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Science Education: Listening to the Canaries in the Mind Shaft

Introductory Science Education:

What's Wrong? How Can It Be Done Better?

Paul Grobstein
September 2007


The Canaries in the Mine Shaft: A Case Study

Biology 103 is a one-semester college introductory biology course intended for college students who may or may not go on to further work in the sciences, and which focuses less on content and more on "open-ended transactional inquiry" as a mechanism to encourage students to develop enhanced understanding of biology themselves and for their own purposes. Following the first week of the course, students were asked to write in an open on-line forum about what science is. The following comments from that forum are provided as observations relevant to further thinking about science education. They seem worth thinking about with the following questions in mind

  • What isn't working in introductory science education?
  • What might work better?
  • How relevant is this particular set of thoughts for other populations of students?
    • students who are already more committed to science?
    • students taking other introductory science courses? introductory courses in other fields?
    • students taking more advanced courses
    • students taking introductory science at other educational levels?
  1. The traditional scientific method, as I learned it back in high school, was so procedural, and I feel like I never really got anything out of it. When we were in lab partners/groups, we had to try so hard NOT to make even the tiniest mistakes to get the RIGHT answer. I was more worried about following the rules than figuring out what happens. But shouldn't it be okay to make those tiniest mistakes in experiments in order to see what happens when something isn't right? Aren't inconsistencies what makes someone think for themselves ... As we talked about in class today, science isn't the truth nor is it right, it's just less wrong. I'm liking this class already.

  2. Very interesting class today. What a different approach. I like it a lot-it seems like it will help with critical thinking and analyzing material, not just memorizing a textbook. A new way to think about science. Really loved the bit about observations being summary rather than truth.

  3. The majority of kids are not even concious of the unproductiveness found in their classroom. They have just been conditioned to just get the "right" answer so that they can erase it from there memory and move on to the next subject.

  4. So far I'm really liking this course because it practically employs a lot of the theories we read about by people like John Dewey and Paulo Freire. Educational theorists talk a lot about the need for education to be the joint discovery of knowledge between a teacher and a student, but this rarely actually happens. I would say a lot of the "unproductive" teaching has to do with meeting standards set by standardized tests, which really require memorization of things like a standard experimental procedure and the "Scientific Method."

  5. The class discussions have brought about a new understanding and realization about science for me. The 'loopy story-telling' perspective makes so much sense especially when compared to the traditional perspective. The idea that science as a process is not linear but rather loopey is very true because you never know as to what will happen the next time the observation is tested. That is why you can never prove a summary to be true but you can prove it to be false. I never even thought to take this type of understanding into account because I have grown up with the traditional method of either you got the right answer or you got the wrong answer.

  6. I'm enjoying this class a lot because there is an element of discovery to it that was never present in my other science classes. The labs we did in those classes only served to prove someone else's point. Rarely did we understand what we were doing; we went through the motions. Rarely did we develop our own experiments to question problems we had thought up. And we never had class discussions for the purpose of inquiry or to try and learn from one another.

  7. I was afraid of taking a science class because I thought it was going to be learning from a text book and there wouldn't be a lot of discussion. I got completely the opposite and I LIKE it. I am really enjoying our discussion that science is a bunch of stories, not about TRUTH!! There is no conclusion, you can only make more and more observations. Whenever I did something in science, there was a right answer and a wrong answer, which made science seem like there was no room for error. I mean in high school, everytime we turned in lab reports, we pretty much all turned in the exact same assignment, so BORING!! We have already learned so much in class about science and ourselves. I mean I never thought I would be able to say that, "I am a scientist and I have been since I left my mother's womb." I am glad to be in a class where it is good to be wrong sometimes. In fact, it's better because then you get to go back and find your mistakes and try to fix them and if you're wrong again, you just have more and more observations to make.

  8. After the discussion we had in class on Friday, I realized how much sense the non-traditional scientific theory made to me. I had always considered science to be a bunch of facts, and was often shocked when I listened to the news and heard of breakthroughs and changes that disputed these "facts". When I completed experiments for myself in high school and got "abnormal results", I always assumed I had done something incorrectly or just simply was wrong. Now I understand that the entire basis of science is OBSERVATIONS.

  9. The discussion we had in class on Friday really opened up a whole new meaning of Science to me. At first science was always just about these experiments that had been done and proved something to be "true". But since we've established that there can be an alternative observation in a certain situation we cannot simply prove anything to be right. In addition to the other side of the story is the crack which i believe definitely exists and may be a major deciding factor in deciding whether the summary needs replacing or not. I believe approaching science in this manner will lead us to seeing science with better understanding and a more open scope to new ideas.

  10. In my high school science courses I remember that we were always told "science can never be proven, only disproven". It soon became a mantra that everyone had memorized and was taught to say, even if they necessarily may not have believed it or understood it. While I did understand some of the basic concepts behind this idea, I never got to study it as in depth as we have in this class so far.

  11. The discussion in class on Friday made me think of science in a completely new way. I like the idea of science being a series of stories that can’t be proven true. Going back on the ideas of the earth revolving around the sun and the story of the earth being round and not flat have been ideas that many of us have believed because these are things we have been taught in school. There was never a time when I really ever questioned or thought to question these beliefs until now. I feel that I am really going to enjoy this class because it is not the traditional biology class, with this class, we will be able to question many theories and come up with our own conclusions.

  12. Until this class I had no idea that Biology could be a discussion class. The Biology class I took in high school involved memorizing textbook pages and multiple choice tests. I definitely like the format of this class better. I feel like I am being given the chance to actually think about the material instead of just repeating what the teacher says. The idea of science as a story is simple, and yet compared to the way I was taught previously it seems revolutionary.

  13. Being tied to only one answer (and to a textbook) was the way that I had studied science all throughout my high school years, but after beginning this class it's taught me to constantly question everything and to look for ways to negate current theories. I really look forward to studying through this new approach!

  14. I took two years of biology in high school, one honors course and one AP course... and while I found both classes interesting, the discussions that took place mostly focused on finding a correct answer or identifying a solution or discussing the "right" answers to a lab we had performed in class. I accepted that method and never questioned it until now. I've always understood that science is tentative, that there's always room for growth and change; that's why theories are "theories" and not "laws. But I never considered the fact that there was no "truth." This idea, coupled with the idea of science as storytelling, makes me even more excited to pursue Biology in college.

  15. To be honest, I was a little bit worried in the beginning. A typical science class (at least in my head) evolved around textbooks and lectures by the teacher. Unlike humanities related classes, there were fixed answers and anything that differed from these set answers were shunned as incorrect. The occasional lab sessions existed only to strengthen the position of these set answers and when students had different results, they would be punished with a low grade. Being accustomed to such science courses, I was a little bit shocked by the unique way this class was conducted. There was no Holy Grail of ultimate truth. The only certainty that seemed to exist was that everything is uncertain and science merely exists to classify the likelihood of each prediction. One of the reasons why I became a political science major (instead of taking the math and science route, a very popular road for Koreans) was because I didn’t like how little room one had for creativity in this world of fixed answers. However, with this class I am beginning to realize that there is more to science than that and think that our class if off to a great beginning

  16. As everyone else has said, this class rocks! I spent most of my time in high school science classes reminding myself not to doodle in the margins of my notes. But now, I am finding science/biology engrossing, something that I want to know more about. I like the loopy-observation method because it challenges the traditional boring idea of the scientific method. But it also makes a lot more sense to me than the traditional method because I'm an English major. This way of looking at science is like the way I read a book or construct an argument in a paper. In high school science felt like something I had to take, that I should accept that I would never be good at it, but now I'm starting to think that I am able to relate to and understand science.

  17. I love having the flexibility of figuring out my own story from what I observe rather than have something told and be forced to take it as the Truth.

Some additional relevant sets of observations

Additional observations, interpretations, directions

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