Posted by: thediygeochemist | February 16, 2011

science appreciation?

In addition to the 50,000 other things I have to do, I’m trying to write 2 new, hour-long workshops for a homeschooling conference I’m speaking at next month.

Because one of my topics is “Raising Scientifically Literate Children,” I’ve been on the lookout for articles which relate to this subject. And I just found a cool one over at Thoughts on Public Education.

This editorial bemoans the fact that less and less actual science is being done in high school classes, and ends with this wonderful quote:

In college there are two kinds of art classes. One is Art and the other is Art Appreciation. The difference is that in Art, you actually make art. If it is well taught you also learn about famous artists and what they did. In Art Appreciation you read about art, hear lectures about art, and look at lots of pictures. People who take Art mostly end up knowing much more about how art is really made than people who take Art Appreciation.

In the interest of truth in labeling, we should change the name of most science classes to Science Appreciation. That would let students, families, and the public know that students won’t actually be doing too much science in the class.

The author hits the nail on the head when he complains that the reasons for these cutbacks in science experiments is that they don’t contribute too much to science test scores. I have frequently stated that tests are not a good indicator of the success of a country’s science program. The problem, from an educator’s point of view, is that a child’s scientific literacy can only be evaluated by personal observation and assessment.

For example:

A student complains that he had learned a somewhat contradictory science theory in high school (or on Bill Nye the Science Guy)

I would rate this student poorly. A scientifically literate student would understand that scientific theories explain our best understanding of a system, and that new theories can supersede old ones at any time. A more scientifically literate response might be to ask about what the differences (and similarities) are between the old theory and the new one, and/or ask why observations made people think a revised theory was necessary.

A student comes up after class to complain that a theory presented in lecture doesn’t make logical sense to him. He asks what evidence there is for the theory.

This student is much better: he understands that the rules of the universe may be a little counterintuitive, but can be deduced through careful observation. Thus, he is willing to accept a counterintuitive theory given substantial scientific evidence.

A teacher’s science demo doesn’t work as planned. A student suggests that the class try to figure out what might have caused the unusual result.

I give this student full marks for understanding a basic truth of science, best summarized by Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'”

In short, when I assess students’ scientific literacy, I look at a couple of different things which can’t be gauged by multiple-choice tests:

(1) How they think about new information. Do they immediately accept it, or do they first want to know the why and wherefore? Will they argue about anything that doesn’t seem right?

(2) An understanding of how to approach a problem of unknown origin. Do they look helplessly at the teacher (or textbook) to give them hints? Or do they weigh possible approaches to finding a solution?

The real question is: how can we convey this sort of scientific literacy to students in a classroom? I personally think it’s pretty easy in a one-on-one setting. But when the ratio is 30 to 1, or (horrors) 250 to 1? (shudder) I’m sure there must be ways, but I think I need more chemistry teaching experience before I can make definitive statements.


  1. […] was happening at work, so instead I wrote a lot of philosophical posts: the fraud of homeopathy, science appreciation, and things not to say to a depressed person, for […]

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