Sculpting the Scientific Mind

By Leela Velautham

November 22, 2016

The stereotypical scientist works alone in physical and psychological isolation. She spends large amounts of time in the lab, collecting facts and following one universal scientific method. Once in a while, she has moments of inspiration, leading to important discoveries. Such stereotypes die hard.

In reality, however, science is social and messy. It moves forward in tiny steps, and isolated moments of inspiration or discovery are rare. Science is not right or wrong: instead, as a community, scientists slowly move towards a greater truth.

The enigmatic reality of research is quite different from how science is portrayed in science education. In middle school science classes, for instance, students learn that Darwin discovered evolution, and Einstein discovered relativity. The complexities and realities of both stories of discovery are often lost.

As a result, students are leaving school without understanding how science is produced. While some consequences are obvious—students are leaving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) before they know what it’s like—other consequences are more subtle. Educators are still figuring out how to improve science education, from kindergarten to the college level.

Teaching a process

Many Americans do not understand the basic mechanism behind global warming. A 2015 study showed that up to 30 percent of Americans do not believe that climate change is real, and many more are not worried about its consequences.

Michael Ranney, a UC Berkeley professor of cognitive psychology at the Graduate School of Education, wondered whether a short instructional video could improve understanding and acceptance of global warming. Remarkably, Ranney found that the brief video did improve acceptance across the board, regardless of political affiliation.

“Science helps society know how the world does and doesn’t work,” Ranney explains. “It’s important for the public to understand and trust science so that they can progressively know what is correct and ‘forget’ what is incorrect, such as hoaxes or unfounded conspiracy theories.”

Ranney’s research suggests that improved scientific literacy can affect how people view politicized science topics, such as global warming and evolution. Indeed, improved scientific literacy is a greatly utilized and oft-quoted argument for teaching students about the nature and practices of science. Some educators argue that citizens who are scientifically literate will be better prepared to assess important issues such as global warming, genetically modified foods, alternative medicine, and fracking—both at the ballot box and during their daily lives.

The term "scientific literacy" was first adopted in the 1950s—a time when people were generally wary of science, which had been shown during the war to have the potential for destruction. The 1950s, however, were also a time of exciting and forward-looking technological advances such as the launch of Sputnik. The signature goal of science education at this time was to produce students who would think like scientists—that is, to be familiar with and supportive of scientific endeavours, and go on to take up scientific careers.

However, since that time, scientific literacy has evolved to encompass a much broader definition. In the 1970s, the National Science Teachers Association identified a scientifically literate person as someone who “uses scientific concepts, processes, skills, and values in making everyday decisions.” More recently, some have argued that science should be taught in relation to important aspects of contemporary life—i.e. chemistry in the context of global warming—to give students the ability to make decisions and take action about science-related social issues.

Credit: Benjamin Obadia Credit: Benjamin Obadia

As a result, some science education is now organized around the processes and nature of science, rather than teaching of facts alone. Educators hope that these strategies will create informed citizens who understand key pieces of the scientific process—for example, the importance of logical reasoning when considering two competing arguments. Or perhaps more importantly, these strategies could help students understand that controversy in science—rather than undermining or discrediting scientific knowledge—is actually a healthy part of the scientific process, leading researchers toward a more accurate truth.

Evidence suggests that learning how science works, and what the day-to-day life of a scientist entails, can also affect students’ motivation and increase participation in science. To illustrate this, a team from Columbia University studied how changing the narrative of scientific discoveries—for example, discussing the intellectual or personal struggles of famous scientists involved rather than simply their achievements—altered student learning. For instance, rather than stating that Marie Curie was the first woman to receive a degree in physics at the Sorbonne, the researchers emphasized that many of her experiments ended in failure. They told students that she had to study for her school exams in secret because she was a woman at a time when most people didn’t approve of women going to school. The researchers found that personalizing science improved both student learning and students’ belief in their own ability to do science.

What is the nature of science?

In 1962, an American physicist named Thomas Kuhn argued that science should be viewed as a series of processes, not as a fixed body of knowledge. Science isn’t a steady, cumulative acquisition of knowledge, and it’s not based on a fixed method, he argued. Instead, scientific practices depend on the historical context in which they occur.

Around the same time, sociologists began to study science more closely. They unearthed a significant social dimension to the scientific enterprise—surprise, scientists are people too! Researchers found that arguing, communicating, and collaborating with peers is a central part of scientific work.

In contrast, several studies have suggested that American science education reinforces the view that science is about finding the single “right” answer or method. Norman Lederman, professor of science and math education at the Illinois Institute of Technology, examined over 40 years of research on student and teacher conceptions of the nature of science. Lederman’s research showed that students consistently perceived science as a collection of observations rather than a creative, idea-driven enterprise. Seventh-graders, for example, were more likely to view scientists as fact-collectors rather than theory-builders. This strongly-held misconception permeates all stages of education.

Science teachers can perpetuate such a misconception. The studies reviewed by Lederman also demonstrated that the majority of teachers do not fully understand the scientific process. For instance, a significant portion of teachers believe that scientific knowledge is fixed rather than tentative. This attitude is uncontested in teacher training programs across the country. Traditionally, such teaching programs discuss conceptual teaching skills—how to conduct discussion, grade fairly, and encourage participation. Even in STEM-specific teaching programs, students are expected to have already accrued a background in science, and to come to the program with a ready-formed understanding of how science is conducted.

Curriculum materials and state standards can additionally restrict a teacher’s leeway. In 2012, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank based in Ohio, described the US state standards as "mediocre to awful." One of the main complaints was that states weren’t providing enough guidance for teachers on how to integrate concepts of scientific inquiry—a fundamental process of science—into their lessons. A 2015 analysis of curriculum materials by the American Association for the Advancement of Science also indicated that many science and math textbooks commonly used by teachers failed to help students learn key ideas about science, particularly the processes of science.

The outcome, in the words of Frederick Reif and Jill Larkin, professors of education and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, respectively, is that “science taught in schools is often different from actual science and from everyday life.” This agrees with former chemistry graduate student Beatriz Brando’s experience of science class: “I enjoyed science, but I remember it was very cookie cutter. Secondary school science was mostly memorization. Those lessons didn’t prepare me at all for the research I was doing in the lab.”

The difficulties of teaching science

Even if researchers and policymakers agree that science education should change, the question of how to improve it is a challenging one. On a K-12 level, educators are beginning to implement Next Generation Science Standards, a set of new education standards developed by a consortium of states, teacher associations, and nonprofit organizations across 16 states, including California.

Traci Grzymala is the program manager of Bay Area Scientists in Schools, a science and engineering volunteer program for elementary schools in the East Bay. She says the new standards work to shift education away from textbooks and lectures. “The big shift is transitioning . . . to an inquiry-based curriculum,” Grzymala says, adding that students will be “really understanding how to approach problems and questions ... think[ing] about them critically and scientifically, to really make sense of the world.”

For instance, whereas before students might learn about the phases of the Moon from textbooks or videos, or being told directly by a teacher, students might now be asked to build a model to explain the different phases. Students may then design an investigation to test their model and be asked to argue with their peers as to why the model is correct. These lessons are designed to encourage students to think like a professional scientist—a shift from teaching “what” to teaching “how” and “why."

Such a shift to a more active, inquiry-based curriculum not only reflects what scientists do in the lab more accurately—it also reflects contemporary education and cognitive science research on the best ways for people to learn.

BASIS volunteers are scientists and engineers who generously donate their time and enthusiasm to bring hands-on science lessons directly to students. Credit: BASIS volunteers are scientists and engineers who generously donate their time and enthusiasm to bring hands-on science lessons directly to students. Credit:

Numerous studies have shown that introducing active learning activities before or during lectures results in deeper learning and understanding. For instance, one study examined learning outcomes when instructors switched their physics classes from lecturing to active learning, where class time was divided between computer-based activities and small-group problem solving. With active learning techniques, student learning improved from around 12 percent to over 50 percent, with active learning students scoring significantly higher on a conceptual knowledge test than non-active learners.

Next Generation Science Standards in California push teachers to incorporate active education techniques. While this shift in teaching style is supported by education research, it’s not entirely clear how teachers will put these standards into practice. “We have this great framework, but we don’t actually yet have the implementation for how it’s going to look in reality in the classroom,” says Grzymala. “Right now, the curriculum is being developed, and ways to assess curriculum effectiveness are being developed as well, so we’re still figuring out what that division will look like in the classroom.”

In college classes, teachers often have to consider even larger numbers of students with more diverse backgrounds and goals. Imagine you are assigned to teach a large, required class in your department. The class is geared toward non-majors, with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and coming from science and non-science backgrounds. You have a certain amount of assigned content that must be covered, but the rest is left up to you.

Given that most of your students will not go on to study this subject—perhaps not even go on to study science in any form—and most likely have little interest in the field, what do you want them to take away from the class? How is that going to affect what material is taught—and, perhaps more significantly, how that material is taught?

This is similar to the situation that was faced by Michelle Douskey, a lecturer in the chemistry department who organizes course material and curricula, when she first took the reins of Chemistry 1B. Chemistry 1B is an introductory chemistry course that is required for a diverse population of non-chemistry majors, with students studying civil engineering, pre-health tracks, and many others.

Douskey says that she wanted to focus less on specific content and more on an overall appreciation of chemistry and its relevance and applications to different disciplines. “A non-major might not need the same depth of material as a student majoring in the discipline,” she says, adding that she was keen to emphasize the processes of doing science so that “students are actually thinking about something, so that it’s research-like.”

Outside of the classroom, some scientists are taking matters into their own hands by building tools and resources for the public to better understand the nature of science. One such website, Understanding Science, is produced by the UC Museum of Paleontology. This award-winning website provides an accessible overview of what science is and how it works, including answers to common misconceptions. Resources targeted to students and teachers are available.

The site’s principal editor, Anna Thanukos, says that the website was motivated in part by common language misconceptions, such as what “theory” means in everyday life compared to its scientific definition.

“To many, science may seem like an arcane, ivory-towered institution—but that impression is based on a misunderstanding of science,” Thanukos writes on the website’s front page. “Science can be fun and is accessible to everyone.”

The challenges of active teaching

Even though the active learning approach has many benefits, it hasn’t been universally accepted. Implementing more open-ended labs, for instance, usually requires more resources and hence are more expensive and time-intensive to plan. Others argue that if teachers take time to do activities in lecture, they limit the amount of content they can cover. When students leave a class without specific vocabulary and facts, they may be unprepared for their next class, and maybe even their future career.

Michelle Douskey giving a class. Credit: Ryan Forster Michelle Douskey giving a class. Credit: Ryan Forster

In addition, students themselves might not be so keen on these new techniques. Douskey explains that it can be challenging to incorporate techniques into classes when students are familiar with the traditional lab and lecture format. “Sometimes students are really appreciative, and sometimes there’s resistance,” she says. “I think it gets back to their preconceived notions of what a chemistry or science class is.” She adds that some students are just more comfortable with lecture and passive memorization, “so sometimes you have to sell them on the idea that they have to think for themselves.”

“At the very least they need to think for themselves on an exam, but hopefully, as a science person, they’re thinking for themselves all the time,” Douskey adds.

Student resistance to, and frustrations with, active learning approaches are at times shared by graduate student instructors. One chemistry graduate student says that it can take a lot of prodding to help students think for themselves, especially if a student isn’t used to independent thinking and active learning.

“There has to be a certain amount of buy-in from the students, and willingness to do the work,” the graduate student instructor said. “If they don’t agree to play along, it really doesn’t work well. My opinion of open-ended learning is that if it is done well, it can be really great and a lot better than traditional approaches. However, if it is not done well, it is worse than even traditional approaches done badly.”

Making it work

However you decide to teach is not going to keep everyone happy. As Douskey points out, “Unfortunately, there’s not really a one-size-fits-all set of pieces to the curriculum. A solution for one person—for example, online homework to encourage keeping up with classwork—can be stupid or time-wasting for others.”

Normally, professors implement a few active learning techniques in lab, and hope that this will trickle down to students’ understanding of science as a process. There is no perfect solution, and perhaps there never will be, but research in the education field is showing us that some approaches are better than others for teaching students about the nature of science.

Faced with your own lecture course, what would you do? One thing is for sure—your teaching style will have an impact on student learning experiences. In a society that has yet to embrace the realities of climate change and, in some places, even evolution, perhaps it is time to rethink our priorities in STEM education.

Feature image credit: Benjamin Obadia

This article is part of the Fall 2016 issue.

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