Science Education: The Standards that Matter

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Recently Scientific American published an article calling for raising the standards of science education. That made me ask: what are the standards for our science students and how would we measure them? And what are we missing when we emphasize scientific facts over the scientific process?

Science Anxiety

In journalism, some articles seem perennial. One of the most common templates reads “students in our country are X points below the nation of Y in area of study Z.” Substitute in particular values for X, Y, and Z, and presto, you have a gripping story that parents and politicians will eat up. And I fell for it as much as anyone when I read an article in Scientific American calling for higher standards for science in US schools.

The Scientific American article sent me on a search for the actual standards for science education in the US. I looked at two distinct sources and found two different answers. When I looked at the published “science standards” proposed by educators, I found it heavy in regurgitation of facts, with a far bit of verbiage dedicated to teaching effective measurement, record keeping, and clear communication of scientific data and conclusions. Not bad, but it seems to me (as a life-long science nut and former researcher in Psychology and Computer Science), that some ingredients are missing. I’ll say more about this “missing matter” later.)

I also checked into the tests given to American students to assess these learning goals. These instruments paint a far different picture. Here it seems that nearly every question called for some form of regurgitated scientific facts. The test makers have my sympathy: it’s far easier to test for mere retention than what I would consider the heart of the scientific mindset and process. Nevertheless, while a student who can ace these tests may have a very good memory and may be able to focus his attention for longer periods that his peers in order to absorb the material, I would not consider success on these kinds of tests as a mark of a promising future in the sciences, nor would I be particularly alarmed if children in other nations were better at these tests than our own. From my own personal experience, standardized testing is for the most part an academic parlor trick. Many of the educational opportunities offered me during my undergraduate years were due to my ability to master standardized testing rather than the subject matter itself.

Real Skills for Real Scientists

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Let me state up front that factual knowledge is a legitimate part of science education. My argument is with making that factual knowledge the be-all and end-all of science education. Science is far more than mere knowledge, and indeed I believe that the process of science is more core and more important to students than the facts that science produces.

Philosophy and Values

When someone says they’re a scientist, they’re really adopting a particular mindset and a set of ethics. At the bedrock of science is the premise that knowing the truth about the universe we live in is a goal worth pursuing. Built on top of this is an epistemology: how do we search for truth and know it when we find it? Science answers that we approach truth by proposing hypotheses that may or may not be true, testing them, and eliminating the hypotheses that don’t match the data.

Scientists also adopt certain attitudes, most notably skepticism. To a scientist, saying something is unquestionable is wrong at a gut level. Scientists develop a healthy distrust of their hypotheses, their measurements, their thinking, and their math. The scientific answer to these fallible methods is diligence, peer review, and replication. Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman may have said it best: “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself…and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Science and Politics

Much is made of the teaching of evolution in classrooms. While the evidence supporting evolution far exceeds the level needed to teach it as far and away the best explanation for complex organisms, the backlash from religion continues unabated and allies itself with politicians who can influence what is taught in schools. I believe this phenomenon should be part of science education itself: that science exists in competition with other alleged sources of truth, and when the scientific answers don’t agree with the orthodoxy, social and political friction ensues. This phenomenon is as much a part of science as the atomic number of silicon, and all people learning the scientific method should understand it.

Thinking with Science

Scientists have developed a brilliant mental toolset for working with hypotheses, experimentation, and data. Knowing just a few of the tools scientists apply daily can improve almost anyone’s life. For instance: suppose I can’t get to the Internet on my smartphone. What could be causing that? Maybe my phone is broken, or the network has a problem. Perhaps even the web site I’m trying to reach has gone down. There: I’ve just generated three hypotheses. I’ve also broken down the problem into parts that can be tested individually and in isolation: that’s analytical thinking. Now I can go about testing some of them. I get on my PC and reach the website. Therefore it’s not the server. I am able to use other parts of my phone, so I’m skeptical that my phone is the problem. What about the network? Maybe I have a weak signal. So I step outside and now I get a connection. Many adults do this so fluidly we fail to recognize the scientific foundation of this kind of thought.

We also don’t realize there are more advanced tools in the scientific toolkit we may neglect to use in our everyday lives, such as the mathematics that scientists use to deal with inaccuracies and variability in data. Most adults, if they budget at all, budget as if they have perfect knowledge of their income and expenses. Then real life happens and they have a surprise bill or their hours are cut and they’re stuck with no reserves. If they had the scientific attitude that measurements are inaccurate, they could have made allowances for the variability in their monthly budget and built in some margin for error.

Science with Feeling

Some people see scientists as cold and dispassionate people. Perhaps we should blame Star Trek’s Mr. Spock? While the philosophy of science seems consonant with a lack of feeling, in the real world, scientists — especially great scientists — are almost always passionate about their work. Richard Feynman, in his typically irreverent style, explained that “Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

Carl Sagan made his mark on science television not by explaining the basics of cosmology better than the next talking head, but because he was able to convey his own amazement at the discoveries that scientific inquiry provides. Knowing even a tiny amount about astronomy, to look up at the night sky and understand that almost every dot of light we see is another sun not unlike our own, and that they have burned for billions of years before we humans were around to see them, and that the light reaching earth has itself been travelling for billions of years over trillions upon trillions of miles is to feel a sense of awe missing from our everyday lives.

Students may know every classification of rock, recite the periodic table from memory, and name all the bones in the human body, and yet if they fail to experience the confusion of an unexpected experimental result, the triumph of reaching a better explanation for the data, or the wonder of a starry night, then that student can scarcely be said to have known science at all.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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