1906 San Francsico Earthquake Centennial

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which hit the city at 5.12 a.m. on that day. In an earlier post, I commented on the significance of the 1906 earthquake, and recommended a book by Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. Winchester’s book tells the story of the “new geology” and helps us understand the cause of the earthquake (and all earthquakes), and provides a deeper understanding of the earth.

The city of San Francisco set up a web site marking the earthquake, and also held a huge gathering in the financial district.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake literally destroyed the city, and the great fire that followed reeked devastating damage of the city for days after. The earthquake is considered one of the worst disasters to hit the U.S. with more than 3,000 people killed, more than 20,000 buildings destroyed (see image of city hall below), and it took until 1915 to re-build the city. This seems like very timely information for the rebuilding of New Orleans.

The quake was caused by a rupture (of more than 300 miles) along the San Andreas fault, the fault that separates two huge crustal plates: the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate.

These two masses of rocks rub up against each other along the San Andreas Fault, and at times, the build up of stress is released when the plates move, causing an earthquake.

More on Reform in Science Education

In the last post, I called into question a recent editorial in the leading research journal in science education (Journal of Research in Science Teaching). The recommendations suggested were made more than 2 decades ago in a report that I sited (A Nation at Risk), and more recently, the AAAS published Science for All Americans. This report and subsequent publications by AAAS under the umbella of Project 2061, outlined reform in science education that surely supercedes the article in the JRST.

Charles Hutchison responded to my original post, and pointed out the dismal situation of graduation rates for high schools, and especially for African-Americans, Native-Americans and Hispanics.

The recommendations for reform suggested by AAAS and NSTA have made their way into schools over the past 20 years. However, during that time, the high school drop rate has increased slightly. The reform suggestions that have been made have not impacted the very groups that need reform. Why is that so?

It is a tough question to answer. Science educators have emphasized inquiry and hands-on teaching for as long as I have been a science educator (and that’s a long time). Yet, research that reports the nature of teaching (e.g. strategies used in the classroom), has yet to show that inquiry and hands-on learning lead the way in teaching methodology. It’s still teacher-centered, and presentation-oriented. So, the reforms that have been suggested have really not made their way into classroom practice—on a large scale.

How can that be changed? For starters, the new reformers need to be willing to look at who is NOT doing well in our schools. Why aren’t these students succeeding? What are the barriers preventing them from learning? Reformers also need to be drawn from the classroom as well as from educators, scientists, and citizens that understand the real problems in urban schools—especially middle and high schools.

The challenge is to see how science can be in the service of society, and the students who seem to be failing school today. How can science really help students become interested in school resulting in success?

Reform in Science Education? A Return to the Past

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching appeared an editorial entitled: Preparing the 21st Century Workforce: A New Reform in Science and Technology Education . After reading it, I thought I was teleported back to 1983 when I read the report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. In the current issue’s editorial, the authors used the “global economic competition” argument as the 21st Century’s Sputnik. In the aftermath of Sputnik, the USA funded science education reforms in the areas of K-12 curriculum development, and science and mathematics teacher education.

The authors of JRST editorial are concerned that America is/will fall behind and not be able to compete globally. Wait a minute! We’ve heard that before. In the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, the authors start their report in the following way:

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”

So, 23 years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education called for a reform of education clearly no different than what the authors of the JRST editorial called for. The authors brought together “leading educators and scientists” to make recommendations for the 21st Century. It was a very tired editorial, and it did not report anything that has not been attemped since the Nation at Risk report, 23 years ago. And by-the-way, during the 80s, there were nearly a hundred reports on how to improve education.

I think the editors of the JRST need to look elsewhere for reform ideas. Where? I suggest some of the up and coming young science educators, scientists and teachers. Especially folks that are on the front lines of science and mathematics education.

Dodo’s, Evolution and Intelligent Design

A former evolutionary-biologist turned filmaker has created a new film entitled Flock of Dodos-The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. According to the New York Times article, “the biologist, Randy Olson, accepts that there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth. He agrees that intelligent design’s embrace of a supernatural “agent” puts it outside the realm of science.”

The film he has produced (not his first—he left the biology department at the University of New Hampshire and received a degree in filmaking from the University of Southern California) does not attack intelligent design, but instead challenges scientists to explain evolution in everyday language—something the scientists in the film have great difficulty doing. The film has been shown in Kansas (Olson’s home state) and at other sites around the country. You can visit the official site for the film and view a clip of the film.

The film is currently being shown in New York City at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Clergy’s Views on Teaching Evolution

As I reported in the previous posting, a recent study entitled Clergy views on evolution, creationism, science, and religion published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume: 43, Issue: 4, Pages: 419-442 reported very interesting findings that science teachers, parents, and students might benefit from.

The authors used qualitative (indepth interviews) and quantitative (a survey instrument) methods in their study. I am going to focus on the qualitative part of the study in this discussion.

This study was designed to inform the science education community about what clergy think regarding evolution and creationism. The authors ultimately sought to: (a) determine clergy views about evolution, creationism, science, and religion; and (b) acquire useful information that we could give to students or colleagues struggling with these issues.

They interviewed eight clergy and one religion professor for the pilot study. The following questions were used to structure the interviews:

1. What do you believe are the major ideas in the theory of evolution?
2. How would you counsel a parishioner who felt that accepting the tenets of the scientific theory of evolution meant giving up their belief in God or Christianity?
3. How do you respond when people say the Bible has been proven false by science?

As a result of the interviews with the clergy in their study, the authors ended up with the following patterns or categories of views.

1. The (Christian) Bible was not meant to be interpreted literally.
Interpreting the Bible literally is a stumbling block toward accepting evolution and other scientific conclusions. This category, perhaps as much as any of the following four, has created the most stress in the evolution/creationism debate over the past century in this country. I thought that the authors did a good job of differentiating among three views of creation—these views would help all of us understand people’s views of creationism, and why they might or might not object to evolution. They identify the three views as follows:

Young earth creationists: literal understanding of the Bible; earth about 10,000 years old; literally 7 day creation
Old earth creationists—share many beliefs as young earth creationists, but believe the earth much older than 10,000 years
Intelligent design—believe some structures are too complex to have been created by evolution; although they share the concept of evolution, they differ in thinking that some outside agent (intelligent designer) must have created complex structures

2. It is difficult to move from a concrete to a more abstract interpretation of the Bible.
This is an important concept—it brings the constructivist notion of learning into the debate. The authors reported that: “Although our interviewees never referred to Piaget, constructivism, or conceptual change, they nevertheless made frequent statements paralleling these general ideas. Rather than discuss changing preconceptions about evolution and adaptation, as science educators do, the clergy discussed changing from concrete or literal interpretation of the Bible toward more abstract understandings.”

3. God plays a role in nature and evolution.
Clergy reported views that touch on the concepts of theism and deism. A theistic view of God implied that God continues to act and affect the material world. A deistic view is that God created the world, set it motion, and then left it alone. The authors rightly point out that science can not answer the question, Does God play a role in nature and evolution. The answer is rightly in the domain of religion. It’s unfortunate that some scientists have used evolution as a means to claim that God does not play a role in nature. This in itself has created a motivation for the religious right to attack the teaching of evolution in the schools.

4. It is okay to ask questions and have doubts.
Certainly, as scientists, we encourage the asking of questions and to raise doubts about a theory or idea. Here the authors are reporting the clergy are stating that raising questions about faith are well intended. As one interviewee said, “Faith is a gift that grows because of doubts and because of questions.”

5. Science is limited in what it can understand.
As another interviewee said, “Science needs to acknowledge mystery beyond its proper sphere.” I think this is right on.

It would be very difficult for a science teacher to incorporate these categories and examples in a science curriculum. However, in discussions that biology teachers have with their students about evolution and faith, knowledge of these categories would be very helpful. It would be a very interesting experiment for a science teacher to work with a social studies teacher and plan a short unit of study in which students explored the concepts developed above. I realize that this would require some very careful planning, and explaining (to parents and school administrators), but I think it could serve to help students with the conflicts that they might have.

What do you think about this suggestion?