What Science Education in the U.S. Needs, Part III

As promised, here’s Part III of our mini-series connecting what HSI does to changes educators, experts, and students would like to see in our science education system in the U.S. Part I and Part II make similarly cool connections, so be sure not to miss them. The gist of this series of posts is that each one takes on quotes excerpted from a Claudia Dreifus article in the New York Times in which she asked 19 individuals with an interest and stake in science education in the U.S. what they would like to see change in this field.

Of the 19 respondents, we thought 12 had something pretty profound to say that supports the approach Headwaters is taking to improve science education. The other 7? Mainly they’re talking about how to attract more high quality science teachers to the profession, which is definitely something we support and believe is important in the quality of science education American children receive.

So let’s hear from some of those experts!

Maria Klawe, computer scientist; president, Harvey Mudd College.DSC_6052

“I wish that STEM educators at whatever level would help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.”

We couldn’t agree more in the value of emphasizing work ethic over “talent.” We have personally seen educational scenarios in which students feel (even if it’s not the educator’s intent) pigeon-holed as “capable” or “not capable” within a traditional science classroom. One thing we love about our Student Driven Research protocol is the emphasis on problem solving, and the lack of stress it assigns to getting the “right” answer. When scientific research is done well, the “right” answer(s) aren’t obvious until they’re discovered, and that’s the experience our students have.

Paulo Blikstein, director, Transformative Learning Technologies Laboratory, School of Education, Stanford University.

“We’d like kids to learn how to solve hard problems and what it takes to pull off a complex endeavor, how to plan, collaborate, fail and not give up. In other words, we want them to see what science and math can do when they are used by a creative mind.”

There is an important concept at the heart of Bilkstein’s quote, which is that students need to do all the things that professional scientists do to prepare for doing longer, more rigorous scientific research later in life. Most important among those things? Failing. The public’s view of science doesn’t include a significant quantity of failure. We only read about finished-state research and aren’t really made aware of the steps that the scientists took to arrive at those results and conclusions–undoubtedly involving a healthy dose of failure. Science calls for lots of trial and error. Learning to incorporate the lessons of failure into future designs is one of the core lessons that students get from HSI programs, and that’s something we’re very proud of. From our experience, those moments of failure are so powerful as learning experiences because students recognize their own failures, they learn from them, and they understand how healthy and essential failure is in scientific research.

Michael F. Summers, biochemist; Howard Hughes Medical Investigator.

“[W]e take about a dozen high school and college students into my lab each year, assign them an older mentor, train them in biochemical techniques and give them real problems to work on that the senior people need solved for our ongoing AIDS research.

I recently had a group of youngsters who were looking at the genetic material of human immunodeficiency virus. They were given an experiment that the senior people thought was important to do as a control, but that the adults thought they knew the answer to already. The students obtained surprising data, and the senior people changed their research. When things like that happen, the kids begin self-identifying as scientists. They stop thinking that a science career can be theirs 10 years from now — an eternity to an adolescent. They think of themselves as scientists, now.”

Summers’ program sounds tremendous because it’s offering students hands-on science experience at a critical age. Moreover, it allows students some autonomy in the course of their research. We believe that programs like this, if they could be multiplied by the thousands, would do a lot of good for American science education. HSI takes this concept one step further. We offer students a framework that allows them to ask relevant questions that guide their research–removing the sense that they’re doing someone else’s research. We feel that this is one of the great successes of our programs, giving student the full experience of doing science research, while helping them manage some of the big challenges and responsibilities that come with such freedom.

What Science Education in the U.S. Needs, Part II

Alright, here goes Part II of our mini-series, “What Science Education in the U.S. Needs.”SpencerandkidsBMI

In case you missed Part I, you can go back and read it here. Basically, we’re breaking down excerpts from a New York Times article by Claudia Dreifus in which she asked 19 individuals with an interest and stake in science education in the U.S. what they would like to see change in this field.

We thought many of their answers hinted at, or outright called for, the kind of program that HSI has designed to complement traditional classroom science education with hands-on student research.

If you’d like to see the Times article in its entirety (and you should, it’s full of important insights about science education), it’s linked here. Also, we’d just like to point out that many of the experts, educators, and students represented in this story seem to be grasping for something very much like Student Driven Research. Perhaps the reason they’re struggling to define this thing that American science education is missing is because they don’t know about HSI and our work—yet. We hope that with enough momentum we can start providing some concrete, student-ready, methods that we can offer students directly or provide for science teachers around the country.

And now, on with the post!

Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel laureate in medicine; biochemist, University of California, San Francisco.

“I think that the thing science educators have to do is teach one important lesson: that science requires immersion. A lot of teaching is about setting up these little projects. But real science happens when you’re really immersed in a question.

Now I’m not talking about general science literacy, which is one thing. I’m talking about science education aimed at developing a new generation of scientists, which is something else. The way we teach it now, with an hour of instruction here and a laboratory class there, it doesn’t allow for what has been my experience: that immersion is the essence of scientific discovery. Science just isn’t something you can do in one-hour-and-a-half bits. Digging deep is what makes people actually productive. If I could change one thing, it would be to build this idea into the curriculum.”

Well, it’s very flattering to think that a Nobel laureate biochemist thinks we need more of what HSI can provide. We think our Student Driven Research protocol is pretty great for many of the same reasons Blackburn wishes more students had a chance to become “immersed in a question.” Plus, we have plenty of ideas about how we can use the 60 or 90-minute blocks available to school students and turn them into times when real science is done. (Teachers, this would be a great time to contact us to ask the obvious question: HOW?)

Carl E. Wieman, Nobel laureate in physics; former associate director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“If you have classes where students get to think like scientists, discuss topics with each other and get frequent, targeted feedback, they do better. A key element involves instructors designing tasks where students witness real-world examples of how science works.”

Sounds great! Let’s see how HSI’s protocol stack up with Wieman’s ideas:

“Think like scientists”…check.

“Discuss topics with each other”…check.

“Get frequent, targeted feedback”…check.

“Real-world examples of how science works”…double-check!

Wow, looks like another Nobel laureate is proposing a situation to benefit science education that seems surprisingly like Student Driven Research.

Catherine L. Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I teach freshman chemistry at M.I.T. Chemistry — and I think this is true of the other sciences, too — is taught with a historical bent. The students learn about how the great discoveries of the past were made. How did people figure out about that electrons were negatively charged particles, for example? The result is that it can seem as if all discoveries are in the past and were made by dead white guys.”

Now, like many of the other pieces we’re highlighting this week on the blog, this excerpt is just a bit of what this speaker has to say overall. If you want the full context, you should read the entire piece.

Still, Drennan’s critique of traditional science education here really resonates with us. Yes, previous discoveries are important, but if teenagers—especially teenagers who don’t come from the “white male” demographic that gets credit for so many famous discoveries—can’t see where they fit into science, they might never give it a chance. Our approach to science education can complement the necessary historical side of science with the sexier curiosity and hands-on discovery side. More importantly, students using our protocols realize that they are capable of making real, interesting, important discoveries themselves using just their native curiosity, a few simple materials, and the scientific method. It’s hard to imagine the average science lecture or “lab” inspiring these epiphanies in students!

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.