Who Will Define 'Science for All?'
Educators across the nation are being called on to address the "new'' crisis in science education. And just as the efforts begun three decades ago were a way of soothing wounded national pride caused by Soviet space exploits, the re-emergence of public support for improved science education seems to be motivated by another kind of national concern. This time, it is the perceived economic superiority of Japan and other industrialized nations.
But besides the recognition that science is important to society as a whole, in much of the current rhetoric, "Science for All'' is a central theme offering what many see as a new dream--that it is also important to the education of every individual member of society. This was, for example, a major theme of the important report, "Educating Americans for the 21st Century,'' written by the National Science Board's Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology in 1983. What is remarkable is that such a plausible goal should, in fact, be thought of as new.
Surely the reform movements of the past, which provided so many new science courses, were also intended to solve the perceived crises in science education by creating appropriate science for all. However, their emphases on the central themes, major concepts, and unifying schemes did not prove to be appropriate for all children. Interest in science waned over the years: Students professed boredom, few elected more science than minimally required, and the courses of the 1960's, designed for all students, proved effective only for the few--the scientific elite.
Today, this restated dream of science for all is an open admission that notwithstanding the efforts of the past 30 years, school science still has not engaged the majority of our students. As in the 1950's and 1960's, we have been directing our science courses toward the interests of the 2 percent to 3 percent of the student body destined to become engineers and scientists.
While the "Science for All'' slogan seems increasingly appropriate as we approach 1990, the energetic efforts to achieve it are not drawing on the lessons of the past.
For example, more than 30 states have adopted regulations that have increased graduation requirements in science, and, in others, similar moves are in progress. The states are acting on the premise that if students study science long enough and hard enough, scientific knowledge ought to occur. But a number of cognitive studies have shown this is not true. More distressing is the fact that the attitude many students have toward science deteriorates the longer they are forced to study the subject.
Another error of the 1960's we are in danger of repeating is assuming that appropriate science for all must be defined by practicing scientists.
For example, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has provided major funds for the American Association for the Advancement of Science--the world's largest scientific society--for Project 2061. Central to this project is the identification of major scientists and engineers who will define the science of their respective disciplines appropriate for all students. Only then will educators and psychologists be called into battle to figure out the most efficient ways of teaching this material.
If we are interested in the preparation of scientists and engineers--perhaps even identifying them in the 3rd grade--these actions and activities may be expedient. However, is there any reason to believe that we will be more successful in this round than we were in the 1960's? Is this not a resurrection of an old promise for a new time?
If we are serious about appropriate science for all, is it logical to start with theoretical and practicing scientists defining it for the 97 percent who will not be scientists? A liberal estimate is that 3 percent of the United States' population completes a bachelor's degree with a major in a science or in engineering. The number completing a Ph.D. is less than 1 percent. The assumption that such a tiny minority can know and define what is appropriate for all students is not supported by any significant evidence.
Currently, most science, even in the elementary school, is organized in a way that seems to prepare everyone as if he or she would aspire to and could complete a Ph.D. in science or engineering. With such attention devoted to the elite, it seems obvious that we do not--and never will--achieve a science fit for all.
People in the small cadre of scientists find it almost impossible to think about science for anyone unlike themselves. Teachers with science degrees have somewhat the same problem. After all, their preparation included completing and succeeding in courses structured for the elite--the would-be scientist.
And too often, those with a bachelor's degree in science become teachers only after careers in medicine, engineering, allied health, or pure science have not materialized. Unfortunately, many were among the least successful: the ones who did not seem good bets for graduate work. Such people often move to teaching hoping to find some students who perform well, and who ultimately will achieve what they did not--namely, a career in engineering, medicine, or research. Moreover, science that prepares the future scientist, engineer, or Doctor of Medicine should be identified as vocational education.
The science curriculum that is appropriate for all children ought not to be a sampling of science as known by scientists. It may instead emphasize the nature of science, the applications of science, the history of science, and science-related careers. We may need to deal with the products, benefits, and harms derived from science; we may have to reassess the importance of students' learning about science. Surely we must recognize that, only a few years from now, all our students will be voters and consumers in a world increasingly dominated by science and technology. "Science for All'' must, therefore, mean teaching them how to make future value judgments that will increasingly draw upon the science they learn in our schools today.
To achieve this, it seems necessary for people outside science to be the leaders in defining and developing an appropriate science curriculum. We should not be captivated with the ring of the phrase "Science for All'' unless we are really concerned for all--not just those who have always been attracted to science and been identified as elite students who aspire to further formal study.
Perhaps we need to decide when most people can and should choose
future careers. Perhaps we can afford special science schools for the
most motivated and capable students. And yet there is evidence that
little is lost if we do not begin the identification of future
scientists in the elementary school. Certainly there is no evidence
that the National Science Foundation's supported programs for the
elementary school--programs that sought to identify the concepts and
processes known by scientists--resulted in an appropriate science
education for all.
But there is considerable evidence that science for children must begin with the connections and applications domain: Most people seem to learn best by direct experience. This does not mean first learning what scientists know and then moving on one's own to meaning and use. Instead, it means that science for all must be related to the real world, to real experiences; it means that school science must be connected, and must be useful.
As massive corrective programs identical to those tried in the past mount up, "Science for All'' seems, for the most part, merely an old and unfulfilled slogan. Our challenge today is to look beyond current rhetoric and focus on science's value for the majority of people who will remain outside the small scientific community. We will not achieve this by placing the design of the science curriculum in the hands of the professional scientist.
Vol. 6, Issue 32, Page 28