Extreme Earth: Coming to An Environment Near You

The Earth’s climate has changed rapidly over the past fifty years, but when people talk about climate change, they frame it as a future threat.

David Popeik, in Scientific American guest blog, says that “climate report nails risk communication.”  He suggests that the National Climate Assessment that was released by the White House presented a powerful report that he hopes will play a role in the U.S. acting on climate change.  He writes:

Most climate change communication has framed the issue as a future threat. Future risks don’t worry us as much as threats that are imminent or current. The basic message of the National Climate Assessment, offered repeatedly through the entire report, is that climate change is not something we need to worry about tomorrow. It’s something to worry about now. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” it reads.

In this post, I was to focus on the latest report about climate change, and how the report should be used to have people take seriously climate change.  I am convinced the earth is heating up (see Figure 1).  In one sense, we might say were living in a period of “extreme earth.”  This is not to say that there haven’t been other extreme (hot or cold) periods in the paleoclimate record.  But this extreme earth period was caused by the activities of humans.

Extreme Earth raises questions about the nature of science, especially as it relates to climate change. Global warming has been in the public eye for years now, as scientific panels and independent scientific research studies have suggested that the changes in earth’s weather and climate might, to some degree, be due to human activity, especially fossil fuel extraction and the burning of fuels resulting in a 25 – 30% increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately the science of climate change has become politicized , and resulted in the what some say is a “head in the sand” approach to doing something about the changes going on all around us.  (see Hassard, Jack (2012). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching  Kindle Edition.)

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Figure 1. Temperature fluctuations from various sources over the past 1000 years. From Mann, et al 2008

Many of you are familiar with the environmental phrase, Think Globally, Act Locally.  We used it with middle and high school students as an important concept in the Global Thinking Project, which was headquartered at Georgia State University.

But, there is good reason to rephrase this statement, and put it this way: Think Locally, Act Locally.  In the Global Thinking Project, which was a hands-across-the-globe environmental science program, we engaged students in local problems (acid rain, ozone, soil erosion, water quality), but connected them with peers using the GTP telecommunications network and web resources.

The project helped students realize that studying their own environment was as important (maybe even more so), than connecting with problems in other parts of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, one of the attractive features of the GTP was bringing middle and high school students from different parts of the world together to share ideas, and solve problems.

But there is something missing about the issue of tackling the problem of global warming and the induced climate changing of which we are participants.

As Dr. Popeik says, climate change is now and it is affecting each of us at the local level.  If those of us that live in the Atlanta area think about extreme earth events that occurred in the recent past, we can list a few: the flooding of rivers and streams, a drought that cost many people their livelihoods, high temperature periods that were hazardous to many people’s lives, snow events that created chaos in Atlanta, Augusta and other communities, increased number of fire threats across the state, more tornadoes than have been reported in the recent past, and increased concern about hurricanes.

But perhaps one of the most serious problems that we face in the context of climate change, are those few deniers that distort climatology to support their political and economic views.  For example, some researchers have commented that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco was not associated with cancer. (see Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

In the field of science education, professional science teachers have had to deal with a subset of deniers who inhabit or hope to get elected to state legislative houses.  The Next Generation Science Standards, the latest published set of science standards in the U.S. have come under fire for the position and specific content related to climate change and global warming.  There is also the usual protest about teaching evolution, but for this article, we’ll limit it to climate change.

Several states have moved to block the use of the NGSS in their schools.  In Kentucky, a coal-producing state, the legislature blocked the NGSS, but the governor overruled them.  But it is the case in Wyoming where the issue of teaching climate change became a hot political issue.  Apparently some legislators objected to teaching “theories” and not ideas in science that had been proven.  But if we go deeper into the issue, we find that they oppose those theories that don’t fit with their world view.  In this case, supporters of the fossil fuel industry object to teaching any science that might put them in bad light.  In Wyoming, the NGSS was blocked by a footnote added to the state budget that prohibits the spending of any money on the review or revision of student content and performance standards for science.  Even their own!

 

Will data from the National Climate Assessment change people’s views of climate change.  Maybe, maybe not.  But those that oppose climate change science will probably not be swayed by this report.  After all, it is a government report.

But perhaps if people begin to realize that the extreme weather events that have come to them are do to an increasing risk for several weather events by the warming of the earth.  Most climatologists would agree that we can “blame” a single event (such as Hurricane Sandy) on global warming, but how can we not consider the possibility that the extreme weather events that have been documented over the past twenty years might be due to human activity?

Pictures tell a story more powerful than words, in many instances.  Here are few that might bring back events that affected you.

Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.
Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States:
The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Do you think the events of the past few years will impact people’s views of climate change?

 

Terrill L. Nickerson: The Paradox of the Common Core

rockies2 Terrill Nickerson commented on the previous post on this blog, 6 Reasons Why the Common Core is Not Progressive Ideology.  I thought his comments were important to share as a separate post.  Terrill Nickerson has written an interesting article on how he approaches the Common Core and high-stakes testing in his context of teaching, which is in communities serving marginalized and underrepresented families.

He writes:

In my twenty-six years teaching in schools with large numbers of marginalized, and underrepresented families, I do not agree with the assertion that high-stakes testing and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) sprang out of progressive ideology.  Most of my colleagues that work with these populations tend to believe the exact opposite.  The common feeling is that the high-stakes testing tends to be biased against the children that come from culturally different, marginalized, or economically poor families. Likewise, my colleagues would accuse the CCSS of failing to take into account the realities of the worldview and paradigms experienced by the these groups.

Realistically, I know these biases and shortcomings exist.  I have seen them firsthand, especially with regard to the high-stakes testing.  However, my paradox arises with the arguments, pro and con about the Common Core Standards.  I began my professional career as a scientist, not a science teacher.  After a decade of working in the professional science ranks, I decided to become a teacher.  I also continued to learn and progress, as I completed my M.S. Ed. in Science Curriculum and Instruction, while teaching.  I was working in a Native American school system and community.  So my professional growth and learning was applied to this community.

However, the communities, in which I taught realized that getting a mainstream education was the only way that their communities could survive into the future.  I was encouraged to challenge my students and present them with the highest level of education that I could.  I was also challenged to learn, and use the cultural strengths to carry out this task.  I did not find a contradiction in these expectations.

As a scholar and scientist, I see the value in creating a more consistent set of academic expectations.  Knowing what I know about what the science professions and the universities expect, I do not see the Common Core as a threat to our children.   The problem does not lie with the Standards themselves, but rather with the interpretation of how they should be implemented. I always insisted that if you teach sound scientific procedures and problem solving skills, students will do well on the high-stakes tests.

Teaching solid practices, regardless of your choice of content material, still builds a solid foundation.  This foundation teaches students solid test-taking skills by teaching them to be critical thinkers and to recognize inconsistencies and errors in logic through elimination.  My students were successful, and still are, even though the present educational setting insists that I follow the Standards more closely than before.

The Common Core doesn’t tell us how to teach.  Instead, it provides teachers with a guideline for what type of knowledge and information is both topical and cutting edge in keeping up with advances in our discipline.   Despite the emphasis upon the Standards teaching, I still find time to diverge and create projects for my students that are hands-on, project-based, and steeped in engineering and science methodologies, and still do justice to the Standards.

As I’ve always said, “I teach my high school students at a college level, with an understanding that the outcomes will reflect a high school level of sophistication and development, and grade accordingly  Do not tell them you are doing this, just expect it of them, and work with them in tandem to achieve it. They will rise to the occasion and expectations, and begin to accept them as the normal level at which they should be working.’  I have very few failures.

About Terrill Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Here is How Private Funding is Affecting Scientific Research and K-12 Education

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An article in the New York Times by William J. Broad got my attention and in this article, I want to use Broad’s research to show how education is being harmed by private funding. The article by William J. Broad is entitled Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing American science.  It is a very important and revealing article about the future direction of scientific research.  I believe the conclusions that Mr. Broad reaches in his article on the field of science, applies to K-12 education.

Synopsis of William J. Broad’s Article on American Science

Broad starts by telling us that budget cuts in Washington have devastated the nation’s research complex.  In a recent article on this blog, I discussed Why Scientists are Abandoning their Research.  Based on research reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Paul Basken and Paul Voosen, they concluded that for more than 10 years the budgets of NIH and NSF have been reduced, resulting in serious problems for research scientists and their students.

Not discussed in the Basken and Voosen article is the back story that Broad makes visible to us in his article.  He explains how science is going to be paid for in the future.  He said this:

Absent from his narrative, though, was the back story, one that underscores a profound change taking place in the way science is paid for and practiced in America. In fact, the government initiative grew out of richly financed private research: A decade before, Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, had set up a brain science institute in Seattle, to which he donated $500 million, and Fred Kavli, a technology and real estate billionaire, had then established brain institutes at Yale, Columbia and the University of California. Scientists from those philanthropies, in turn, had helped devise the Obama administration’s plan ($100 million Brain Initiative project). Broad, William J. “Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science.”The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

An important point in Broad’s article is this sentence:

American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

Because of budget cuts in Washington, the amount of money being directed to basic research in science has been reduced.  He quotes Steven A. Edwards of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) who explains:

For better of worse, the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.

You might think that the private money is filling the gap for science by providing a source of funds that has been cut from national research budgets (NIH, NSF).  It’s not as simple as that, because the motivations of the private funders are not necessarily in the interests of national research.  Broad points out that this new scientific philanthropy is “practiced according to its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed.”

He says this about the entrepreneurs,

The donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that government cannot or simply will not consider.  Many of the patrons, they say, are ignoring basic research — the kind that investigates the riddles of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs, even whole industries — for a jumble of popular, feel-good fields like environmental studies and space exploration.

Privately funded research is usually not done with the common good in mind, but the more often to meet the expectations of the funder for a quick solution to a pressing problem (diseases such cystic fibrosis, melanoma, and ovarian cancer), which Broad suggests is done along racial lines.  But there are also those who make the claim that privately funded scientific research has many positive sides by simply increasing the overall support for scientific research.

Broad cites research at M.I.T. by Fiona E. Murray who survey recipients of private funding, and found that at 50 leading science-research universities, private funding accounts for about 30% of their research money.  Murray explores the history of philanthropy in science, and shows that it has along history.  She also distinguishes between fundamental research and mission-driven research.  Indeed, many of the so-called leading universities are attracting big donors, and have established $100 – $700 million research centers.  This is a lot of money.  For example, the annual National Science Foundation budget is in the neighborhood of $7 billion, and it would be impossible for the NSF to fund such large enterprises without sacrificing further basic scientific research.

Let’s take a look at how Broad’s article might be applied to the kind of research that is and isn’t done in the field of K-12 education.  Can we see some links here?

Education Needs to Be Fixed: Call in the Donors

Broad’s article did not include any examples of research in the social sciences, especially education.  Yet, billions of dollars are privately pouring into K-12 education, to support the personal philosophies and beliefs of the donors.  Eli Broad and Bill Gates are two examples.

In each of these cases, Broad and Gates view education as something that needs to be fixed, like a disease.  In Broad’s case, his group has focused on a fast turnaround program that pumps out administrators who articulate the Broad approach to management.

I’ve investigated the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and found that they have invested about $2.3 billion into the Common Standards and related efforts.  Gates public speeches tell a glaring story of a person who believes he has the answers to the problems of K-12 education.  Most of claims about education are based on personal opinions, not on peer-reviewed research.  He does not consult leading educational researchers, and indeed, if he did, he would be rebuffed on nearly all of his claims.

For example, he says that paying teachers based on years of experience and advanced degrees has no impact on learning.  He has no evidence to support this.  Yet, he keeps saying this, and pretty soon people believe him.  For example, I talked to a former student of mine who is a professor in North Carolina.  He explained to me that starting in April, teachers will no longer be paid at the master’s or doctoral levels.  Thank you Bill Gates.

Another of Gates claims is that class size makes no difference in the student learning.  He bases this on hearsay when he spouts that the best teachers actually want to take on more students.  Yet a meta-analysis of 100 studies in the 1980s by Gene Glass and others showed that smaller class size does affect student learning.  (See Berliner, D.C. & Glass, G. V & Associates, 50 Myths & Lies that threaten America’s Public Schools, Teachers College Press, 2014).

Nearly every claim that Gates makes about education is an outright myth.  Yet, with his foundation’s billions available for K-12 education, his foundation contributes more to education research than any other foundation.

It seems to me that he sees education the way he sees disease.  Clearly the Gates Foundation has contributed immensely to eradicating disease and improving health around the world.  In the Gates conception of education, however, K-12 public education can be fixed by developing the means to improve standards, weed out the bad teachers, and insert an accountability system that makes educators responsible for student learning.

GERM:  The Virus that Private Donors Spread Around

According to Pasi Sahlberg, there is a virus that is infecting schools, and he has named it the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM).  In his view, the Global Educational Reform Movement

behaves like a virus in an epidemic just like diseases

And just like any disease, GERM has a number of symptom’s.  Unfortunately, these symptom’s guide the behavior of private donors such as Gates and Broad.  They believe that by feeding money into these symptoms, they will enhance educational reform.   And, clearly they are.

  • Focus on Basics–basic knowledge and skills in reading, math, and science
  • Prescription–setting clear, centrally prescribed performance standards for all schools, all students
  • Standardized testing–collecting data through standardized testing on students’ achievement in reading, math & science.
  • Test-based accountability–school performance is tied to promotion, rewards and punishments
  • Bureaucratic control–data collected results in evaluations and inspections, less flexibility

But here’s the thing.  GERM is a virus that infecting schools primarily in the Northern Alliance, e.g. Australia, Europe and North America.  Figure 1 is Pasi Sahlberg’s map of GERM.  As you look at the map, realize that in the Northern Alliance, K-12 educational reform follows the pattern identified above that are symptom’s of GERM.  In this context, Bill Gates and his foundation are actually providing resources to further infect the nation’s K-12 schools, and not providing a cure.  However, if you examine international test results (such as PISA), the Northern Alliance schools a grouped in the middle of the pack, and differ very little from each other.  Apparently, GERM is working well in these nations.

Figure 1. The Viral Map of GERM. Pasi Sahlberg, Centre for International Mobility, Finland, Extracted from Website: http://www.icsei.net/fileadmin/ICSEI/icsei_2012/Pasi_ICSEI_2012_web.pdf
Figure 1. The Viral Map of GERM. Pasi Sahlberg, Centre for International Mobility, Finland, Extracted from Website: http://www.icsei.net/fileadmin/ICSEI/icsei_2012/Pasi_ICSEI_2012_web.pdf

Is there a Cure?

Yes.  And it doesn’t have to be invented.  It’s already here.

In his writings and public appearances, Pasi Sahlberg explains that there is a cure for the Northern Alliance’s spread of GERM.  He suggests that there are four ideas that describe the Nordic Model of Education and that if taken together, would provide for real reform in Northern Alliance schools.  As you examine there ideas, you’ll recognize these as professional teacher’s practice when they are responsible for the learning of the students in their classrooms, and not held to some central command and authority that diminishes flexibility and local autonomy.

To Sahlberg, education will improve if we focus on:

  • Equity instead of excellence
  • Leadership instead of control
  • Collegiality instead of individuality
  • Pedagogy instead of technology

One more thing

Most of the beliefs that guide private donors such as Gates, Broad, Walton, and others are myths or lies.  I know that sounds strong, but there is evidence to back up such a statement.

In David C. Berliner’s and Gene V. Glass’s newest book, the real crisis in education is the perpetuation of Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools (public library).  The authors refute many of the claims that private donors and many legislators make about education.  Take a look at their book to find the evidence to those claims that you never believed about public education in the U.S.  It will make you feel good.

So, what do you think about the role of private donors in the field of science and public education?

 Photo : Stellwagon Bank National Marine Santuary, NOAA Fisheries, C.C. 3.0.

A Heads Up: Smoking is to Cancer as Greenhouse Gas Emissions are to Climate Risks

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On March 5, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed the state’s budget into law.  The bill has a footnote that prohibits the Department of Education from spending any funds to check or revise the state’s science standards.

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The reason this footnote was added to the Wyoming budget is because it satisfied some members of the legislature and citizens who believe in objectivity and neutrality in science education! To get to the point, they are opposed to the teaching of “unproven theories,” most notably with those topics in science that deal with climate change and evolution.  Phil Plait, who writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog, provides an excellent discussion of why some in Wyoming are denying global warming, and don’t want educators to teach about it.

I won’t take on evolution here, as I’ve done that in recent posts.

But let’s look at climate change.

According to some in Wyoming (and in most any state you might want to mention), if we teach climate change, or more specifically if make a link between human activity such as greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, then we are teaching children that some of the state’s key industries are harmful to the earth.  Some Wyoming citizens add that we shouldn’t teach about global warming because it is not settled science.

Ah, settled science.

The term settled science was used by the tobacco industry when they were fighting against scientists who had shown conclusively that there was a link between the consumption of tobacco products and cancer.

Now, we see the term settled science being used in the context of discussions of global warming.  The problem is that using the phrase, “the science isn’t settled” is an oxymoron. In discussions of any scientific theory, we are missing the point if we try to claim that someday the science will be settled.  It won’t.  It will never be.

But there is evidence that can be used to support or refute a scientific theory.  We should be looking for evidence of climate change, and then ask if the evidence supports the idea that greenhouse gasses might be contributing to the rise in earth’s temperature.  We should be asking if there is evidence to support human-caused climate change.

What We Know

On March 19, the American Association for the Advancement in Science (AAAS) published a report entitled What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change. The report provides evidence that climate scientists (97%) do agree that climate change is happening, here and now.  There is also evidence in the report that we at risk of pushing the climate system toward “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.”  The report also says that the sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost.

How confident are writers of the report about the link between human activity and climate change.  In the following passage, the writers ask to think about the link between smoking and cancer.

The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer.  And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real.

A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.  The National Academy of Sciences, for example, says that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.

Extreme Earth

The report cites evidence that climate change is happening now, and explains that extreme weather is no longer an abstract concept.  How can any of us ignore the extreme weather that we have seen over the past few years.  And, indeed, it is reported that two out of three Americans said weather in the U.S. has been worse over the past several years.  And I can assure you, because I travel to England several times per year, that the British people would clearly agree with Americans on severe weather risks.

In Extreme Earth, an eBook published in 2012, the importance of understanding extreme weather is explored, and related to teaching.  As you will see ahead, there is a lot of evidence to support the connection between human activity and climate change.  But, there are those who work to obscure the evidence.  It was put this way in Extreme Earth:

In a Science Progress article, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway suggest that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco did not cause cancer.  (Hassard, Jack (2012-07-09). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching (Kindle Locations 128-132). Kindle Edition.)

Extreme earth events are piling up.  People around the world live in areas where these extreme events are common place.  Here is a list I compiled from the AAAS report.  If you live in Wyoming, why would enable your legislators to deny these facts, and pass a bill that prevents educators from doing their professional work.

  • The CO2 level of 280 parts-per-million was stable for thousands of years, but in the last 150 years has increased to 400 ppm.
  • Sea ice has been shrinking and according to researchers, the rate of loss is accelerating.
  • Ice sheets and glaciers are melting at increasing levels and contributing to sea-level rise.
  • Oceans are acidifying due to the absorption of CO2 from smokestacks and tailpipes.
  • The earth has gotten warmer.
  • Plants and animals have moved toward the poles.
  • In some cases, species are moving up mountain sides and marine species are moving deeper and to higher latitudes.
  • Sea level rise has accelerated, and to the researchers, this is affecting storm surges by making them higher and bringing salt water into aquifers.
  • Floods, heat waves and drought patterns have changed and increased in intensity.
  • Wildfires have increased, especially in the western U.S.
  • Effects on health and well-being can be traced to changes in climate, including droughts, floods, heat, severe storms.  The CDC has studied effects of climate change on infectious diseases.  Also, since life cycles and the distribution of disease carrying insects has changed, increasing the chances for these diseases affecting human society.

The AAAS report suggests that its paper is not to explain the disconnect between the science of climate change and the public perception of climate change.  Instead they provide American citizens with information about climate change.

That said, the report will probably not seem on the top ten list of what to read over the weekend for people who support the action of the Gov. of Wyoming who signed a bill preventing educators from making decisions about the nature of science in the school curriculum. The report will probably creat more controversy. I suppose ignorance is bliss.

What do you think?  Tobacco causes cancer.  Do you think human activity contributes to climate change?

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons Attribution.  Hot shot firefighters prepare to cut a fire line near Colorado Springs to help battle several fires in the area in June, 2012. 

Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?

 

Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Common Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Commons

Science has been prominent in the media recently.  Stories and programs including the Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate” on origins, anti-science legislation in Wyoming banning  science standards that include climate science, a new science program on the Science Channel to be hosted by Craig Ferguson, and this weekend, the first of a 13-part series entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Tyson’s series is based on the Carl Sagan’s 1980 13-part TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.   Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center of Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.  Dr. Tyson has been called this generation’s “Carl Sagan” through his exuberance and public communication of science.

In this post I want to reminisce on science teaching, especially from what I learned from the work (film, print, teaching, research, and public presentations) of Dr. Carl Sagan.  Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University.  Throughout my career I found Sagan’s philosophy important in my work as a university science educator, and want to share some of my thoughts.

51Fn+Y-IhnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sagan was a prolific writer, and throughout his career, he not only popularized science to millions of people, he also helped us understand the nature of science, and for science teachers, how that philosophy would contribute to our professional work.  One of his books, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (public library), became a kind of handbook on the philosophy of science teaching.  I am sure that Sagan didn’t intend it this way, but  it surely reached me in this way.

At the beginning of Broca’s Brain, Sagan says this about science:

SCIENCE IS A WAY of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. Its goal is to find out how the world works, to seek what regularities there may be, to penetrate to the connections of things—from subnuclear particles, which may be the constituents of all matter, to living organisms, the human social community, and thence to the cosmos as a whole.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 344-346). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sagan also wrote that science is “based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is.  To him, science sometimes requires courage to question the conventional wisdom.”  Questioning established ideas, or proposing a radically different hypothesis to explain data is a courageous act, according to Sagan.  Quite often people who propose such ideas are shunned, or rejected by the “establishment,” including governments and religious groups.

To what extent to encourage students to question ideas, and even to propose new ideas?

Wonder

Many years ago Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled A Sense of Wonder. It was one of my favorites, and I remember and have used one quote from the book many times: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” Carson’s passionate book conveys the feelings that most science teachers have for their craft, and their goal is to instill in their students, “A Sense of Wonder.”

Enter Carl Sagan and his views on wonder.

Although Carl Sagan died in 1996, his partner in film production and writing, and his wife, Ann Druyan published a book several years ago (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God) based on lectures he gave in Glasgow, Scotland in 1985.  Now she is the Executive Producer and writer of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, based on her husband’s original Cosmos series.

To me Sagan was one of the most influential science educators of our time, and I am very happy that Dr. Tyson is hosting a new rendition of his television series.  By making his knowledge and personal views of science accessible to the public (through his writings, speeches, TV appearances, and film production), Sagan helped many see the beauty and wonder in the cosmos. You of course remember is famous, “billions and billions.” He encouraged us to look again at the stars, at the cosmos and to imagine other worlds, beings, if you will. He worked with NASA to make sure that the first space vehicle to leave the Solar System would contain messages that could be interpreted by intelligent life so that they might know of us—Earth beings.

In Varieties of Scientific Experience, areas are explored that we all want to know about. Areas that many have been forced to separate in their experiences—that is science and religion. Sagan, as much as anyone, was well qualified to give lectures on science and religion. He understood religion. He read and could recite scripture. He could argue religion with scholars in the field, and carried on debates on subjects that many scientists resisted.

In the introduction to the book, Druyan comments that for Sagan, Darwin’s insight that life evolved over eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it afforded us with a “deeper, more spiritual experience.” I thought it was interesting that Druyan also points out that Sagan, who always comments on the vastness and grandeur of the universe, believed we know very little of this universe, and as a result very little about the spiritual, about God. Sagan used analogies to help us understand this vastness. He was famous for this statement: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand in all of the Earth’s beaches! This is where billions and billions came from.

So what is this musing about. Science teaching is about wonder. It is about bringing to wide-eyed kids the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson wrote about, and Carl Sagan expressed in all of his work.

Thinking Big

Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source: http://technophia.org/?p=5376
Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source:  Creative Commons

Sagan was one scientist who was willing to think big.  Lots of science teachers that I know also think big.  They bring to their students a world that is “far out” and challenging, and in this quest, pique their student’s curiosity.

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?

A really good example of “thinking big” is NASA’s Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship. The Sagan program supports

outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists to conduct independent research that is broadly related to the science goals of the NASA Exoplanet Exploration area. The primary goal of missions within this program is to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Fellowship recipients receive financial support to conduct research at a host institution in the US for a period of up to three years. See NExScI at NASA.

Risk Taking

Carl Sagan was willing to take risks. 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 Hans Bethe who authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The standards-based approach to science education does not encourage risk taking.  As Grant Lichtman in his book The Falconer (public library) has said, our present approach to science only encourages kids to answer question, not to question.  There is little risk taking in our approach to science teaching.   In an earlier article, I wrote this about Grant Lichtman’s philosophy of teaching:

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.  In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.

Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Science and Society

Carl Sagan exemplified, just as Neil deGrasse Tyson is now doing, the important of science in a democratic society.  Science education has a responsibility for considering Sagan and Tyson’s philosophy that science should be in the service of people.  People need to understand science.  In Sagan’s view:

All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions. But I do not see how we can deal with the universe—both the outside and the inside universe—without studying it. The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern—if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table—we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 331-337). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?  Do you think there is mismatch between Sagan’s view of science and the standards-based approach to teaching?