Rethinking Science Education: An Overview

Notes for the Science in Society Brown Bag Conversations on
"Rethinking Science Education"
27 January 2006
Paul Grobstein

Notes from discussion

On line forum for continuing discussion

The Challenge:

"[T]here are new troubles in the peculiar form of paradise that science has created as well as new questions about whether it has the popular support to meet the future challenges" (New York Times, 2003)

The impact of science on culture has dramatically increased in the last century. Correspondingly, there have arisen new needs for careful consideration of the scientific enterprise itself, for more deliberate thinking about its engagements with and responsibilities towards the human cultures to which it contributes and from which it needs support. "Clearly something is turning Kate and her classmates away from careers in science" (Science, 16 December 2005) The percentage of American students pursuing educational programs leading to professional careers in the sciences has been declining, and there are continuing under-representations of many populations among professional scientists. "Connections between biology and the other scientific disciplines need to be developed and reinforced so that interdisciplinary thinking and work become second nature ... Equally importantly, teaching and learning must be made more active ..." (National Research Council, 2002) The nature of professional activity itself has been evolving substantially in recent decades, not only in biology but in all areas of science. While research defined by and contributing to particular disciplines continues to make important contributions to scientific understanding, there is an increasing richness of problems and advances that not only make use of but depend for their conception on significant exchange among scientists having different disciplinary perspectives. "In addition to full time scientists, we need educated citizens who can think critically about the science and technology choices so prominent in contemporary political life" (Science, 16 December 2005) Science literacy is increasingly important not only for professionals but for everyone, as a source of personal empowerment, as a foundation for effective participation in civic discourse, and as an ingredient in the diverse mix of experiences and perspectives on which science itself depends.
Develop educational programs that recognize the inter-relations among this diverse array of challenges and provide a foundation for addressing them in coordinated and mutually reinforcing ways.

Resources for Addressing the Challenge:

"We researchers pride ourselves in thinking scientifically in our laboratories. We gather data, formulate hypotheses, and suspect our own conclusions enough to test them rigorously ... When scientists step out of the lab into the classroom, they can apply these same principles: finding out what their students already know, reworking their methods to enhance understanding, and applying technology to support those efforts ..." (Science, 16 December 2005)

"the evolution of understandings of science is too important to be left solely in the hands of a closed community of scientists. What is needed is ... a more diverse array of human beings who have in common a shared sense of science as a valuable component of human culture and a willingness to shoulder the burden of making it into what it has the capability to become ... a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride." (Grobstein, 2005)

Make use of the scientific practices of continual collection of observations, and of repeated hypothesis generation, testing, and revision, all in an open, public arena.

Encourage the involvement in that arena of not only professional scientists but all people with relevant interests and expertise.

Notice and make productive use of commonalities and intersections among different contexts and challenges.

Some Suggested Guidelines for Curricular Innovation:

  1. Recognize that science education needs to address the needs of three distinct but inter-related populations, having differing but also common needs

  2. Recognize that for all populations, the most important thing to convey is a sense of science as proccess, not only in the past but also in the present and conceivable future. Actively, deliberately, and consistently avoid encouraging/allowing students to believe science is either "Truth" or primarily content.

  3. Recognize that, for all populations, it is valuable to appreciate the interconnectedness of distinct disciplinary lines of inquiry and to develop the inclination and skills needed to intersect them onself.

  4. Recognize that, for all populations, it is valuable to appreciate the interconnectedness of scientific inquiries and broader individual and social inquiries, issues, and concerns.

  5. Recognize that the three distinct populations not only have significant extent common needs but that one can also take advantage of their differences to address both common needs and distinctive ones.

Some Relevant Explorations, Examples, and Reflections in My Own Case


  • Common characteristics of most or all of these courses
    • A starting course "arc" including ideas and perspectives and associated observations which is subject to varying degrees of modification as the actual offering proceeds and students bring their own understanding/perspectives/observations to bear
    • Assigned readings rather than textbooks
    • On line forum discussion and web papers rather than examinations
    • Explicit commitment on the part of students to the education not only of themselves and others in the classroom but of the general public as well
  • It is in fact possible to develop and successfully teach "non-traditional" science courses for and with mixed student populations
    • Doing so requires the development of perspectives and skills different from those most of us acquired in our own earlier professional education
    • Doing so also requires persuading students (and colleagues) that course objectives different from those they might expect are appropriate and useful for them
    • Acquiring the needed perspectives and skills takes time and requires a willingness to experiment and fail. The process can be greatly facilitated by working with colleagues from other disciplines in a variety of contexts, including co-teaching.
    • Co-teaching in addition provides an effective modelling of the kind of interdisciplinary and continually challengeable inquiry one is hoping students will become better at themselves.


Post discussion notes

Enjoyed and appreciated the diversity of perspectives brought to bear. A little disappointed by the low numbers of science faculty involved, but that may be relevant in one way or another to the conversation/issues.

A few things that stuck in my mind, for my own continuing thinking and whatever use they might be to others ...

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