Democratizing Science: Focus on 'General Citizens'

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When scientists and educators in the late 1950's set out to create new curricula for precollege students, the issue at the top of the agenda was increasing the supply of scientists and engineers. Teaching "pure science" to the brightest students was the order of the day, and the materials they developed are widely regarded as good vehicles for doing just that.

Today, science educators face the task that the earlier effort left unfinished--figuring out how best to teach science to all students, especially those who may not become scientists, but whose lives and work will be touched by developments in science and technology. Ensuring an adequate supply of scientists will always be important, many science educators agree, but the more urgent need lies in broadening the teaching of science to reach more students.

"I think it goes back to the proven record," says Jane Butler Kahle, professor of biological sciences and education at Purdue University. "We've done a good job in educating future scientists and engineers, but what's happened is that we've simply lost the general citizen."

The two issues, science educators point out, are not entirely separate. By improving the teaching of science at all levels, they say, schools would probably expand the pool of future scientists as well, since students would be less likely to opt out of science at an early age.

The science curriculum--how many courses and what kinds--is at the center of the debate. Some of the recommendations, and disagreements, emerging include:

Science should occupy more time at the elementary-school level. Most students are taught some--but not enough--science.

The requirements for science in high school and junior high should be increased. Until recently, when many states began stiffening their requirements, many high-school students took only one or two years of science. New state standards will change that situation. However, many science educators regard the current approach and sequence of science courses as inappropriate for many students, and they argue that simply requiring more of the same will not solve the problem.

Science courses should be more carefully matched to students' levels of intellectual development, as these levels have been characterized by researchers such as Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist. Research has shown that in many cases, the material that students are expected to learn is far too abstract for them to understand; unless it can be presented in more concrete form, they will memorize facts without understanding the concepts.

Applications of science--including technology--should be incorporated into the science courses. The post-Sputnik curricula eliminated both on the grounds that they were not "pure" science, but now many science educators argue that science courses should focus heavily on applications. Similarly, technology has become a far more powerful force in the world and is in many cases an integral part of the process of "doing science." Whether the two should be linked in the curriculum is being debated.

The effect of science on society has become an important topic, and some science educators argue that the science classroom is the proper place to discuss it. But since many related issues move beyond science into the realm of values, others argue that science education should not assume that additional responsibility.


The process of improving students' understanding of science must begin early and continue throughout their school years, science educators agree. Unless children are exposed to science early and often, most will develop neither the interest nor the foundation of knowledge they need to become scientifically literate.

The best way to teach science to elementary students, these educators suggest, is to use many concrete activities and examples, capitalizing on children's natural curiosity about how things work.

"I feel strongly that science should begin as soon as children enter school, and children should receive some science every day," says Alice Moses, president elect of the National Science Teachers Association (nsta), who teaches science to kindergarten through 8th-grade students at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

"You begin to establish attitudes ingsters early on," Ms. Moses says, "to build attitudes of inquiry," that help them explore the world and build a base of knowledge about it. "It's also the beginning of laying the groundwork for the youngsters who might be inclined to go into the sciences."

And although most science educators agree that it is important to be alert for the child with a clear affinity and talent for science, many stress that identifying and working with those students should not be the primary goal of science education. "Is the purpose of the 3rd grade to find out who's going to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry?" says Robert Yager, professor of science education at the University of Iowa.

"Formal, systematic interaction with and observation of the real world are essential in elementary education. Elementary-school science should provide much of this experience," notes a report prepared by the Conference on Goals and Science for Science and Technology Education for the Naal Science Board's precollege commission. The conference brought together dozens of scientists and educators from all levels of education; the report recommends future directions for science education.

"A good elementary science program should be a planned set of experiences representing a balance among the disciplines, a daily lesson, and (frequently) hands-on experience," the report says.

In the elementary grades as well as later science provides an excellent vehicle for teaching students how to solve problems, the report notes. The "basic skills of science," which translate readily to other areas, include recognizing problems, developing procedures for addressing them, and recognizing, evaluating, and applying solutions. The report urges teachers to make use of the school campus, as well as museums and other resources in teaching children about natural phenomena.

"They should be almost entirely engaged in real, direct experience with phenomena: taste, touch, feel, see," says Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the nsta and a former teacher of physics. "Look through a telescope. Don't try to explain it. Look at the stars every morning for four or five months and draw pictures. Do safe chemical experiments. Observe. And do nothing else. Don't try to explain what protons, neutrons, and electrons are. Focus on observation and concrete experience."

Children miss something if a teacher does little more than "stand there and give a child a book and say, 'read this,' and [does] not have the child really experience the doing part," Ms. Moses says. "You could read a book but you couldn't get the same sensation" that comes with witnessing a phenomenon or performing an experiment.

Many of the textbooks and other materials designed for elementary students are designed to take advantage of the children's natural curiosity and interest in the world around them, science specialists say, but elementary-school teachers frequently do not take advantage of the materials available. On the average, teachers in the early grades spend about 20 minutes each day on science, according to various surveys.

"You get the youngsters, and they're so fresh, so interested," says Alice Moses. "It's such a wonderful time to capture the curiousity of young children. Unfortunately, often it isn't captured."


Science educators attribute the absence of science in elementary schools to several factors. One is that it must compete with other subjects that are viewed as more important. Ms. Moses cites the "pressures put on teachers for basics" and also the "amenities" that parents expect elementary teachto inculcate--good manners and the like. "I think with these kinds of pressures being brought to bear, sometimes science goes by the board," she says.

But another reason, regarded by many educators as the heart of the problem, is that many elementary-school teachers are not comfortable teaching science and avoid it whenever possible. In general, the teachers have only minimal training in science, according to several studies.

"The problem generally is that elementary teachers don't take any science and they don't teach any science as a consequence," Ms. Kahle says. "Science is the last subject in the five academic areas in terms of the number of minutes per day spent on it. There is good information that elementary teachers feel more insecure," and there is a correlation between insecurity and the amount of time spent on science, she says.

"I feel very strongly that there are some very good elementary curricula that teachers are afraid to use," Ms. Kahle adds.

"The texts are all right," says Mr. Aldridge of nsta. "There are some pretty good materials. The problem is, nobody knows how to use them. The materials are probably the best. That's the irony."

Notes Ms. Moses: "The texts have improved tremendously on the elementary level. They are designed with a lot of things in mind. The reading levels are appropriate for most of the students and they are sequential. Attention is given to developing materials [that build on] previous grades. They are colorful, with excellent photography, and by and large are written well, with a lot of hands-on kinds of things that kids can do with the content materials."

But teachers may lack the time--and the inclination--to set up and organize hands-on activities, Ms. Kahle points out, adding: "If they can, they won't because they're pressed for time for math and reading."

Although science educators agree that it would be helpful if potential elementary-school teachers were more interested in science and took more science in college, few seem optimistic about the prospects. A more realistic approach, they say, would be for school districts to hire special science teachers who enjoy and understand science.

"I don't think we're going to turn it around with the teachers," says Ms. Kahle. "I would like to see us hire science specialists or science consultants. Until we do that, we're not going to get more science in the elementary schools."

Some districts do have a "science resource teacher" or supervisor, but budget cuts have forced many districts to abandon that position, Mr. Aldridge said. In recent years, he noted, 70 percent of the elementary science-supervisor positions have been cut.


The science that students learn in elementary school becomes the base for their future understanding of the subject, and also affects their attitude toward it--a key factor in keeping them in science classes. The secondary-school curriculum, science educators suggest, builds on that early experience by teaching the concepts students need whether or not they become scientists.

The topics taught are one key component of this process. Another, which has received less recognition, is whether the level of abstraction of the material fits with the students' intellectual development.

The secondary-school materials used now, which are largely derived from the post-Sputnik curricula, approach science in a very theoretical fashion. "The degree of abstraction is very substantial," says Mr. Aldridge. As he and others point out, the people who developed those materials choseake them highly abstract on the grounds that such an approach more accurately reflected "pure science."

Subsequent research, however, suggests that this abstract approach probably prevents many students from fully understanding the material. The problem is largely confined to secondary-school students, since elementary-school teaching generally does focus on concrete materials.

In the mid-1970's, John W. Renner, a professor of physics and science education at the University of Oklahoma, began gathering data to see whether the materials used in secondary science courses matched the students' level of intellectual development. He and a colleague, Anton E. Lawson, a biologist at Purdue University, defined two categories of concepts used by Piaget, the "concrete operational" and the "formal operational."

The first includes concepts "whose meaning can be developed from first-hand experience with objects and events," according to a 1975 paper by the two researchers. The second, formal operational, includes concepts "whose meaning is derived through position within a postulatory-deductive system," that is, through theoretical models. "Meaning is given to these concepts not through the senses but through imagination or through their logical relationships within the system," the researchers write.

Students' levels of development, in turn, can be measured using a series of tests developed by Piaget and placed in a corresponding category.

According to Piaget's model, the authors write, children begin to make the transition from concrete to more abstract understanding around the age of 11. If that model is correct, they note, then most junior-high and high-school students could readily untand "formal" material.

But Mr. Renner and Mr. Lawson are quick to point out that recent research indicates that, to the contrary, "perhaps from 40 to 75 percent of the secondary-school students have failed to reach the level of formal thought."

"If the Piagetian model is correct in contending that concrete thinkers cannot develop understanding of abstract subject matter, and if, indeed, a large portion of secondary students are concrete operational, then a major portion of today's secondary-school science curricula which the foundation-sponsored projects have developed is beyond the students' level of understanding and, therefore, inappropriate," the researchers write.

"What we find, consistently, is that persons who can be labeled concrete operational do not have success on concepts that could be labeled formal operational," Mr. Renner said in an interview. "For example, kinetic molecular theory is a formal concept. Concrete operational kids can memorize it, but when it comes to using it to explain something else, they can't do it.

"It begins to look like the concepts you can rate as requiring formal thought are not available to students who have tested out as being concrete operational," he says.

"The curriculum is definitely out of step, out of phase, with the intellectual development of the kids," Mr. Renner adds.

He notes, for example, that "most of what's in high-school biology is highly formal, and that's 10th grade. When you measure the operational rating of 10th graders, 65 percent usually are concrete. When you take a class that's an average of 70 percent concrete and give them a class, 95 percent of which requires formal thought, you're in a heap of trouble. The kids simply can't learn. But it seems impossible to get that concept across to educators. They don't appreciate the 'cannot learn' thing."

Students who are confronted with material that is beyond their intellectual level, Mr. Renner says, find

themselves in a "double bind ...

They can say, 'I have to memorize it,' or 'the hell with it."' More and more students, he suggests, are choosing the latter alternative.

"I do respect the research and feel that the idea is fundamental that students have to be able to think abstractly and have the mental structures required before science can have any meaning," says Mr. Yager. "I do know that most of what we teach in this regard tends to be rote memory. Students learn a definition, and teachers think, 'Aha, they understand it,' but the truth of the matter is, for many students, that's just game playing. That, too, can do damage in the long run, because those who can fill in the blanks are not the best scientists. The winners of the system are not necessarily the best."


Another reason for choosing an applied rather than an abstract approach to the science curriculum, educators argue, is that the former provides students with a frame of reference for understanding science by relating it to the world around them.

But although most good science teachers favor more applications, according to Mr. Aldridge, the curriculum materials most commonly used are still based on those developed in the 1960's, which deliberately avoided applied science.

The curriculum designers "were 100-percent opposed to the notion of applications," says Paul deHart Hurd, emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. "Those were eliminated deliberately to make it pure science. They did that, and they did it very well."

"All the mainline curriculum efforts got rid of applications" in the 1960's, says Mr. Yager. "It's a 180-degree turn now from where we were in 1965. Now, most thinking is that applications are in. We took out refrigerators and televisions--all of that was bad. That was that elitism--we're after biochemists, to hell with the auto mechanics."

"Knowing basic concepts, showing interest, doing something, furthering interest" are goals of many reform-minded science educators says Mr. Yager. "If anything, a school program ought to be designed to increase interest."

The emphasis on applications, science educators argue, should be infused into the entire secondary-school science curriculum.

Currently, most junior-high students take courses in general science or, in some cases, earth sciences. The goal of those courses is to provide an overview of many topics. But by covering too much material too quickly, the courses may backfire, causing more frustration than satisfaction.

"[It] tends to be a smattering of everything," says Mr. Aldridge of the general-science courses. "It's worse than high school. The material is compressed into a few days; there's no hierarchy."

Instead, he and others propose that learning strategy initiated at the elementary level--the focus on building understanding through experience and observation--be continued. According to the science-education conference report, "Concrete experiences should be used to build on and further develop the basic skills of science introduced in the elementary grades."

"Though the emphasis of the program should focus on concrete experiences," the report says, "problem solving and logical reasoning experiences should be interwoven so that students can ask questions, manipulate variables, and make generalizations and develop concepts."

"Continue observations," says Mr. Aldridge. "There are things that become more complex. Look at unusual phenomena. Students can be starting to look at how things work," but should not be given detailed explanations.

"The important thing at the junior-high level is to get them to focus on things of strong personal interest," Mr. Aldridge says. "You wouldn't want to do [a course on] science and society at that stage."

The conference report also urges that junior-high science use an "integrated or unified approach which covers earth, physical, life, and health sciences during the year." Mr. Aldridge and others suggest that topics such as musical acoustics, lasers, and human physiology provide a good framework for teaching the concepts of science to young adolescents.


Most students now take biology in 10th grade. Many go no further; those who do usually take chemistry in the 11th grade, and physics--if anything--in the 12th grade. Although some states have recently started requiring students to take more than one year of science, many continue to demand only a year.

The modifications to the current high-school program being urged by those in the field include changes in both content and sequence; they want both "more and different" courses. As with mathematics, reformers agree that simply requiring more of the same, without considering what kind of program would best serve a wide range of students, is not particularly useful.

"There needs to be some very careful consideration of what gets done," says Mr. Hurd, citing the 18 or so states that have recently doubled their science requirements. "What does this do? We don't have qualified teachers, so it compounds the teacher shortage. Two years of doing what is already proving ineffective is compounding the nonlearning. If you double the requirements of science, you're already doubling what kids dislike."

Mr. Hurd once asked a group of students what they thought of increased requirements in science, and one replied that the result would be that "there will be more of us who won't be graduating from high school."

"That's not a very productive educational program," Mr. Hurd says.


One way to make required science courses more productive for all students, some educators believe, would be to integrate science and technology so that students could see how the fields interact with one another in society. The science-education conference report recommends such courses for students in grades 9 and 10.

Using problems that integrate knowledge from engineering, physics, biology, earth science, and applied mathematics, students would confront material that is "as intellectually demanding as the traditional courses," the report says. "The quantitative and problem-solving aspects will be of a much higher 3 than what is usually described as a 'general science' course for nonscience students," the report says.

Mixing science and technology in one course represents an about-face from the post-Sputnik reforms, when the modest real-world examples were "purged." The former Stanford educator points out that the examples of technology included then--how you plant a field, for example--were "pretty bad." "That's not what modern technology means," he says.

"Modern technology is a social force," Mr. Hurd contends. "In the 1960's and 1970's, science and technology were essentially married. You cannot make a sharp distinction now. We have a general recognition [of] a new paradigm."

By the 11th grade, when many students begin to consider careers, they should have a choice of courses in the various disciplines, with more options added in the 12th grade. The approach to science in these grades can gradually become more abstract, the science-education conference report suggests.

Another proposal that enjoys considerable support would involve teaching all three of the major disciplines each of the three years from the 10th through the 12th grade. Under that system, 10th- and 11th-grade students might spend three periods per week on biology and one each on chemistry and physics; in the 12th grade, the emphasis would shift away from biology, toward chemistry and physics. Alternatively, students might be offered single-semester courses of the various disciplines.

The conference participants agreed, however, that it is important that students take the science-technology sequence. "The conference did not favor the omission of the proposed science-technology sequence in order that advanced-placement courses in the traditional sciences could be reached more rapidly," the report states.


The consensus that is emerging on the desirability of including technology and other applications in science courses does not yet extend into the realm called "values," educators acknowledge.

Some argue that the science classroom is the best place to discuss ethical and social questions related to science, and that "science and society" classes are the best forum for such discussions. "It's the glue," Mr. Yager says of this approach. "It's what makes science meaningful."

But others contend that science teachers must set firm limits on what is germane to their subjects. "Students must learn the difference between science and technology, and the effects of technology on their lives," says Ms. Kahle. "But as far as teaching a course on ecological issues instead of on a whole range of biological issues, I think that has been one thing that has weakened the national test scores."

"You can deal with the science, and go into the topic of acid rain as an application," says Mr. Aldridge of the science teachers' association. "You say to students, 'What we can do is tell you what the scientific component is,' but we've got to stop there. The social and political part has to be dealt with elsewhere. Once you bring it into the classroom, it ceases to be science."

"The whole point about science," he observes, "is that there are many questions that cannot be answered scientifically."

Currently, few districts are teaching science and society courses, according to Mr. Yager, although a number of private schools and some other countries are employing this approach. Consequently, there are few textbooks that integrate social issues with science.

The American Chemical Society is developing a course that some science educators say may serve as a model. The course, "Chemistry in the Community," will consist of one introductory module and eight issue modules. Each will be designed to cover four to six weeks of class time.

The course, designed for students in the 10th through 12th grades, uses "chemical concepts as a basis for helping students understand and consider solutions to a number of current technology-related problems," according to the acs description of the materials. Topics covered include water, food, petroleum, chemical resources, the chemical industry, and nuclear issues.

The emphasis is on the science that students need to know in order to make decisions about the issues, according to Sylvia Ware, head of educational services for the society and project manager for "ChemComm." Each module includes a "decision-making activity" at the end, which requires students to apply their knowledge to a specific societal problem.

So far, the teachers and students who have used the materials on a test basis have reacted favorably, Ms. Ware said. Teachers report that students are enthusiastic about tackling the societal issues, and some planned to seek further datatside of class to support their positions. The acs hopes to finish editing the materials by the spring of 1984 and will continue testing them as they are developed.

One concern about "science and society" courses, some educators believe, is that they would be reserved for less able students and would carry a stigma of being second rate.

"This dualism is the worst thing for the science-and-society classes," says Mr. Yager. "We've still got that elitism. We'll end up with nobody in science and society [classes] except those judged average and below. We'll end up with nothing. That would just doom the whole thing."


Because science teachers rely heavily on textbooks, updating them will be a significant impetus, science educators say, in the revival of science in the schools. In biology, where recent discoveries have revolutionized the knowledge base, revisions ought to include much new information, biologists suggest.

And if the shift toward applications catches on, texts that now use an abstract approach to science would have to be rewritten to reflect the new approach. Similarly, science and society courses would require textbooks that link the two topics.

The concept for such books has already been forged, according to Mr. Hurd, at the higher-education level. "How much modification could be made is hard to say, but we do have a lot of models at the college-freshman level," he says of the science and society textbooks. About 1,000 colleges and universities offer courses or programs in science, technology, and society. "We wouldn't be starting from scratch," Mr. Hurd notes.

Vol. 02, Issue 39

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