The Scientific Temper.

Does better science education create more rational human beings? Bruce Alberts thinks so.

For those of you not in the know, Bruce Alberts is the editor-in-chief of Science and a former president of the National Academy of Sciences. On Thursday Alberts spoke at Harvard University, his alma mater (where he both went to college and earned his Ph.D.), explaining why and how science education in America needs to change.

People stood in the back of the room and sat in the stairwells of the lecture hall, while Alberts explained how in 1996, while he was president, the Academy released a set of science education standards that sought to put the emphasis on abstract thinking and active inquiry.

The plan outlined experiments for even children as young as five. For example, the children could put on clean white socks and walk around in the school yard, collecting dirt and seed on their socks like animals do on their fur. Back in the classroom, they could then try and separate what they thought were seeds from what they thought was dirt, using inexpensive plastic microscopes. To test their hypotheses, the kids could plant both the seeds and the dirt to see which grew.

Unfortunately, what happened next Alberts refers to as a “disaster.” The states all chose different parts of the 1996 standards to adopt, and most of what was left out was the focus on abstract thinking and active learning. Instead, students’ science education focuses on memorization and word recognition.

So how do you overhaul science education across the country? It seems an insurmountable problem to tackle, but Alberts has set his sights on a single target— colleges and universities.

According to him, the problem isn’t just in primary and secondary education, its at the post-secondary level as well. Colleges batch-process science students in massive lecture halls, teach discrete subjects that correspond with faculty departments, cater to the fossilized pre-medical school requirements and research everything except the best way to teach for students to learn and become engaged.

Alberts is looking to Harvard to lead the change in colleges and universities across the country, but he says there is already hope for change coming from all over. He cited the SERP Institute, and the 2009 recommendation for no formal premedical school course requirements as examples.

For his part, Alberts says it’s “great to have control of the editorial page.” During his tenure at Science, he’s run issues exploring the connection between science, language and literacy, as well as started a competition for the best free science education websites.

To finish, Alberts flashed an old picture of himself, sitting with other science academy presidents from all over the world in a Swiss McDonalds. He says they all agree that governments need to find long-term solutions to their problems. To do that, Alberts believes science education that focuses on active inquiry and abstract thinking could foster a “scientific temper,” a nation full of people who look at the world with skepticism and a rational view.

It’s a lofty goal, but somebody has to have it.


2 thoughts on “The Scientific Temper.

  1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take our schools outdoors once in a while.
    I remember when my son’s (who is 5 years old) supply teacher told me why she loves his school so much. She said that they do not teach subjects where you allot time for science, then math, etc. open those books, and then close them. She said that at this school, Alex is learning in a much more abstract way. By planting bulbs in the fall, by milling flaxseed for bread making, and hearing stories through song and rhyme, he is learning in accordance to his natural interest in all of life’s wonders. Sounds similar to Alberts white socks example.
    Thanks Katy!

  2. In the UK we’re strangled by a test-heavy National Curriculum that side-lines anything that can’t be reduced to a set of statistics. It’s easy to test kids on knowledge, much harder to assess them on rational, scientific thinking skills (it takes time, which teachers simply don’t have). We also seem to have adopted a ridiculously excessive Health and Safety culture whereby children are discouraged from doing anything perceived as ‘dangerous’. Experiments are watched on video or read about on dreary PowerPoint slides. Children are told not to walk under conker trees in case they get hit on the head by a conker. As a result inquisitive exploration is replaced by worksheets, multiple choice exams and ‘measured outcomes’. Bruce Alberts is right, and it’s not just the US, it’s all over the world where we need an overhaul of science ed.

    Thanks for the post!

    Dr J

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