What Science Education in the U.S. Needs, Part II
- December 24, 2014 -

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!