Changing the Status Quo in Science Education

At Headwaters Science Institute, we are very focused on science education innovation. We believe deeply that the way science has always been taught can be improved upon. Sometimes it feels like our biggest challenge is getting education stakeholders (pretty much everyone in our society falls into this category in some way or another) to recognize that science education, as it currently exists, is far from optimal. Once someone accepts that premise, it’s relatively easy to get them to consider how our Student Driven Science concept is actually far better for students’ than the status quo. It’s just our human tendency to embrace what we are already familiar with, regardless of its efficacy, that is such a big barrier to change.

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So anytime we see examples of educators or policy makers recognizing the lost opportunities represented by traditional science education, let alone providing an innovative way of improving kids’ learning opportunities in the field, we’re pretty excited. Recently, this NPR piece about a science education innovator from the University of Colorado caught our attention. The article profiles Stephen Pollock, a physics professor at CU Bolder, and some of his epiphanies about the state of science education. The one that jumped out to us the most was Pollock’s opinion that, “Lectures don’t really work. They leave most people without a solid grasp of even basic concepts.”

While it’s not hard these days to find educators who agree with Pollock’s sentiments about lecture-based teaching, the degree to which he was willing to invest in substantively different teaching models really struck us. Rather than look for solutions that were incrementally better than the traditional methods, Pollock decided to do something totally different that radically changed the course of his academic career. Instead of continuing his research in nuclear physics (which would have been heartily supported by his department and his university), he decided to focus on how students learn physics and on developing ways to teach it better (which nearly cost him the chance to become a tenured professor—talk about resistance to change!).

Here is where Pollock’s innovations diverge somewhat from HSI’s. Instead of focusing on protocols for teaching science to high school students, he devoted attention to training undergraduates he calls “Learning Assistants” to become innovative science teachers.

The article also highlights the need for highly qualified secondary school science teachers. A broader outcome of Pollock’s work has been creating a group of college graduate science majors who are more likely to go on to become science teachers. We’re excited by the prospects of having more science teachers out there with a deep understanding of the subject they are going to teach and the willingness to try creative strategies for helping their students learn the most they can in the science classroom.

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We believe that the day will soon come when Pollock’s contribution to science education—Learning Assistants—meet our ideas for improving science education—Student Driven Science—in classrooms around the country. And the article has good news about that prospect too!

According to Valerie Otero, of CU Boulder’s School of Education, who studies Learning Assistants as they become classroom teachers, “’It[the LA concept]’s spreading like wildfire.’” “The LA program is now being copied at 88 universities around the country,” and already there are an estimated 3000 LA’s working in classrooms around the nation, teaching tens of thousands of students.

HSI salutes Steven Pollock and his legions of Learning Assistants for believing in a new vision for science education and for doing something concrete to bring their vision to fruition.

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