, physiology, anthropology, etc., by the time I graduated I thought I'd had a fairly broad formal education. What surprised me in the workplace was how knowledgeable my colleagues were about subjects outside their specialties. Perhaps my expectations were too low, but as a rule the people I worked with were far broader in knowledge and outlook--even on religion--than I'd expected.

I don't know how general this finding might be; but as I developed contacts with people from other organizations, my opinion of research scientists in this respect dropped little if any. These people were mostly PhDs from top universities--e.g., Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, etc., but I think they picked up most of what they knew on diverse subjects from outside reading.

In short, I have no personal indication that there's a big problem with narrowness among research scientists.

Deficiencies among the general public, however, are often all too obvious. And from what I hear, public school teachers are often a disgrace. Could a single course fix them?


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Cameron Wybrow<>
  Sent: Saturday, May 30, 2009 8:57 PM
  Subject: [asa] science education


  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" <<>>
  To: "Cameron Wybrow" <<>>
  Cc: "asa" <<>>
  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 Sun May 31 02:37:32 2009

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