Why do we teach science?–the economic argument

In yesterday’s blog post, I raised the question: Why do we teach science anyway?  Do we teach science to help students become curious and to wonder about the world around them?  Do we teach science because various committees and professional societies think that studying science has something special to teach students about the world, and how to solve problems in the world?  Do we teach science because our nation’s economic prosperity depends upon innovation and discoveries made in science and to maintain a supply of scientists and engineers?

In that post I identified four arguments, each of which will form the content of this and three subsequent posts in the next week.  When we explore the answer to the question–Why do we teach science? –the answer will depend upon the argument we are using to support our answer.  The four arguments are as follows:

  1. The Economic Argument
  2. The Democratic Argument
  3. The Skills Argument
  4. The Cultural Argument

The economic argument is by far the dominate reason why we teach science, especially in the more advanced and prosperous countries.  For science research and science education, the work of Vannevar Bush took center stage prior-to and after WWII.  He headed the Department of Scientific Research and Development during WWII, and was for a time, head of the Manhattan Project, which developed the Atomic bomb.  Bush advanced the role of government in research and development, he was responsible for the creation of the National Science Foundation (1950).  He became NSF’s first director.  But as importantly as these roles, he wrote a report to the President (Truman) in July 1945 entitled Science, The Endless Frontier. This report was written to answer a set of questions posed by President Roosevelt.  Following are the questions Roosevelt proposed:

  1. What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?
  2. With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?
  3. What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?
  4. Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

Bush’s report became an important document in shaping America’s conception of science, especially in the role that government should take in advancing scientific research and development.  New discoveries, and progress in technological innovation would be key to national security and defense.  The report called for support in the form of scholarships in science and engineering enabling a wide scope of students to work towards a Ph.D.

The economic and security reality of science was readily seen in the aftermath of WWII, and as a result science education was seen as taking a new role in the developing a pipeline of science and engineering talent.  In 1950, the NSF was created and headed by Bush, and soon after science education researchers began to write and critique the present science curriculum.  It was evident the curriculum needed to change, and NSF took the lead in impacting secondary science education by creating at MIT the Physical Science Study Committee which ended up producing one of the most important high school science curriculum projects, the PSSC—a new high school physics course.  The PSSC course advanced the knowledge of science in physics by creating a laboratory oriented program—a text, a laboratory manual, and a set of corresponding lab materials were developed for teachers to use to involve students in inquiry learning.  The NSF also decided that high school mathematics and science teachers needed advanced training in science, and so they created the Summer Institute concept, and thousands of teachers participated in these 6- or 8-week summer programs.

In 1957 things really changed.  The Soviets launched the first satellite (Sputnik I), and this event began a period of reform efforts in science and technology education in America characterized as “crises” and in some cases “hysteria” that America was falling behind in science and technology, and that efforts needed to be taken at a National level to resolve the crisis.

Pipeline ideology emerged after WWII in that the government felt that there was a manpower shortage shortage in science and engineering, and that the school science curriculum was outdated, and that teachers needed more training in science, mathematics and technology.  This ideology has characterized the way the Federal Government, and State Departments of Education have approached reform and change in science education over the past 60 years.

The Economic argument for why we teach science is rooted in the nation’s perception of how it compares to other nations in science, technology and engineering.  The Sputnik Era naturally focused in on the hysteria that America was way behind in the “Race to Space” and that the Soviet System of science and mathematics education must be superior to science and mathematics in the USA.  The Race to Space led to enormous appropriations to the National Science Foundation to develop “new curricula” in science and mathematics, K-12.  It also led to proliferation of Summer Institutes for science and math teachers, and Academic Year Institutes for science and math teachers to were paid to leave their teaching position and pursue a full year of coursework in science and mathematics.  Thousands of science and mathematics teachers participated in these summer and year-long institutes, all supported by the NSF.  Millions of dollars were spent on developing new curricula in science, starting with the PSSC course leading to long line of “alphabet soup” science courses in chemistry, biology, earth science, and elementary science.  The courses emphasized a laboratory approach (inquiry-approach) and conceptual approach to science, and there was great excitement within the science and science education communities.  Although these programs advocated an inquiry and hands-on approach to teaching, the survey data on the nature of classroom behavior in science classes revealed the lecture/demonstration approach based on traditional science textbooks was the dominant player, even with the infusion of millions of dollars into science education reform.

America did “win” the space race to the moon, but critics soon began to emerge and to claim that America would be at risk if education in the nation did not improve and change.

In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education released the report, A Nation at Risk.  The report began with these two paragraphs that left an indelible image in the minds of politicians and reformers:

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

This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

The “rising tide of mediocrity” was the phrase that called into question the way science (and other subjects) was being taught, and whether teachers had the competency to teach science and mathematics in a way that would result in America’s students and future workers could compete against citizens from other nations.

Jane Butler Kahle, a prominent science education researcher, characterized this period of reform as “courses and competency” and it led to a new set of requirements for students to graduate from high school, and encouraged states to require more science and mathematics courses for all students.  Sights were set on moving American students to the head of the class in comparisons with students in other countries.  In an influential report, Educating Americans for the 21st Century, the authors stated the basic objective for American education:

to provide all the nation’s youth with a level of education in mathematics, science, and technology, as measured by achievement scores and participation levels, that is not only the highest quality attained anywhere in the world, but also reflects the particular and peculiar needs of our nation.

Here is the first pronouncement that student achievement scores will be used in comparisons with other nations to measure the effectiveness of American science education, but it clearly implies a national view that the needs of our nation must be at the forefront of education.

Student achievement, as measured by bubble tests, is now the fundamental way to measure the effectiveness of schools, systems and individual teachers, and the strength of this argument had its roots in the 1980s and 1990s with this Federal report.

In 1985, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) created Project 2061 (the date when Halley’s Comet returns), a massive science education improvement project focusing on scientific literacy.  It’s first publication was an outline of the goals of science education and was published under the title Science for All Americans (Oxford, 1989).  As a long term project for improving science, mathematics, and technology education, Project 2061 is still an active player in the current reform efforts in the nation.

Project 2061 led the way, and was the foundation upon which the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were developed in 1996. The Standards in science had a profound impact on school science, and led to the development of some new textbooks, but perhaps more importantly the Standards became the benchmark upon which various states developed their own standards.

The economic viability of the nation has been relentlessly defined by politicans and educators, but especially U.S. governors, and corporate bodies that have used their vast resources to invest in a number of “innovations” including the creation of private charter schools that have been able to get state funding, the establishment of Common Core Standards in Math and Reading (Language Arts).  These standards were written by Achieve, an organization established by the National Governors Association.  All but two states have adopted the Common Core Standards.  The Common Core Standards speak to the economic argument in that these backers and developers of the Standards were concerned that some states did not have “rigorous” content and achievement standards, and that a single set ought to be developed, and all students should be held to this one set.

To get the country out of the Great Recession, the U.S. Government established the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009).  This $700 billion program provided about $100 billion for the U.S. Department of Education.  Setting aside part of the money, the Secretary of Education, created the Race to the Top Fund, which would enable the states to compete against each other to obtain part of the $4.5 billion Race to the Top Funds.  As part of the criteria for submitting a proposal (each state had to present a single proposal) each state had to adopt the Common Core Standards.   In the first round, only two states were funded.  Six months later, an additional 9 states were funded receiving grants from $200 million to more than $500 million.

The economy, according to the developers of these present reform effort, depends upon the “rigor” and quality of education in our schools.  Most of the reform effort supports charter schools, the use of high-risk tests to not only measure student learning, but to measure teacher effectiveness.  Using the “value-added” concept, the reformers have put into place assessment techniques that will hold schools and teachers accountable for student learning.

So why do we teach science?  The economic argument is a powerful answer to this question.  We teach science in the schools to help the nation produce enough scientists and engineers who will work in science and engineering careers, produce innovation, and wealth.

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.