Adam Bly on science education and scientific literacy [Updated with my response]

[Originally posted May, 15, 2009]
(This semester our class had the opportunity to have Adam Bly of Seed Media Group as a guest speaker. I asked him his opinion on the role of education in scientific literacy, specifically for the piece I wrote and posted here earlier. The following is the response he sent me. Thanks Adam!)

At the heart of how I feel about science education is the idea that science should be used as a lens through which to look at the world, not just a subject to be taught. And further; science education goes on forever and should be available to everyone.

We live in a world where we now produce more information in a year than in all prior human history combined. Graduating college no longer means you know the essentials of your field. Fields merge and change with new data. Walls between scientific disciplines are torn down. Education must run parallel with any successful pursuit of a profession. We now see universities cater to this new reality. Many universities offer their course material for free. It’s a great model. What the universities can still offer exclusively to their paying students, is valuable access to professors and a network of other students.

But the bigger picture in my view of science education is a scientifically literate nation. That’s the goal. To have a population that understands scientific concepts and processes is more crucial to the progress of our country, than churning out a certain number of scientists and engineers.

In order to translate this ideal to the classrooms, teachers and anyone else in charge of shaping curriculums, must acknowledge science as a prime driving force in society. The teaching of natural sciences should be as actively connected to and engaged in current events and advancements as the social sciences are. Science education needs to be connected to science news.

A constant interaction between industry and the education system is obviously necessary to determine what’s essential knowledge for each field. A good initiative to accomplish this is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance (SEA), which arranges workshops around innovations in science education, inviting educators and experts from each field to learn and collaborate. I would also strongly encourage a more consorted effort to channel the findings of neuroscientists and social scientists that study the way we learn, into the education system.

As for the more hands on classroom experience, there are two aspects I’d like to highlight. Science is our knowledge of how the world works, and science education should lead to real understanding. There are many beautiful examples of how this is achieved. One is the story of Bob Moses, a parent in Cambridge who decided to teach algebra to his daughter’s middle school class. Upon discovering that the concepts of algebra remained abstract to the students despite weeks of training, Moses switched strategy and decided to take his students out of the classroom, around the city, matching each math problem with a real physical event. My own science education was similar. As a kid, our neighbor Dr. Kato was a scientist who took the time to show me how things worked through examples in his garden.

The other aspect is pure awe. Science uniquely lends us the ability to access the invisible. When we are empowered by science to zoom out – experience the enormity and depth of our planet and space, and zoom in – recognize the details of ourselves and the world, it humbles us in the best possible way. It evokes a sense of wonder. It gives a taste for the thrill of discovery. It shows us the systems in which things fit.

If I were in charge of setting a science curriculum, that’s what I would keep as my guiding light: the connection to the real world, the connection to science’s role in shaping the world, but, most importantly, the sheer beauty of it all.

Adam Bly
Editor-in-chief, Seed

[Updated response]

I agree with him that scientific literacy is a extremely critical. I also agree that teachers and authorities in control of curriculum must recognize their role in building the foundations for a scientifically literate society. There are many teachers whom I know personally that are doing great things in their classrooms, including hands-on learning and field trips integrated with science content.

I also would like point out that these teachers are usually at schools that are already more progressive than others, and are typically also not public schools. Schools whose students have a hard time keeping up in math and reading may not have the resources to bulk up their science programs. Math and reading often trumps science, even though as Adam Bly implied, it has a more intuitive driving force which is the want to understand our world which we are in awe of.

There are so many things working against science education, which includes lack of funding, resources, but also lack of support from our culture. In many parts of the country, people’s views on evolution have pitted religious communities against the scientific community. This is a large waste of time and effort, in my opinion, but it is still a reality that must be dealt with. I often think about how the cultural barriers may be overcome, and it has brought be back to many of the points Adam Bly made in his commentary, but also I think a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which some scientists are working on updating.

It is an interesting psychological and philosophical question of whether we can take on these larger issues without first fulfilling the first few rungs of the hierarchy (physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization). I would argue that many people in our country are stuck at the 3rd and 4th rungs (love/belonging and esteem) and that thinking about bigger things, like the beauty of the world and environment we live in, do not occur until we reach the last rung of self-actualization.


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