The Chemistry Fear: Formulas for Reducing Student's Science Anxiety

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Our citizenry is scientifically illiterate. Ill-equipped to make the most important sorts of political decisions--those with a technical or scientific component--we debate such issues as nuclear reactors, pollution, and pesticides in an atmosphere of frenzied ignorance. It is an ignorance we cannot afford if we are to survive.

For example, although Japan and the United States both produce adequate numbers of professional scientists, at least half of Japan's economic and political leadership has scientific training, while our political and business leaders have almost none. And while high-school students in the Soviet Union take several years of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, American high-school students often take one year of science and one or two years of mathematics, with only a small number choosing courses in chemistry or physics.

Moreover, many, if not most, of the science teachers in American high schools did not major in the subject they are teaching. In a study of science teachers' preparation for teaching in one fairly typical state, researchers found that in the high schools 13 percent of the biology teachers, 30 percent of the chemistry teachers, and 63 percent of the physics teachers had less than 20 semester-hours of college credit in their subjects.

Most college students, because they avoided math and science in high school, have already closed the doors on careers that require scientific training. This situation is particularly disastrous for young women, 90 percent of whom have been filtered out of math and science by the time they enter college.

Underlying this avoidance of science is "science anxiety": the fear that science is just too hard for "ordinary people" to grasp. Media stereotypes of scientists, the socialization of children, especially girls, away from science, and inadequate science-teaching all contribute to this anxiety. Although the problem of science anxiety transcends the classroom, there is much that schools can do to teach science in an atmosphere free of fear.

Science anxiety clinics, private or university-based, use teams of scientists and counselors to help students master science skills and deal with their anxiety simultaneously. But primary and secondary schools can reduce the number of science-anxious students entering college in the first place (and raise the number of students who will study science), by teaching in such a way that students will be turned on to science rather than turned off.

As teachers, we must recognize that learning is an emotional as well as an intellectual experience: Excitement enhances learning, anxiety impedes it. Science must be introduced to students as something different, not as something harder. Students must learn that science requires a new set of skills: reasoning skills, reading skills, problem-solving skills, but skills that are within their ability to grasp. They must learn that "memorizing formulas" is not science.

Laboratories must be a place where students can rediscover natural laws through hands-on experience. It is especially important that girls as well as boys play with equipment, and teachers must be vigilant in this regard. Teachers can provide a combination of demonstrations and logical exposition, using the approach of the mystery story--here is the evidence, find the solution--to engage students in the enterprise.

As students progress in their science education, psychological growth accompanies the intellectual growth. Students, according to the Piaget model for science learning, move from the "concrete" to the "formal" mode of thinking sometime in their teens. Concrete thinkers need a great deal of demonstration and lab experience, while formal thinkers are ready to appreciate logical proofs. The teacher must assess the class and find an appropriate mix, since the class itself will be a mixture of concrete and formal thinkers.

Scientific creativity is a mixture of convergent, or linear, thinking and divergent thinking: casting around for inspiration by connecting disparate ideas. Unfortunately, standardized science tests seem to measure only convergent thinking, and such tests give students the erroneous impression that a scientist is one who mystically sees the single, right path from question to answer. Educational research is sorely needed to solve this problem.

Students also range from those who can solve problems by eliminating extraneous information almost immediately to those who cannot, from those who are "field-dependent" to those who are "field-independent." While "real science" includes extraneous information, the teaching of science must help students move from field dependence to field independence--but precisely how to do this is another open question.

We are deluged in these times by hordes of purveyors of audio-visual and multi-media aids to science teaching, and we must be extremely cautious.

Students learn from eye contact with us, from our body language, and from verbal feedback. We must not allow our students to become passive observers. If students only learn about science, they will always fear that it is beyond them, only if we teach them to do science, the way we teach them art or (we can hope) to write, will they gain a sense of mastery and be able to grow into scientifically literate adults.

At least as important as the skills science teachers impart are the underlying messages they send. The science teacher can be a role model or a member of an elite cult, but not both.

The teacher who communicates that "learning science takes hard work, but I have learned it and so can you" will create excitement in students.

But the teacher who sends the message, "I was born smarter than you; you'll never understand this as I do, and I will separate the intellectual wheat from the chaff" is the Typhoid Mary of science anxiety.

We science teachers cannot afford the luxury of getting strokes for being smart at the expense of students. Poor English teachers may alienate students, but they probably will not produce illiterates; poor science teachers will produce students who never again want to deal with science.

Role-models are especially important for girls. Most science teachers are men, and the higher the level, the higher the proportion of men. Women are nowhere near approaching their rightful places in science. In these conservative times, we will hear once again the old arguments that men have more "natural" talent in math and science. We must recognize that this premise is virtually untestable, because girls are socialized at an early age--by family, schools, cartoons, movies--to see science as a male preserve.

We do not know whether, all other things being equal, more men than women will opt to learn science. Our task is to make sure that all other things are equal. (Unfortunately, the Reagan Administration's termination of the National Science Foundation's Women in Science program eliminates one of the real aids to bringing women closer to science.)

Science anxiety is not a new problem, although its nature has only recently been recognized. Teachers and administrators can help overcome science anxiety by understanding the issues, by recognizing when students are suffering, by directing them to math- or science-anxiety clinics, by starting such clinics where they do not yet exist, and last, but surely not least, by producing a classroom atmosphere where students can learn science without learning fear.

Vol. 01, Issue 03, Page 19

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