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?

Teaching Evolution & Creationism

A recent study, published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (Vol. 43, 2006) reports findings relevant to this blog’s discussion and comments on evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. The abstract is as follows:

“Spurred by students who felt conflicted accepting evolution and the tenets of their faiths, yet knowing their faiths supported science and evolution, we began a study to determine the views clergy espouse on issues related to evolution, creationism, science, and religion. The resulting study included structured interviews with eight clergy and a religion professor, and a survey and questionnaire sent to each member of an organization made up of clergy. The data revealed a group who believed evolution and their religion to be compatible, that scripture was not meant to be understood literally, and who felt strongly that creationism did not belong in public school classrooms. The science education community may find in clergy an articulate ally in helping citizens to understand the contentious issues surrounding evolution and creationism. We share the insights that respondents provided on these issues and compared their views to those of teachers.”

I’ll explore in more detail the findings in the next blog entry.

Science Literacy in Letters to the Editor

There has recently been a flurry of letters to editor in the Marietta Daily Journal (Georgia) that were promted by a editorial two weeks ago by a Rev. Price concerning intelligent design. There has also been another subset of letters prompted by a Jeffrey Selman who has for years challenged Cobb County officials (schools and government) on First Amendment issues. For instance, he organized a legal fight against the school district which had authorized placing “evolution is only a theory” stickers on all middle and high school life science and biology texts. The district was ordered by a Federal Judge to remove the stickers, which they did. Writers to the paper have made their arguments using personal reasons, as well as making claims about various concepts in science, and other topics.

For example, a writer today, who claimed that “Selman is not as tolerant as he thinks he is,” expressed his anger about Selman’s views on several topics. In fact the writer stated: “…And then Mr. Selman’s friend, Dr. Benjamin Freeed, has the nerve to insinuate that parents who don’t agree with him and Mr. Selman are not good parents, his belief being that they are ignorant.”

In the same writer’s letter, I also found a couple of interesting references to science. I am not trying to claim that this writer is ignorant, but his statements shed some light on level of science literacy that exists in our culture. Here are the two points he made that I think are revealing:

1. “Of course, there are many scientists who believe that evolution is a fact, even though no one was there at the time to verify, it cannot be duplicated scientifically and no one has ever seen one kind of animal evolve into another kind. There are also many scientists who believe otherwise.”

2. “If he (Selman) will check carefully, the sticker that he was successful in getting yanked out of the textbooks only stated the truth: Evolution is a theory that cannot now, nor can it ever, be tested scientifically, just a no other theory of the beginnings of the world can be tested scientifically.”

I think the writer has hit the nail on the head about what and how we can know in science. Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University says this about this issue:

“Science, the argument goes, is based on experiment and direct, testable observation. Therefore, science can address only phenomena that are brought into the laboratory and examined under controlled condtions…but this argument would deny scientific inquiry to any situation that does not lend itself to laboratory science. The natural history of the earth is just a situation. Since there were no human witnesses to the earth’s past, the argument goes, all statements about the past, including evolution, are pure speculation.”

Then he raises the question, “Is scientific inquiry restricted to what we can actually bring into the laboratory and see happening right in front of us? Is there really any scientific way that we can know anything about the past at all?”

And of course, as he shows in his book, the answer is yes. Let me explore a few examples.

1. Here is one example from the news of a week ago.A few days ago, NASA scientists announced new results from the WMAP Mission (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe). WMAP has produced a new, more detailed picture of the infant universe (shown below).

This new information helps to pinpoint when the first stars formed and provides new clues about events that transpired in the first trillionth of a second of the universe. Here is a beautiful example of using scientific methodology to probe into the past, and answer questions about about what was the universe like at the moment after the Big Bang.

2. Another example the geological time scale, which has over time gone through many revisions, and improvements detailing events (geological and biological) in the earth’s history. You can view some graphical geological timelines to get an idea of how geologists have divided geological time into EONs, ERAs and PERIODs.

3. A third example, closely related to the geological time scale, is the fossil record (paleontology), which is a record of the histoy of life on the earth.

All three of these examples are part of K-12 science curriculum. Students in an earth science class or a physics course would find out about the Big Bang Theory, Students in earth science (elementary and middle school) would create geological time scales in their course, and geology, earth science and biology classes would help students learn about the fossil record. In all of these cases, students would learn something about the nature of science, and how we can know about what the universe was like in the past, and the history of the earth. Apparently, these lessons were lost on the writer to the Marietta Daily Journal.