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.

Evolution back in court in Georgia!

“Evolution” stickers are back in court, and I am back online. I had been on trip to England. And there in England, on every £10 (pound) note was a picture of Charles Darwin (replacing the other Charles, Charles Dickens). All I could think of was what would happen in the USA if we put Darwin’s picture on a $10 note? Upon arrival home, I learned that the Cobb County, GA (where I live) school board is back in a Federal Appeals court, appealing Judge Cooper’s order to remove stickers that were placed on all life science and biology texts in Georgia’s second largest school district. The stickers were removed last school year from all of the books, but the school board has resisted accepting the Judge’s ruling, and is now appealing the case. A group of science advocates calling themselves Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education expressed concern about the proceedings on the first day of the appeals hearing. Apparently one of the judges took the lawyers for the defendants to task, and according to “court watchers” this was not a good sign. As in many of the cases involving evolution, the paucity of understanding the nature of a scientific theory surfaces. Evolution is considered “just a theory” and is therefore less credible than say gravity or plate tectonics. In the field of science however, this is not the case. Theories are explanations of scientific facts and observations, and in the case of evolution, we might say that no theory has been scrutinized more than evolution.

About 25 years ago I formed a group of Georgia citizens. We were small. We were concerned about the emergence of “creation theory” as an alternative or equal partner (equal time was the concept) with evolution. We called the group “GO-APE” (Georia Ontological Association for the Preservation of Evolution). We went to meetings. We shared literature about teaching evolution in science classes. It was a time when evolutionary teaching was being challenged by creation theory. The advocates of creation theory made a lot of progress in impacting local schools, and in impacting state science standards. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Back then our answer was GO-APE!

Closing Arguments (in the Dover Case)

On November 4, the closing arguments were presented to the Judge in the Dover, PA case which was brought to court by a group of parents in Dover against the Dover School District and Board. You can read the transcripts of this 21 day trial and learn a great deal about science education, evolutionary theory, Intelligent Design, and how a small community was pulled apart by a four-paragraph statement that was imposed on science teachers in the district. The case has a lot of similarities to the the case brought against the Cobb County (Georgia) School District by a group of parents who objected to a sticker that was ordered placed in every life science and biology text book declaring that evolution was “just” a theory, and that it should be studied critically. In this case, the Judge ruled in favor of the parents claim, and the school district had to remove each sticker from every life science/biology textbook in the district.

What will happend in the Dover case? My hope is that the same ruling will result as did in the Georgia case. Clearly, in the Dover case, the district was endorsing a religious view, and directly changing the nature of science, and the integrity of science teaching. Intelligent design is not science; it is not the result of scientific investigation (although the proponents will try and convince you so); it is religous dogma.

In his closing argument, the plaintiffs’ attorney reminded the court that it was ironic that the case was being decided in the only colony, and the only place under British rule in the 18th century where religious freedom was the law, and yet the school board defied this principle, this law to impose their own religious views on students in the school district by disguising a religous idea (intelligent design, formerly known as creationism) as a scientific idea—the government school’s attorney actually suggested that it was a “new paridigm” in science. Interestingly, the school board members that supported this idea were tossed out of office four days after the closing argument!

Computer Backlash? How about a classroom revolution!

Four nearly 20 years, my colleagues and I were involved in using technology to enhance teaching and learning not only at the university level, but at the K-12 level as well. We wanted to use computers to enhance active learning in the classroom, and to find ways to help students engage in collaborative scientific research projects. We used computers and modems to connect schools on several continents starting in 1990. This was a difficult task in that schools were not set up with phone lines in each classroom, and in some cases the nearest phone line was hundreds of feet from the classroom. In this global project, teachers and students studied environmental science at the local level, and used computer networks to share data, make interpretations and draw conclusions on significant environmental issues such as the quality of air, water pollution, solid waste disposal, acid rain, and other topics. Most of the classrooms of the participating schools had access to only one computer that was connected to Internet, and when we started, our principal means of collaboration was by means of email. But this transformed the classroom. Instead of being isolated, these classrooms were connected to other schools by means of the Internet, and opened up a new way of thinking for teachers and students. When the World Wide Web emerged, we expanded the way students and teachers could collaborate with each other by the use of web-based data forms, a project website which contained the ongoing work of students, real-time chats monitored by us and collaborating teachers, video conferences, and bulletin boards for students to post their findings and their questions. As technology advanced, we saw the participating classrooms change as well. The “wiring” of schools began in the mid-to late nineties, and now classrooms could be equipped to have multiple computer-work stations connected to the Internet that enhanced group and project research work. As schools moved toward wireless networking, students and teachers were able participate and advance the ongoing revolution in learning that had been going on for years.

On October 19, I read Don McKee’s column entitled “Laptop backlash affecting colleges.” His real motivation in writing this column was to take another swipe at the Cobb County School District’s laptop program, and put another nail into the former superintendent Dr. Joe Redden. I realized that McKee was unaware or unable to find out that there is a revolution in learning going on right before his eyes, but for some reason, he chooses to look the other way.

McKee based his piece on an article written in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Laptop Backlash” by Gary McWilliams, a staff reporter on the Journal. Unfortunately, Mr. McKey did not delve deeply into the controversy about how and whether wireless networks and laptops should be used in colleges, and that some professors report disappointing results when using them. The problem is not with the laptops or a wireless network, but the pedagogy (yes, it’s a term used by professors to describe teaching methods) used in the classroom. In each of the cases reported in the McWilliams article, the professors were lecturing, and then became bent-out-of-shape because students were not listening or taking notes with their $2000 computer; instead they were surfing the web, or chatting each other. What is the need of a computer in these classrooms when all the professor is doing is lecturing. A $2 notebook would work very well.

If McKee had used Google and typed in the phrase “laptop backlash” he would have found more than two-hundred thousand results. And one of the links would have led him to an article by two professors at the University of Cincinnati Law School entitled “TAKING BACK THE LAW SCHOOL CLASSROOM: USING TECHNOLOGY TO FOSTER ACTIVE STUDENT LEARNING. They acknowledge the laptop backlash, but they take issue with it, and lay out a framework for using technology to establish an active learning environment, a learning environment that did not exist in the classrooms of professors who were simply lecturing. They describe it this way: “We offer a competing vision of how technology can be harnessed to increase active student learning and, in the process, empower students to resist their laptop’s siren song. In particular, we describe how we combine both old (substituting word processing text for PowerPoint slides) and new (using handheld wireless transmitters) technologies to infuse our classrooms with active learning vigor.”

McKee and others at the MDJ are stuck in a time-warp of the 19th Century, when teachers all around them in Cobb County and the Marietta Schools are working to implement one of the most radical changes in American education in over a century. In McKee’s case, he uses a very brief article to try and convince us that maybe wireless computers in schools is a bad idea. It might be, but there is another side of the issue. Mortimer B. Zuckerman, Editor-in-Chief of U.S. News & World Report, sees it another way. In an editorial called “Classroom Revolution” Zuckerman makes the claim that “computers are changing the way our kids learn, but we must do more to ensure that this fascinating new tool is fully integrated into all our schools.” It was impressive that Cobb County sent 54 of its educators (to the dismay of the MDJ editors) to a technology conference in Boston to learn how to build learning communities, and to see and participate first-hand in ways of using computer technologies, wireless networks, and how laptops and other technologies can be used to enhance student learning. The laptop backlash is the result of professors and instructors assuming that they can continue to use the same methods and strategies of teaching in an environment that begs for more innovative teaching. MDJ, look to the wisdom of the teachers in the Cobb and other schools, as well as professors at colleges and universities who are forging new ways of using this technology in support of learning.

Thinking-out-of-the-Box

The Cobb County Power to Learn laptop program, which was planned by Cobb County administrators and teachers, represented a totally new way that students could be educated. Imagine the possibilities for teachers and students. Education has slowly been moving away from plunking students down in front of a teacher—in fact it is becoming quaint. The internet and robust access to computers offers new ways to teach and learn. In some districts around the country, students can choose courses from a virtual school that are taught online by teachers perhaps 500 miles away. They can take the course on their time–anytime. In other cases, teachers plan hybrid-courses, in which part of the course is online, and the other is by means of face-to-face class sessions. Imagine school districts that reside within WI-FI (wireless networks) communities–in which the community is turned into a WI-FI netnetwork enabling anyone to turn on their computer anywhere in the community, and connect to the internet. It’s happening in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Lexington, KY, and other cities around the nation. Imagine schools who have teachers who have revamped the curriculum in English, mathematics, social studies, science, or foreign languages to meet the challenge of teaching students—each of whom has a laptop which they bring home and to school. Or imagine science or social studies teachers using web-based learning environments to engage their students in collaborative projects with students and teachers in other states and countries. There are endless possibilites for new forms of learning and commication that are currently being tapped, but are ready to transform education. It was unfortunate that in Cobb County (which could afford the expense of the project, by-the-way), the idea was repressed by a local newspaper, and a small band of parents. Very few voices emerged from the educational community to support the project, and articulate the possibilities that would emerge. Thinking-out-of-the-Box is the haulmark of the outstanding teacher and adminstrator. We’ll talk more about examples of thinking-out-of-the box. A great article to read is “ESPN Thinks Outside the Box,” in the September 2005 issue of Wired Magazine. Take a look at it.