Students as Scientists: A New Approach to Science Education

The recent release of the National Climate Assessment and the increasingly strong language it uses concerning the impact of climate change on our lives has made it even more explicitly clear than ever that climate change is having a measurable effect on our world. Despite this, climate change deniers remain active and public perception on the reality of climate change is slow in changing.

The disconnect between scientific consensus and public perception on climate change is far from new, but begs the question: why do Americans ignore the advice of the world’s foremost experts on climate when they say we must change business as usual? As with any complex question, there are many answers: For one thing, change is hard. For another, it’s expensive. Plus, prevention just goes against human nature. But the one answer that is the most insidious is that too many Americans simply don’t believe the evidence amassed by climate scientists.

How much more active would our nation’s response to climate change be if its citizens generally understood and accepted the evidence as readily as climate scientists do? At the least, we can safely assume that the US government would be doing much, much more to slow, stop, and reverse climate change. To us, a future America in which many more people think like scientists—at least about crucial science-based issues like climate change—is a reality worth building.

The question is how.

One answer, it turns out, might have more to do with the way science has been delivered to American high school students for the past century than anything else.

“All real scientists exist on the frontier,” writes John M. Barry in The Great Influenza. “Even the least ambitious among them deal with the unknown, if only one step beyond the known. The best among them move deep into a wilderness region where they know almost nothing, where the very tools and techniques needed to clear the wilderness, to bring order to it, do not exist.” To us, Barry’s words offer an important clue to the way forward in American science education—not because they highlight the difficulty of doing science, but because they emphasize the appeal, the brashness, the adventure of it.

Contrast Barry’s portrait of science with what American high school students are exposed to: reading textbooks about science, watching videos or lectures about science, sleepwalking through the same lab “experiments” their parents did when they were in high school. What part of that experience would make a student want to enter the sciences without a strong predisposition to do so? Now consider Barry’s metaphor again: science as exploration, as confronting the unknown—what’s not to love about that? The trick is changing how science education is delivered, at least some of the time, to give American students first-hand exposure to the mechanisms of science, rather than a trudging tour of scientific findings, facts that might be useful—might be downright essential to our current existence, even—but do not inspire enough curiosity or excitement to draw in a teenager.

Scientific inquiry is exciting, it’s empowering, it’s fun. Many science educators would protest that it’s impossible to expect kids to do “real” science, but none, I expect, would question the value in exposing American students to it if it were practical. If students were allowed to ask their own questions on a topic and then to puzzle out a way to answer those questions they would experience the true appeal of science. They would learn organically, learn by bumping into limits and steering down logical cul-de-sacs, learn by failing, learn by cooperating with peers, and most of all, learn by doing.

At HSI, we believe that a new intersection of high school students and true inquiry-based science is not only possible, but that it’s essential now if we want to live to see a future where majorities of Americans are informed enough to understand and evaluate important issues on a scientific basis.

Using protocols that we have developed, we are exposing teenagers to the thrilling side of science, and empowering them, as they follow their curiosity, to design methodologies, collect and analyze data, arrive at logical conclusions, and discuss the implications of the authentic research they themselves have performed. We believe that this experience, offered to hundreds of thousands of American school children across the country, can make a critical difference in schools, workplaces, universities, and ultimately, the way America thinks about science.

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