Better Understanding Between Educators, Scientists Urged

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San Francisco

Scientists need to actively assist educators in improving the quality of science instruction, while also becoming more aware of their own limitations when they approach educators with offers of aid, according to scientists involved in elementary and secondary education reform.

Speaking at a panel session titled "The Essential Role of the Science Community in K-12 Education Reform,'' several scientists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here last week warned that few of their colleagues understand either the constraints of the classroom or the ways of working effectively within schools to promote science.

The session was one of several presented here that focused on education reform, including several dealing with Project 2061, the association's long-term science-literacy initiative.

Most scientists, participants said, are not even aware of the fundamental differences between the practice of science and science education.

"They are two different cultures,'' noted Roland Otto, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at Berkeley.

Kevin Padian of the paleontology department at the University of California at Berkeley, meanwhile, observed that school administrators frequently view scientists as arrogant interlopers.

"Don't expect to be welcomed with open arms if you're a scientist,'' said Mr. Padian, a former classroom teacher who helped draft California's prestigious science framework.

"Your knowledge is irrelevant,'' he continued. "And you don't know how to talk to little kids--even if you have one.''

Disheartening Realities

But Bruce M. Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, set the tone of the presentation when he noted that long hours, difficult working conditions, and a lack of administrative support are the daily realities for most classroom teachers.

Mr. Alberts said he drew many of his more disheartening examples from the experiences of his daughter, who is an elementary school teacher.

Individual scientists intervening in individual classrooms, he conceded, should be one component of an overall strategy to improve science teaching.

But scientists can frequently have more impact on the educational system by serving on state- and district-level committees to help improve the quality of textbooks and devise sound policies on science teaching, Mr. Alberts suggested.

Frequently, he added, scientists are the sole advocates in the community for better science teaching, particularly at the elementary level.

"There isn't anything that is going to solve the problem I have described except a major effort by the scientific community,'' he maintained.

Forging Closer Links

Mr. Alberts is one of the founders of "City Science,'' a cooperative venture of the University of California at San Francisco and the San Francisco school district to raise the level of science literacy among elementary teachers.

But Mr. Alberts acknowledged that he, like many other scientists, knew nothing about precollegiate classrooms before he became involved in the project.

"I never got to know a K-12 teacher,'' he said. "Yet, these teachers should have been my colleagues.''

Based on his experience in City Science, Mr. Alberts said he now believes that university science departments should forge closer links with education schools to insure that every teacher preparation program teaches fundamentally sound, inquiry-based science instruction.

Francisco Ayala, the president-elect of the A.A.A.S., also noted that he and others have already had some impact on elementary and secondary teaching by encouraging the academy to publish a document denouncing creationism as pseudoscience.

But Mr. Ayala, a native of Spain, admitted that he was slow to believe that challenges to the teaching of evolution could even exist in America in the 1980's, until he served as an expert witness in a successful legal challenge to an Arkansas law that required "balanced treatment of evolution and creationism.''

"The first time I was confronted with this problem, I refused to take it seriously,'' Mr. Ayala said. "I was not going to persuade some ignoramuses that evolution should be taught in schools.''

'Clueless' Publishers

Mr. Padian also stressed that the scientific community is missing an important opportunity to bring its knowledge and prestige to bear to force publishers to improve the quality of instructional materials.

"The real problem is that the people developing these books are clueless,'' he said.

But Mr. Padian's sharp criticisms angered one representative of a major publishing house, who later accused him of overgeneralizing.

"We are here because we want to be in contact with the scientific community,'' the woman, who refused to identify herself, said. "But part of the problem is that scientists do not always agree what should be in the hands of the students.''

Whatever the strategy the scientific community chooses to adopt, Mr. Alberts said, scientists should be aware that real reform is a long-range goal.

"We need 10 years of constant attention,'' he said, "not one year of this and one year of that.''

Vol. 13, Issue 23

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