The “Two Cultures” Gap: Implications for the Issues of the Day

For the past week, or so, I have been trying to sort through the information emerging from Washington about health care, and what should be done about it.  In the Senate, the bill is known as the Affordable Health Choices Act, and in the House (HR 3200) it is called America’s Affordable Health Choices Act.  I found the summary of the house bill helpful.  But the discussions in the media have been confusing, and have revealed enormous gaps that exist between politicians and the public; between the medical community and the public; between the scientific community and the public; between politicians and science.  Then, Paul Krugman made this comment in a recent post about Obama’s recent news conference:

And there on our TVs was a president with an impressive command of the issues, who truly understands the stakes.

Health is not the only issue that at the center of national debates.  The recent passage in the House of an energy bill brings center stage another science-related issue that is crucial to America’s future.

Yet there cultural divides in America, which could be dangerous, according to a recent symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences.  Sponsored by the Academy, Science Debate, Inc., and Discover Magazine, the seminar brought together a group of scientists, journalists, inventors, professors, and teachers to hear keynote speakers, and participate in group discussions on the topic: A Dangerous Divide: The Two Cultures in the 21st Century.  The meeting coincided with the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous lecture, The Two Cultures.  As pointed out on the website for the meeting, Snow was talking about the cultural divide between scientists and humanists, whereas the conference focused in on the divide between the scientific community today and the general public.

At stake today is how the scientific community can contribute to the public’s understanding of science and science-related issues, and at the same time preserve its integrity.  One of the speakers at the symposium addressed this idea, and put it this way:

But even if specialization has created walls between cultures, Blair argued that science as a whole has benefited greatly from disciplinary boundaries, and that there is value in preserving them and keeping science insulated from politics. Science’s historical independence of ideology has earned it an authority that Blair argued is its most precious asset. At the same time, she suggested, “We also need to work to build bridges and communicate across those gaps… We need multiple cultures, each with recognized autonomy and authority and then bridged by individuals—specialists in education, in science writing—to help inform our public discourse.

Over the next few days we’ll explore the implications of symposium for not only the issues of the day, but for science teaching.  In the meantime, I recommend you go the symposium’s website.  There is text information, and videos of most of the symposium, as well bios on each of the participants.

That Historic Day When We Landed on the Moon & How an Australian Dish Saved the Day

Forty years ago, Neil Armstrong’s historic “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” comment as he stepped from the LEM onto the moon’s surface was watched by more than 600 million people (one fifth of mankind at the time).  Humankind almost didn’t see this historic event. Here is the unbelievable footage, recently restored by NASA of that moment in time, July 20, 1969.

In the year 2000, an Australian film company produced the film, The Dish, one of Australia’s most popular films based on the true story of events that occurred during the days leading up to Apollo 11’s lunar landing.

The television images that we have of this event were transmitted from the moon to the Parkes Radio Telescope in Parkes, Australia.  Here is what the film is about.  You might also want to watch the trailer of the film.

Based on a true story, The Dish recounts the emotions, drama and humor behind the four-day Apollo XI mission in July 1969 and the extraordinary role that Australia played in televising the historical lunar landing to the world.

The Dish: The radio telescope at the Parkes Observatory, Australia
The Dish: The radio telescope at the Parkes Observatory, Australia

Inauspiciously located on a remote sheep farm in the rural town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, The Dish is a mammoth, 1000-ton radio telescope equal in size to a football field. In 1969, NASA intended to use the Australian telescope, the most powerful receiving dish in the Southern Hemisphere, as a “back-up” to its prime receiver in Goldstone, California. But a last-minute change in the Apollo XI flight schedule change rendered the Goldstone telescopes ineffective, and the Aussie dish became NASA’s only hope for conveying to the world man’s first steps on the moon.

View the film's trailer
View the film's trailer

But technical difficulties threaten to disrupt the scientists’ bid for glory: hours before Apollo XI is scheduled to land on the moon, disaster strikes at the Parkes dish when our earth-bound crew loses contact with the Apollo XI spacecraft during a power outage. Scrambling to restore contact with the Apollo XI, the dish technicians launch an exhaustive effort to relocate the spacecraft in time to broadcast images of Neil Armstrong’s landmark lunar trek to the world. With help from the colorful cast of local characters, the dish team and their American counterpart struggle to overcome a series of mishaps – including a freak windstorm that threatens the lives of the crew – and play their part in one of mankind’s greatest achievements in an exciting, emotional and truly funny way.

If you want to experience what it was like 40 years ago in a small Australian town that played a huge role in NASA’s historic day, then I recommend that you obtain a copy of The Dish, and watch it on July 20th.  My wife and I first saw this film on a Delta flight, and soon after purchased a copy of it on DVD.  We’ve watched this film at least 50 times since we purchased it.  Really.  I plan to watch it on the 20th of July, the 40th anniversary of our first lunar landing.


Three Ways to Interest Students in Science

Perhaps the fundamental goal of science education should be finding ways to interest students in science.  Stephen Hornstra Landgraaf, (The Netherlands) made this statement as part of his comment in my previous post.  In this era of standards-based education we leave most students outside of science, and do little to bring them in to see a connection between their own lives and the joy of science.

Yet even in these high-stakes testing times, there are some powerful ways in which science educators are interesting students, young and older, alike.  Here are three:

Thinking Big.  This is all about asking “big” questions, much the way that Carl Sagan did.  Of course it is more than that.  Thinking Big in science teaching means we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to pique our curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest students.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

The 12" gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life and culture on Earth.  It was placed on Voyager 1 & 2, and was designed by a group headed by Carl Sagan.  Follow the link to read more about this.
Thinking Big!: The 12" gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life and culture on Earth. It was placed on Voyager 1 & 2, and was designed by a group headed by Carl Sagan. Click on the disc to read more about Sagan's thinking, and how you might apply it to your teaching.

A really good example of “thinking big” was NASA’s announcement last Fall of The Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship.  You can view the video of the announcement here, and from contemporary scientists and science educators discuss Carl Sagan’s legacy.   Then follow this link to NASA’s Planet Quest (Exoplanet Exploration) Website, and explore how NASA is trying to answer the question, Are we alone?  It’s fascinating, and would capture student’s imagination.  You might also visit the Carl Sagan portal for other interesting ideas.

Thinking Informally—Science museums. One of my favorite theorists in education is John Dewey. Dewey wrote lots of books on education, and advocated a humanistic approach to teaching, and specifically believed that “non-school learning” could provide the kind of energy that learning in school would require to engage and interest students. Science museums are a kind of informal learning environment that typically engage students of all ages.

T-rex on exhibit at the Tellus Museum, one of a large collection of fossils in this wonderful learning environment.
T-rex on exhibit at the Tellus Museum, one of a large collection of fossils in this wonderful learning environment.

Yesterday I visited the Tellus Museum of Science, located in Northwest Georgia, a new museum full of fascinating science wonders including an extensive mineral gallery, dinosaurs and more than 40 pre-history animals in the Fossil Gallery, a fossil dig, and gem panning, history of flight from the Wright brothers to the American and Russian space programs.

The visit to Tellus reminded me of all of the museums that I’ve visited in Atlanta, Barcelona, Boston, New York, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Prague, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, Vancouver, London, Moscow and St. Peterburg. In fact, some years ago I was in St. Petersburg, Russia with 100 American and Russian middle and high school students and their teachers as part of the Global Thinking Project, and we were brought to the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  It was there we  viewed the famous display of the Wooly Mammoth.

Mammoth exhibit in a science museum in St. Petersburg, Russia
Mammoth exhibit in the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Museums play an important role in science education, and have to near the top of list of ways to interest kids and adults in science.  Here informal learning is emphasized over formal, classroom-like instruction.  Visitors are encouraged to “touch” and “play” with exhibits.

Reconnecting with Nature: The National Park Syndrome.  Although Yellowstone Park was established in 1872, the U.S. Congress established the National Park Service in 1916 protecting the 35 national parks that existed at that time.  Now there are 391 units in National Park Service including parks, national monuments, seashore sites, battlefields and other recreational and cultural sites.  If you add to this the number of state parks that there are in the U.S. you have a enormous resource available for another type of informal learning that emphasizes the outdoors, and cultural experiences.  I am not sure if there really is a “National Park Syndrome,” but what I mean is that we should work to reconnect students to nature.  My own National Park Syndrome was created by my many trips to the Rocky Mountain National Park, both personal, and professional (teaching graduate courses on environmental education).

View of the Rockies from Trail Ridge Road, in the Rocky Mountain National Park
View of the Rockies from Trail Ridge Road, in the Rocky Mountain National Park

And indeed the Children & Nature Network is dedicated to this, and supports a movement to reconnect “children and nature.”  The goal here is to give students opportunities to experience nature directly.  C&NN is a great resource for science teachers, and provides a convenient way to connect with other educators who are developing strategies in the service of nature for children and youth.

Connecting our students to nature does not have to involve traveling to a park.  Simply going outside one’s school will bring you and your students in contact with nature.  In my own experience as college teacher, I taught in the center of Atlanta’s urban environment.  The urban environment was rich with experiences for my students.  We were able to study the geology of building stones, that not only included rocks from various parts of the world, but also many of the sedimentary building stones included fossils. We did scavenger hunts looking for change, living things, biodegradeable substances, various types of rocks and minerals, plants, animals, mineral processes, evidence of physical and chemical weathering, and other phenomena.  We even looked for stalagmites and stalagtites that formed when water trickled through cracks and fissures in the underground parking garage.

From the vantage point of central Atlanta, our students were engaged in environmental studies, including the investigation of ground-level ozone (Project Ozone).  We did this every summer, and students not only monitored ozone in central Atlanta, but also from the vantage point of their homes.  This provided us with a rich data base all around the Metro-Atlanta area.  Project Ozone was one of the projects that we developed as part of the Global Thinking Project.  Using very simple monitoring equipment, students from many parts of the world were able to monitor the air outside their school, and use our online data base to share and investigate the problem of ground-level ozone.

A middle school student from Walker County, GA discusses air quality as part of Project Ozone with a student from Puschino, Russia in School #1.
A middle school student from Walker County, GA discusses air quality as part of Project Ozone with a student from Puschino, Russia in School #1.

There are many ways to interest students in science.  These are simply three that I have found to be very effective with students of all ages.  I’ll continue to talk about this and come back to it from time to time.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear what some of your favorite ways are to interest students in science.  Leave a comment for others to read.

From Sputnik to Sagan: Some Views on Science

I decided to obtain a copy of Unscientific America by Mooney and Kirshenbaum via my Kindle App on my iPhone, and started reading immediately.  A few days later, the book arrived.  In an early part of the book, “the rise and cultural decline of American science,” the authors have a chapter entitled: From Sputnik to Sagan.  It is an interesting chapter in that it provides a context to help us understand where we are today when we look at science and society.

Starting with WWII, the authors explore the social and political history of science in American society beginning with Vannevar Bush’s report Science: The Endless Frontier which President Roosevelt requested to explore how institutions of science could continue (given the development of the bomb, radar and other scientific developments of WWII) to serve the nation.  The report called for a heavy investment in science by the government, and one result of this was the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950 to promote the progress of science, advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, and secure the national defense.

But of course, after WWII, the Cold War created a scientific and technological war between the USA and the Soviet Union.  In 1957 we all found out that the Soviets, headed by an engineer by the name of  Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, had launched the first Earth satellite, Sputnik.  It was one of the most significant events in the history of science, and science education in America, in that it led to further pouring of funds into the NSF budget, and creation of a vast number of elementary and secondary science curriculum projects developed from the late 1950’s into the 1970’s.  The first NSF science curriculum project (PSSC Physcs), developed at MIT, was field tested in the high school I attended in the late 1950s, and then more than twenty years later, I was one of the writers on one of the last NSF projects in this string of curriculum projects, ISIS, developed at Florida State University.

Science took a prominent role in the federal government during the administration of President Eisenhower.  He created the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and it was President Kennedy who created an office of Science & Technology in the White House.  Eisenhower also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a direct response to the launching of Sputnik.  ARPA was the organization that was responsible for the creation of Internet through the predecessor ARPA-Net.  Science seemed to follow the outline established in Vannevar Bush’s report, and science flourished.  For example, the budget of NSF went from about $15 million in 1957 to $135 million the next year, and now the budget is more than $7 billion.  But between 1957 and now, science has gone through changes in the public perception of science, and as Mooney would say, The Republican War on Science which started in the 1980s.

Although the authors of Unscientific America talk a bit about the development of science curriculum by elite scientists, they fail to point out that there were two phases of curriculum development from 1958 – 1977, with the first phase primarily organized by professional scientists and science professors, and the second organized by science educators, science teachers, and scientists.  Although not a revolt, it was clear that scientists knew science, but there was a huge gap in what they knew about science teaching.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum do not explore the nature of science education enough to shed light on the true meaning of “unscientific America.”

But they do explore science in American culture, and shed a lot of light on one of America’s most prominent scientists, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996).  It was during the 1970’s that most Americans became familiar with Dr. Carl Sagan, Astronomer, and populariser of science.  In fact, Sagan helped educate more Americans about the world of science through his PBS program Cosmos which was the most popular science program every produced by PBS, and the book version of Cosmos sold more than a million copies.

Sagan was probably the most well known scientist of the 1970s and 1980s.  Not only did he produce the Cosmos program, he was a scientific advisor to NASA, was director of the Planetary Studies Program at Cornell (where he was full professor), author of hundreds of scientific papers, and author of more than 20 books.  But, I think, more importantly, he spoke to ordinary citizens about science in terms that all could understand.  It was his outspoken behavior that rankled a number of other scientists (especially I am sure his appearances on the Johnny Carson Show), and when he was nominated to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, he was denied admission.  So this brilliant scientist was denied admission to this society, and as Lynn Margulis wrote to him: “They are jealous of your communication skills, charm, good looks and outspoken attitude especially on nuclear winter” (Mooney & Kirshenbaum, p. 40).

Sagan, according to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, was a “fierce advocate for the proper use of science.”  This is an especially relevant statement today given the attitude that the current President has toward science, compared to his predecessor.

Sagan took issue with two significant developments that occurred during the Reagan administration, namely the Strategic Defense Initiative (using X-ray lasers in space to shoot down enemy missiles), and the idea that nuclear war was winnable.  In the later case, Sagan developed the concept of a “nuclear winter” arguing that fires from a nuclear holocaust would create smoke and dust that would cut out the sun’s rays leading to a global cooling—perhaps threatening agriculture and leading to global famine.  He incensed the right wing, according to Mooney & Kirshenbaum, and in particular William F. Buckley.  But Sagan held firm on his ideas, supported by other scientists, and even resisted accepting White House invitations to dinner.  Sagan’s criticism of SDI was supported by other scientists, especially Han Bethe who authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Unscientific America helps us understand the gap that exists between the world of science—scientists, scientific developments, scientific theories—and the political and public interpretation and use of science.  Since the 1970s battle lines were drawn over issues such evolution, SDI, climate change, energy crises, nuclear proliferation, and global pandemics.  In each of these cases, all of which have a scientific base, political views and media hype have created vast gaps in the way people view these issues specifically, and science overall.

At the heart of a solution to these issues is science education.  Although Mooney and Kirschenbaum do not explore science education in any depth, they allude to it.  When I use the term science education, I am not just referring to K-college science education, but also how the media does or doesn’t help educate the public on important science issues.  Over the past number of years, the print media, especially newspapers, have reduced the amount of space and number of reporters they devote to covering science.  And media such as TV spent very little time reporting on science.

There is more to discuss here, and I’ll return to this topic over the next several days.  In the meantime, I recommend that you take a look at the book, Unscientific America, and also read about some of the work of one science’s greatest spokesperson’s, Carl Sagan.

Things to Love & Hate about the American Clean Energy Act (H.R. 2454)

The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act that passed the House (H.R. 2454) on June 26 is not only a huge document (1,428 pages), but is a huge step forward for not only the U.S., but the world in trying to come to terms with the fact that humans are inducing climate change at a rate faster than scientists a few years ago had predicted.

One of the sites that I have linked in the Blogs section of The Art of Teaching Science is GRIST.  One of today’s posts was written by Alan Durning, and it was titled Revised and updates: Things I love – and hate – about Waxman-Markey (H.R. 2454).  As Durman says, the loves outnumber the hates 2-to-1.  Durman, director of Sightline Institute, a Seattle research research and communication center, gives the bill an overall grade of a solid “B,” and now is holding his breath about the action in the U.S. Senate on their version of the Energy bill.

I think you will find his list of 7 things he hates about Waxman-Markey and 14 things he loves about the bill very valuable to you as you consider the U.S. government’s action on our energy future.  There are lots of links within his discussion, and the list is helpful in summarizing the major features of this important potential legislation.