Re: [asa] science education

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Sun May 31 2009 - 17:25:30 EDT


I have some comments regarding what you have said here.

1) The problem with taking students up on top of buildings to drop balls
of unequal mass is that all they are doing is duplicating something that
has already been conceived and done. They are not doing science. Rather
they are merely modeling the duplication and memorization typical of most

They must at least start with confusion. What problem are they trying to
address by doing the experiment. At the time of Galileo the distinction
between mass and weight was confused. There were conflicting theories as
to why the balls fall to the earth at all (a property of the earth, of the
balls, or some kind of mutual attraction). Galileo, as I understand it,
was decidedly non-metaphysical. He was merely interested in measuring and
quantitatively treating the phenomenon. Would a student grasp the context
of such an attitude. While we may not be able to place the student in
Galileo's context of discovery, can we place the student in their own
context. Why would they ever want to do such an experiment unless a
teacher told them to do it, and perhaps it was cute to drop balls from a
tall building.

2) The Michelson-Morely experiment is an interesting case study. Did it
really "settle" the issue about the ether? Or did it paint more clearly
the alternatives. How does science choose amongst alternatives? Why did
conventionalism arise in this context? If a student could glimpse this,
they will have, I think, of come to a deeper understanding of science than
most scientists.

3) There have been programs that at least make available courses relating
science, philosophy, and history. Ted Davis has taught one. An entire
journal is dedicated to it (Science & Education). A famous one was
established in the 70s at Harvard (Harvard Project Physics Course). But,
as far as I know, none of have been fully integrated into long term

I am at this time working with some to develop such a class at South
Dakota State University, a most unlikely place to try to do so. But it
happens that it is here that I am, along with some others that are

What is interesting, I find, is that for the most part the
content of the philosophy of science is most strongly associated with
physics, and very poorly with other sciences. There is some work in
psychology (associated with the problem of the mind), some in biology, and
very little in chemistry.

4) Finally, I support the idea. But I think you
will find little support from science departments. Some may even find it


On Sat, 30 May
2009, Cameron Wybrow wrote:

> Bill:
> I agree with you that science education is generally lousy. I have a few
> suggestions:
> 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
> geology.
> 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 take
> 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 when
> 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,
> say,
> 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?
> Cameron.
> ----- 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)
> Carmeron:
> 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
> education.
> 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.
> bill
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Sun May 31 17:25:50 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sun May 31 2009 - 17:25:50 EDT