Biology Teachers Still Divided on How To Mesh Science With Social Issues

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Detroit--Shortly after World War II, a Soviet botanist named T.D. Lysenko began a rise to power within his government that would continue until 1964. The influential Lysenko adhered to the theory, politically useful but unsupported by empirical evidence, that characteristics developed during an organism's lifetime could be inherited by its offspring.

During this period, when Western scientists were using genetic research to develop new strains of crops and livestock, Soviet work in the field was stymied by politics.

That Soviet agriculture has not yet recovered from that era should be a powerful lesson for those who fail to acknowledge the relationship between science and society, said Paul R. Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist and author of The Population Bomb, who spoke at the annual meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers (nabt), held here this month.

Shaping National Destinies

Science is a potent force in shaping national destinies, he said, and a population that does not understand the interplay between science and public policy cannot make the judgments 'that, increasingly, it will be called upon to make.

Questions about ethics and safety in genetic engineering, for example, have become political as well as scientific issues, participants at the meeting agreed. And acid precipitation, nuclear power, the allo-cation of scarce resources, and the use of public funds to preserve endangered species are examples of scientific issues that are being resolved through political means.

Whether, how, and how much, biology educators should modify curricula to include social issues was the subject of continuing debate at the three-day meeting--as it has been elsewhere in the science-education community. Many speakers linked the absence of such issues with the current "science-education crisis": Americans are "scientific illiterates," they argued, because the science courses have failed to keep up with the advances in science and technology.

"In 25 years, there have been lots of social changes with which science education has not kept up," said Roger W. Bybee, associate professor of education at Carleton College. "Do the curricula address the problems? On balance, they do not. Society has changed. We have not. It's that simple."

"Current teaching of science, as if it is unconnected with social institutions, is an inaccurate representation of how things are," said Mary C. McConnell, director of education for the Oregon Museum of Science in Portland.

Subject of Public Debate

The "crisis" became a subject of public debate in 1980, when a science-education report commissioned by the Carter Administration was released. But as several speakers pointed out, science educators were aware long before that the supply of qualified teachers was shrinking and that most states required high-school students to take only one year of science.

Now, as the issue receives more and more public attention, educators must examine the rationale for teaching science, said Paul DeHart Hurd, emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. At present, he said, most curricula are "too restricted in point of view and subject." Not that the basic biological facts are unimportant, he said, but they are too limited.

To broaden the biology curriculum, he argued, teachers should try to develop "a biological education that is common to all students," that "fans out from the basic concepts" and includes "a human ecology that links our biological nature with our social nature."

"Our biological and social future can only be different," Mr. Hurd said. "There is no going back."

Social Issues

This is not the first era in which educators have talked about incorporating social issues into the science curriculum, several speakers noted. The idea first arose in the early 1900's, when educators became concerned that the branches of biology being taught--zoology, botany, and the like--were inappropriate for students whose formal education would end with a high-school diploma, according to Dorothy Rosenthal, a researcher at the University of Rochester.

And, much like their modern counterparts, teachers and administrators tried to change biology into a subject that would also help students learn how to live. Public health and hygiene were taught in the early 1900's, and during World War I students were offered training in such subjects as aviation technology.

In the 1930's, Ms. Rosenthal found in a survey of biology as a sub-ject in the curriculum, a conservation movement also found its way into the public schools; in the 1940's, consumer education took its place in the curriculum. The 1940's also saw efforts to focus on "the scientific view of the world of man," and "new directions" in science that included personal and social issues, Ms. Rosenthal said.

But most of the curricula developed in the last 20 years paid less attention to these issues, Ms. Rosenthal found, although science educators continued to show interest in teaching "science and society" courses. In a review of editions of eight major science-education journals published between 1962 and 1981, the researcher found that 3 percent of the articles focused on teaching about social issues.

The interest peaked between 1972 and 1976, when 101 of the 227 articles devoted to "science and society" appeared, Ms. Rosenthal said. Overall, she found, most of the articles focused on "goals" rather than on specific methods, and most were written by higher-education researchers or state education department personnel.

Now, many teachers are interested in including social issues in the science curriculum, according to a survey conducted by Charles R. Barman of Northwest Missouri State University.

Of the 198 science and social-studies teachers who responded to the survey, 77 percent said that they believed it was an important goal to develop interdisciplinary lessons in science and social studies. But 68 percent also reported that they were undecided about undertaking such a project.

"There is interest in interdisciplinary education," Mr. Barman said. "But many teachers are unsure about their own degree of commitment. An increased awareness seems necessary before teachers will be willing to try."

"Teachers feel ill prepared to deal with these things," said Robert Yager, professor of science education at the University of Iowa and president of the National Science Teachers Association. "Too many of us involved don't like the uncertainty that is in life itself."

Others, however, indicated that they did not believe that science classes are the proper place to include such material.

"If you think that science teachers are doing a poor job of teaching science, I submit that to have them teach social studies would be a disaster," said George Zahbrosky, a biology teacher at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

"Science teachers cannot be all things to all people," Mr. Zahbrosky said. "We need teachers who are convinced of the importance of biology."

Other teachers, responding to the presentations, argued that to dilute biology courses with social issues would make a "sham" of science education and would result in the removal of all the "hard" information from biology courses. Some, citing earlier experiments in socially relevant curricula, warned that the discussions of social issues could easily degenerate into "rap sessions."

Guidelines Offered

Many speakers, however, did offer guidelines for science educators who want to include more social issues in the curriculum. Since many of the issues are highly controversial, the speakers advised teachers to discuss them from many points of view and to allow all students to express their opinions.

"Teaching about values in biology is not a matter of presenting students with predetermined values," Mr. Hurd said. Rather, he said, teachers should offer them all the information available about a topic and allow them to decide for themselves what their moral stance toward it should be.

"You must be prepared for people to disagree," Mr. Barman said. "Do not present your own views on the subject. Stay neutral."

The approaches offered ranged from beginning with the issues and working toward the "biological facts," to the reverse--incorporating issues into the curriculum when possible, but still keeping to basic biology.

To include social issues in any format, however, will require educators to be highly selective in the material they cover, Mr. Hurd suggested. "From all that has been learned," he asked, "what is most worthy to teach, given the 175 hours [available] for a high-school course?'' The information should be "useful," Mr. Hurd suggested. "Useful knowledge goes beyond the acquisition of facts," he said, and can be applied to many situations.

Science educators who seek to create scientifically and technologically literate people should focus on three dimensions of learning, suggested Mr. Bybee of Carleton College. To do so, however, may mean eliminating other topics. "Not ev-erything can be included," he said. "Some things will have to be excluded."

First, he said, they should consider what information might help students personally--nutrition education, for example. Second, they should look at the various social issues that relate to science: "What must a person know to think about these things as a citizen."

And third, teachers should include something about science and technology as an enterprise in our society, he suggested.

Problem-Centered Approach

Biology teachers who want to include more social issues in their curricula should focus on a "problem-centered" approach, suggested Herbert Brunkhorst, a Newton, Mass., biology supervisor. "We should encourage a greater role for students in dealing with the problems of biology, not just the facts of biology," he said.

Teachers who are interested in trying a cross-disciplinary approach could begin in several ways, Mr. Barman said. They could combine curricula by identifying those "process skills" common to both science and social studies. These skills might include observing, classifying, defining, measuring, and establishing and testing hypotheses, he said.

Several speakers urged the teachers to consider their goals carefully before proceeding with a new "socially relevant" curriculum. They suggested also that teachers try hard to think of new approaches, rather than just recycling the old ones.

"What concerns me the most is that I don't see very many fresh ideas being brought up and discussed that are any different from the ones that didn't, in my opinion, get us very far before," Mr. Yager said.

Noted John Penick, professor of science education at the University of Iowa: "I'm delighted that the crisis is being recognized, but I'm terrified that we're going to react as we did in 1957. I don't have any great solutions. We should think about where we want to go."

Vol. 02, Issue 08

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