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Published in Print: November 26, 1999, as Science Education 2000

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Science Education 2000

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In terms of science education, the most important change taking place is in the nature of science itself.

Pressure for the "reinvention" of school science goals and curricula has been with us for the past 25 years. Revolutionary changes are taking place in the culture and practice of sciences, as well in our economy and how people live and work. The main response to these conditions has been the identification of over a thousand standards to update the concepts and principles of science disciplines such as biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics that are to be taught within the traditional mode of scientific inquiry.

This does not represent a reinvention of goals or curricula. And as Albert Einstein once commented, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

The curriculum problems we face today are more complicated than ever before. We need to recognize that a new civilization is emerging. Some of its characteristics are these: (1) a global economy; (2) an information age characterized by the Internet; (3) changing family structures; (4) a knowledge-intensive society resulting in a new world of work; and (5) new developments in the cognitive sciences recognizing how individuals learn and use knowledge.

In terms of science education, the most important change taking place is in the nature of science itself. Increasingly, the framework for research in the sciences is concerned with finding solutions to personal and social problems, rather than focusing on new theories related to the natural world. The disciplines that characterize today's school science curricula—biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics—are now being split into hundreds of research fields. At the same time, science is becoming more interdisciplinary, as is apparent in the names of such fields: biochemistry, biophysics, biogeochemistry, biotechnology, terrestrial biology, plant engineering, bioinformatics, neurobiology, and more than 400 others.

The current science education reform movement goes beyond career-oriented goals: it is a science curriculum focused on responsible citizenship and self-understanding.

Most research in the sciences today is strategic, or targeted toward a problem to be solved, such as efforts to control the AIDS pandemic. Traditionally, research in the sciences has been seen as a theory to be tested or the search for an explanation of a natural phenomenon, as exemplified, for example, in current efforts to find an explanation for the "black holes" in the universe.

Throughout this century, science teaching in schools has stressed methods of scientific inquiry. The goal has been to have children and adolescents "think like a scientist"—in other words, a career-oriented goal. The current reform movement seeks more: a science curriculum focused on responsible citizenship and self-understanding. These goals are related to the use of scientific knowledge in making wise decisions and resolving problems of life and living.

Today, science has dimensions that extend into the social sciences as well as the realms of ethics, values, and law. Questions related, for example, to the cloning of human embryos, the use of DNA fingerprinting for identification, the immunization of populations against the threat of biological warfare, and the manipulation of crop yields through agrobiotechnology all must find answers through a consensus based on the collective wisdom found in many spheres of human endeavor.

Moreover, today's scientific research is not a lone pursuit, but is done by teams, generally of from six to eight people. The advantage of this is that team research increases the fertility of hypotheses related to a problem and its interpretation. The work of teams is supplemented by computers that keep track of observations and sometimes help organize data. Technology's role in supporting scientific research also extends to such areas as the invention of robots that can travel to the moon or planets to make observations and send the information back to earth.

A citizen's understanding of today's science requires a vision that extends beyond the laboratory door.

So a citizen's understanding of today's science requires a vision that extends beyond the laboratory door. The reform movement we are now embarked on seeks to integrate science, technology, and society in terms of what many have called a lived curriculum. The validity of teaching a particular science concept, in this perspective, depends upon the learner's ability to experience it and the relevance of the concept to personal development and human welfare. Where experiments in school laboratories once were performed to illustrate a fact, principle, or theory of science, the current trend is to view the function of the laboratory as an investigation. This is a matter of students' using their knowledge of science and technology to resolve problems, for example, those of maintaining wellness or of stabilizing the natural environment. Today's laboratory exercise is also seen as an experience in responsible citizenship.

For the past 100 years, every effort to reform science education has been justified as a means of "meeting the needs of students." But at no time has this slogan actually been implemented as part of the curriculum. "Meeting the needs of students" entails these relationships between science and technology and life, and their implication for the adaptive needs of students in a changing world. This is a view consistent with the culture and practice of today's science.

From the beginning of this current reform movement, we have recognized that the time has come to develop curricula in a way that no longer isolates science from human welfare and social and economic progress.

And we are not alone in this recognition. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization reports that there are now 141 countries worldwide on record as seeking a new view of science education. The one goal common to all these endeavors and all the new curriculum proposals they encompass is an emphasis on "learning to learn." This is a powerful recognition of the revolutionary changes taking place in science, society, economics, and, thus, the adaptive needs of students. And all of these changes will continue in the 21st century.

In a knowledge-intensive economy, learning to learn is essential for preparing students for the world in which they will live. As educators, we should make sure that the curricular "reinventions" we devise and implement actually foster this as their primary goal.


Paul DeHart Hurd is a professor emeritus of science education at Stanford University. His books include Inventing Science Education for the New Millennium (1997) and the forthcoming Transforming Middle School Science Education, both published by Teachers College Press.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 31

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