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?  

 

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.

A Sense of Wonder—From Rachel Carson to Carl Sagan

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 has published a book (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God) based on lectures he gave in Glasgow, Scotland in 1985. To me Sagan was one of the most influential science educators of our time. 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.

Now a new book—published last October. A book that explores areas 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 of 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. I’ll return to Druyan’s book, and talk about some of the chapters in it such as Nature and Wonder: A Reconnaissance of Heaven (Ch. 1), Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Ch. 4), Crimes Against Creation (Ch. 8).

Varieties of Scientific Experience

Carl Sagan was a scientist who helped us understand the immense beauty of the universe, and enrich our understanding of science. Through his books, TV programs, and public appearances he instilled wonder as an underlying force of science. Now, ten years after his death, a book based on lectures he gave in Glasgow in the 1980’s was published. The book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, edited by Ann Druyan explores the boundaries between science and religion.

In the New York Science Times, Dennis Overbye has written a review of the book that might interest you.