Researchers Worry About Impact of Pseudoscience on Curriculum

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San Francisco While attempts to introduce creationism into the precollegiate science curriculum have attracted national attention, religious and pseudoscientific assaults on science in such subjects as environmental and multicultural education have largely been ignored, according to a panel of researchers here.

Yet, the strength of advocates of pseudoscience from both ends of the political spectrum threatens to further dilute the quality of school science, the panelists argued before a standing-room-only crowd at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The session was designed to alert educators to subtle but increasingly frequent challenges to the validity of science teaching.

Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley, warned that, because of widespread scientific illiteracy, advocates of pseudoscience have taken the initiative to drive science out of the classroom.

Panelists focused much of their criticism on curbs on the teaching of evolution, as well as on some efforts to promote "Afrocentric'' approaches to science teaching.

But beyond those widely noted controversies, the researchers pointed to other areas where they saw evidence of antiscientific attitudes.

Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, a cultural anthropologist at Wayne State University, for example, cited a text frequently used to train teachers in multiculturalism. It flatly states that there is no evidence that Native Americans migrated to North America from Asia, instead lending scientific credence to Indian creation myths.

The text does say teachers might want to discuss anthropological theories in class, Mr. Ortiz de Montellano acknowledged.

Norman Levitt, a mathematician and the author of a book titled Higher Superstition, warned against antitechnological ideas that celebrate a mythical Edenic world polluted and destroyed by Western technology.

Such misconceptions most often find their way into the classroom in materials on the environment, he said.

"It's not only traditionalists of one kind or another who have myths,'' Mr. Levitt said.

Improving K-12 pedagogy was only one of several strategies for increasing science literacy among young people discussed at the A.A.A.S. meeting.

Museum exhibits, radio programs, and television shows all were cited as exemplary "informal'' education strategies.

One of these "less formal ways for intriguing young folks ... about the beauties, joys, and frustrations of science'' is to allow them to watch a 25-year-old television program and its contemporary sequel, suggested Sharon Friedman of the Lehigh University journalism department.

Ms. Friedman moderated a session titled "The Science in Star Trek: Bringing Science to a Different Public.''

Panelists cited anecdotal evidence that the original show, its current sequel, and a series of popular films have prompted many people to choose scientific careers.

But Naren Shankar, a physicist and the science adviser to "Star Trek: The Next Generation,'' conceded that, "Most of the time, the treatment of science on 'Star Trek' is less than rigorous.''

"Like it or not,'' Mr. Shankar added, "we're a television show.''

Still, he and other panelists agreed that more than any other prime-time program, "Star Trek'' offers a sympathetic portrayal of science, scientists, and the scientific method.

Hal Coyle, a former high school teacher who used "Star Trek'' as a teaching aide in his astronomy and physics courses, said that focusing on the show's scientific implausibilities helped students appreciate the difference between science and entertainment.

One of a series of talks on "communicating science'' demonstrated the difficulties in trying to use the small screen to convey science to children.

Michael Templeton, a producer for Scholastic Inc., outlined the problems in translating The Magic School Bus, a series of children's books, into a cartoon series about science.

Starring the voice of the comedian Lily Tomlin as Ms. Frizzle, an eccentric but beloved science teacher, the televised version of The Magic School Bus is scheduled to air this fall on PBS.

Mr. Templeton said a great deal of research involving parents, teachers, and students went into deciding how best to move the stories from the page to the screen.

Among the questions that needed to be answered were, "Would students be able to discern the fantasy elements of the books from the science?'' and, "Are certain elements from the printed page, no matter how popular, unworkable on television?''

The answer to both questions, Mr. Templeton said, is yes.

Valerie Crane, who helped conduct the research, said certain story elements that adults might find suspenseful and that might not disturb children when reading become very stressful for youngsters watching television by themselves.

Mr. Templeton also noted that Ms. Frizzle tends in the books to use old-style teaching techniques. But that approach makes for boring television.

"We have, in a certain sense, sent Ms. Frizzle back to college'' to learn how to teach "inquiry-oriented science,'' Mr. Templeton said.

Vol. 13, Issue 23

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