From Serendip
Notes for a presentation by Paul Grobstein at the first
Dialogue on The Changing Roles of Mathematics and Science in Society:
"Science, Technology, and Society: Ethical Awareness for Tomorrow's Leaders"

Organized by the Center at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Adler Planetarium, Chicago, 3 April, 2003 (text available here)

A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century:
Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together

The Challenge from the 20th Century:
"Two Cultures"

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two groups. When I say the intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be distinguished ... Literary intellectuals at one pole - at the other scientists ... Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension - sometimes (particularly among the young) hostitility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding ... This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss, and I repeat that it is false to imagine that those three considerations are clearly separable.

C.P. Snow, 1959

If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and the humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized ... The future of the liberal arts lies ... in addressing the fundamental questions of human existence head on, without embarrassment or fear, taking them from the top down in easily understandable language, and progressively rearranging them into domains of inquiry that unite the best of science and the humanities at each level of organization in turn.

E.O. Wilson, Consilience, 1998

Beginning the 21st Century:
Recognizing the Problem and the Need for Common Ground

Diversity and Discovery Institute 2000
from a program of Bryn Mawr College summer institutes for K-12 educators

My personal view of science for many years was, well, summed up with one word, "Yuck!"; in primary school it was undistinguishable from the morass of general information we learned from uninspiring textbooks and well-meaning, but insipid teachers. Middle school was worse: sterile classrooms in which science was lectured at us, and labs were limited to teacher demonstrations with very little student-centered learning. ... Along with college pretty much came the exit of science from my life. .... Karen Cohen (High school english teacher)

In the past I would have stated that science is discovery performed by highly trained and specialized people. This was parttially due to my phobia of science as a subject. It was something you had to take in class and you had to make sense of it. The discovery piece was missing. Science came from a textbook with very little experimentation or discovery because all of the answers were written on paper, you just needed to read and understand them. ... I have discovered there still exists a cultural gap in our educational system as it relates to science. There are teacher preparation programs that continue to steer clear of the sujbect unless you have declared science to be your area of certification. So we know where that leaves the K-8 educator. This in turn becomes apparent in some classroms where we continue to breed a group of young people who are phobic about science because the person doing the standing and delivering is not comfortable with the subject matter. ... Janet Middleton (Middle school teacher)

Science has always been regarded as a very different approach to life. In fact I used to think that it was a way of life for some wierd people. Actually people see scientists as nerds in the society ... Ayatola Oronti (High school science teacher)

The culture gap in education between science and non-science is vast. One only has to talk to a non-scientist to see this. For example, students and non-science teachers frequently feel that most science classes are challenging if not intimidating/anathema. .... The very terminology we use when discussing the different education classes creates a gulf between science and non-science ... The extensive terminology or the "language of science" is enough to intimidate the bravest of souls. ... Francis Peagler (Middle school teacher)

the scientist places a front where his credibility must stay intact.The reason why I enjoy reading into cryptozoology is the front comes down and the process is more evident.I feel it should become a part of the curriculum in science because it challenges the imagination and teaches to probe ... Maxine Tumaine (Middle school teacher)

most students from the inner city do not have the opportunity to experience the experiments the textbooks suggest. For example, when discussing a unit on plants, students were asked to list as many flowers as they could in their neighborhood and collect them. Unfortunately, students commented that there weren't any flowers. In fact, most students had not even heard of anything, except for a rose ... Nayjuana Woodberry (Middle school teacher)

another egregious error: that is, maintaining the status quo in keeping the disciplines distinctly separate and apart from one another in order to achieve what they believe to be academic integrity ... The nature of the outside world, global, ever-changing, technological,needs schools that provide a microcosm that reflects the dynamics and overlapping arenas of the real world .... Karen Cohen (High school english teacher)

Oh, if we became scientists with sentiment and excitement [in] fantasy as well as [in] "truth" what a world, what a universe! ... Maxine Tumaine (Middle school teacher)

Re-Visioning the Core of "Science":
Getting It "Less Wrong " Rather Than "Right"


One way to think of "science" ...

A less wrong way?


  1. "Science" is a process, rather than a body of "facts" or fixed understandings
  2. "Science" is something everybody is equipped to do at birth and does much of the time, rather than a specialized activity done only by specially trained people under particular circumstances
  3. "Science" is BOTH focused/analytical/critical AND synthetic/intuitive/creative.
  4. "Science" is an ongoing process of "getting it less wrong", rather than of getting it "right".
    • Science cannot, need not, and does not deal in "Truth"
    • Being "wrong" is a fundamental, essential, and inevitable component of "science", rather than something to be avoided or criticized
    • It is the business of science to question and challenge, rather than to affirm or comfort or "fix" (though the last is likely to occur as a by-product, and perhaps the first two as well)
  5. "Science" is "play" ... and like all play it is both fun/risky and dangerous/productive
  6. "Science" is "story telling", a social activity which derives its power (and makes its contributions) precisely insofar as it succeeds in bringing into the ongoing process the widest possible range of individuals and their own stories.

Towards a 21st Century Utopia?
Some Useful Elaborations?

The brain as a generative agent: implications for science, education ... and the human condition?

Phase One:

The brain/student is regarded as a "tabula rasa" or blank slate, on which experiences/teaching act to "sculpt" a functional brain/educated person. The educational need is for clear, organized, and appropriate "input".

Phase Two:

It is recognized that the brain/student has, when they enter any given classroom, substantial pre-existing internal organization. Brains/students are different from one another internally, with distinctive abilities, expectations, and perspectives. The educational need is to create different forms of "clear, organized, and appropriate input", as needed for each student.

Phase Three:

It is recognized that the brain/student has autonomous exploratory inclinations/capabilities. Outputs, along with expectations of resulting input, are internally generated; learning occurs as a result of comparisons between the expected and the actually experienced inputs. The educational need is to create environments within which brains/students can effectively and productively explore, with learning as the result.

What's next ... beyond phase three? Learning more about the balance of freedom and structure which optimizes effective and productive exploration? Recognizing that the balance may be different for different students? For different educational tasks/environments?

The bipartite brain as a story-teller/story-sharer: Trusting and bridging the synthetic/intituive/imaginative and the focused/analytical/creative

The interaction of brains: Science/story telling as a social activity

The world wide web as an educational arena and facilitator of community science/story-telling

Some personal samples/explorations:

Freshman Seminar

Introductory Biology

Neurobiology and Behavior

Center for Science in Society
Bryn Mawr College

Summary and ... Conclusions?

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