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How to Make Science Class Relevant During the Pandemic

By Andrew A. Zucker & Pendred Noyce — September 29, 2020 5 min read
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COVID-19 has prompted many people to learn more about viruses and other aspects of science. But do you know that the thick volume that is America’s national science education standards—the Next Generation Science Standards—does not say it is important for students to learn about viruses, antibodies, immunization, or vaccines? Nor does the NGSS expect teachers to teach about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, or any other scientific institution. These topics, however, were important before the pandemic and will remain so after it is history.

And it’s not just the pandemic that offers a vivid example of why science education is so important. Look at the recent wildfires or extreme weather events tied to climate change or the recent measles outbreaks tied to skepticism of vaccines.

Increasing students’ “scientific literacy” is a central goal for K-12 education, but exactly what that means is open to debate. The pandemic provides a rare opportunity for parents, school board members, PTAs, politicians, and others to ask whether state and national science education standards and local curricula include the scientific literacy young people need today.

Science is essential to understanding many important social and political issues. How does our society use science to regulate levels of pollution in air, water, and food? Should certain vaccinations be required by law? If so, why? How should people and governments respond to climate change? Who decides which medications are effective and how? Should laws allow human beings to be cloned?

Science is essential to understanding many important social and political issues."

Questions like these require knowing some science, but they also involve ethics, government, and values. There are many lessons available in print or online about science-related social issues or debates about the responsible use of new technologies, as well as good science lessons touching on personal issues, such as health care or consumer products.

To what extent are such topics taught in your schools’ science classes? How prepared are science teachers to teach these topics that involve more than science and that might lead to disagreements or political controversy? Relating science to social and personal issues is important because all students—not just those who will go on to attend college—will eventually use science to help them make decisions, be it about their health or how to vote in an election.

All students also ought to learn how to sort real science from junk science, when feasible. Remember hydroxychloroquine? Or “detox” products advertising that they miraculously drain “toxins” from your body? Scientific misinformation, which has a storied history, has become an even more looming threat since the NGSS was published in 2013. Yet the standards do not even suggest that students be taught which sources of science-related information besides their textbook are credible, let alone how to evaluate the proliferation of dubious claims all of us encounter in media.

If the NGSS placed a higher priority on teaching students to evaluate information, more curricula and more teachers would focus on helping students do just that. Students could practice in class—in person or virtually—by being presented with some claims that are based on accurate science and others that are not. Consider again what this looks like in your own schools: Do science teachers help students learn to evaluate questionable scientific claims and become more media literate?

Reading and writing are too often overlooked in science standards as well. The Common Core State Standards ask teachers of English/language arts to assign more nonfiction, including science, and this seems to be a golden age for science-related trade books for children of all ages. But how much reading and writing about science happens in science classes? The data are discouraging. For example, data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress show 54 percent of 12th grade students reported never using library resources for science class. That same year, 40 percent of 8th grade teachers never asked students to read a book or magazine about science. In schools operating remotely this year, those resources could be even further out of reach for many students.

Scientific literacy and print literacy go hand in hand; for one thing, we expect most people to continue learning about science by reading after they leave school. Here are some questions worth considering in your school: How much reading or writing is required in your schools’ science classes? Do science teachers ever assign articles from newspapers or magazines and ask students to discuss or write about them? How often, if ever, are students asked to investigate a science-related topic, using articles online or in print, and then to synthesize information from several sources?

The American public is often told that more students should study science to fill essential roles in the STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—fields. What we should be more focused on is how to make that science more relevant and interesting to students. Yet fewer than half of all science teachers surveyed in Horizon Research’s “2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education” report responded that they feel “very well prepared” to encourage students’ interest in science and/or engineering. Among elementary teachers, that figure is just 26 percent.

Teaching only science content and scientific practices is enough for some students, but many others lose interest. Connecting science to personal and social issues, to good trade books (even high-quality science fiction), and to interesting science-related articles are promising ways to spark that interest.

Science education experts, including authors of the NGSS, have many good ideas, but we all have a stake in science education. In a democracy where the people elect their government, schools must teach science in a broader context to prepare students for the personal and civic decisions they will have to make for years to come.

We urge readers to consider what teaching for scientific literacy should look like in your own schools. Establishing appropriate goals for science education is a task for everyone, not just for scientists or those we name as policymakers.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2020 edition of Education Week as How to Make Science Education Relevant

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