Rational goals for science education

There were two events that conspired this past week to lead me to the topic of education–and particularly science education. The first was the unlikely event in which I actually watched television. Although we do have a small screen telly at home, it is rarely used. The US Public Broadcasting Station hosts a favorite from back in my childhood on Sunday evenings–Masterpiece Theatre, which includes a lot of great British BBC drama (from Henry’s much revered Downton Abbey–apparently airing new episodes come January, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and so much more).

Well all that, for the rather long-winded way of saying that this is pretty much it for any watching television, and even then it’s usually at a more convenient time on the computer. So it was rather coincidental that I happened upon Farid Zakaria’s program GPS on CNN. The topic was education in the US–specifically in the STEM arena, with an interesting comparison to education in two other countries: S. Korea and Finland. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The second event was my guest appearance as a scientist to promote the idea of science-as-a-career at my son’s elementary school (5th and 6th grades). Despite the fact that my kids like to portray me as a tough old codger who scares children, I know hope they don’t really believe that. After all, for years they always requested me to handle the entertainment and fun-and-games side of their home-made birthday parties. So I must have some ability to talk to children.

Some insight from these two coincidental events: Zakaria portrayed an extremely hard to picture situation in Korea, with students learning 18 hours a day in the maths and sciences in order to get ahead and hopefully gain acceptance to university. In fact, remarkably, he explained that a whole slew of evening preparation courses to advance in math and science have opened in Korea and that there is a terrible problem: the youth stay at these learning centers and study until midnight. The problems with this system were becoming so severe that the government actually passed a law making it illegal to have these tutoring centers open after 10 p.m. In order to enforce this law, crews were hired to go around the city and report any illicit studying after the 10 p.m. deadline.

So while western cities have tremendous gang, drug, alcohol and prostitution issues at night, Seoul has the huge problem of overly motivated high school students who just want to keep studying and refuse to get a good night’s sleep.

Zakaria then moved on to the situation in Finland–the idea being that both S. Korea and Finland are at the very top of countries with regards to education in math and the sciences (at least based on a wide variety of standard tests). In Finland, however, the situation is very different. The youth in Finland do not have more contact hours in school, or a tendency to go to tutoring schools after regular school hours. In Finland, apparently, the education system is a success due to outstanding teachers. These teachers–even for elementary school–need a Masters degree. And getting into teaching in university is hugely competitive, with only the top 20% being accepted. Teachers are treated like royalty–being a teacher is akin to being a university professor or medical doctor, as far as status, and teachers are very well paid.

In comparison, while teachers can certainly earn a decent living in the US, Zakaria noted that the average lawyer’s starting salary is $116,000 more than the average teacher’s starting salary in the US. I don’t even want to compare to the average college football coach (we’ve had that discussion before…).

The teachers in Finland, apparently, do not spend any formal time preparing students for standard exams; in fact the teachers–being the brightest of the bright–are given free latitude to teach however they like. And they seem to do an excellent job instilling concepts and promoting creative thinking, rather than simply expecting students to cram material and memorize, or simply technically cram algebra and calculus.

When I visited my son’s school this week, his teacher–who is an outstanding teacher–asked me to talk a little about the scientific method, and what a career is like as a scientist. To discuss the scientific method, I adapted some slides that I found on the interwebz to suit my own purposes, and talked about the example of baking a loaf of bread, and testing the hypothesis that the more sugar added, the more the bread would rise.

It was a great opportunity to take the students through all the considerations of controls, dependent and independent variables, and look at data and interpret them, and revise our hypothesis. The children were terrific–as I had anticipated–and we had great discussions and even talked about separating cause and effect. One could clearly see the training in scientific reasoning that they had acquired from the teacher.

Superb questions were asked, and even later, when I discussed science as a career, one child asked whether scientists have messy benches. Fortunately I could take them to an earlier blog of mine here on OT showing 2 opposing styles of researchers in my lab (both productive!). They liked that!

Finally, I also had the opportunity to show them Stephen Curry’s trailer from “I’m a  Scientist.” That was also a big hit!

Putting everything in perspective, I have come to the albeit anecdotal conclusion that science and scientific thinking probably doesn’t differ much from learning a language or learning to play a musical instrument. Starting young, rational or skeptical thinking can easily be developed–and that’s the most important and critical element for a scientist. All of the other information overload can be obtained later.

It’s the thought that counts.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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5 Responses to Rational goals for science education

  1. Important issues Steve. One of the things that causes concern in the UK is the drop-off in enthusiasm as children move from primary to secondary school (which occurs at around 11, so probably just after the stage of the children you were talking to, can’t convert your grades to age easily). There are no doubt all kinds of reasons for this but it was put by one teacher to me recently as ‘moving from doing to learning’. In other words at our primary schools there are lots of opportunity for messy ‘play’ which actually leads to real engagement eg with water, or something else equally simple and basic but crucial to gain scientific intuition and understanding of process. At secondary school they are more likely to be sat down while a teacher explains things, possibly with demonstrations (real or virtual) but maybe just in words. Is this equally a problem in the US?

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Thanks, Athene. First, I meant to note 5th and 6th graders in the US are about 10-12 years old, so your assumption was correct.

    I agree with you that hands-on science is definitely a must for children in elementary AND secondary schools. It’s easy to see how the popularity of “children’s museums” (which are generally hands-on science museums) really captures the interest of children and youth.

    One of the main issues brought up in Farid Zakaria’s program–which I didn’t touch upon–was the fact that the US (and I’m sure it has become like this in the UK as well) has an extremely heterogeneous population, with many children who are immigrants from all across the globe. The diversity in backgrounds turns out to be a tremendous challenge for schools. Finland’s success, for example, is probably attributed also to its homogeneous population with almost no poverty.

    It is interesting that throughout my travels across the US, I have come to understand that Omaha has an exceptionally good school system, and unlike other cities in the US, where it is “hit or miss,” all the schools here are considered quite strong. A friend of mine in St. Louis told me that he lived in the city in a large apartment complex, where the dividing line for a school district split the building in half. The flats in the better district were double the cost.

    So with regard to children above 11 years old, I have only anecdotal information through my daughter, and meeting the science teacher at parent-teacher night. It seems that in her school, at this very early age, the kids are already separated into classes for those who can learn more quickly. Math was always like this, and my daughter took an exam before starting this school that jumped her to the highest of, I believe, 4 math levels. The top level being ‘inhabited’ by less than 10% of the students.

    Other topics have now begun to follow suit, with a “Honors-by-contract” system that identifies more motivated and stronger students, and proceeds to challenge them (while they remain physically in the same classroom).

    With regard to science, there is a new curriculum this year–that to my eyes is superb. First, the stronger students in math are automatically enrolled in “Physical Science” (these are 13 year old) with 4 main topics. The first quarter they dealt with chemistry, and it was wonderful to see how at this age my daughter and her friends could understand the atomic table, isotopes, Bohr models, balancing equations, etc. Throughout there was a smattering of interesting labs. I can’t remember them all, but a chemical reaction where they actually were required later to balance the equation was one. There were also endothermic and exothermic reactions to highlight the differences. And now, moving on to physics and motion, I believe that they recently were timing how long it took dominoes to fall when placed at varying distances from each other.

    So all in all, I would say that it seems that this would propel strong students forward and maintain an interest in science. But for those students (the majority) who are not at this level, I really don’t know. Obviously, this is one reason why standard tests in the US yield such poor results, because the elite do great, but they are only a small fraction of the overall population. I guess the question is how to get the general population more engaged in science.

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Interesting – I wish I’d seen that documentary!

    The stories you hear about the Korean and other similar stories are really quite terrifying – you have to wonder what the long-term cost will be. My husband has two friends who independently moved to Taiwan to set up ESL schools; they’re both in the process of moving back to Canada, as they both have kids who are just about to enter the school system, and they didn’t want them to have to endure the “pressure-cooker atmosphere”, as one of them put it, of the local schools. Both guys married local women, and both of the women are 100% on board with the decision to move back here, having been through the Taiwanese school systems themselves…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Cath- I think you can see some of the documentary here: http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/05/gps-special-fixing-education/

      Not sure how far it continues, but you can give it a try.

      I guess in comparison to other problems, caring too much about education is something manageable. Having said that, I myself am pretty discouraged by what appears to be an overall lack of critical thinking in the students that I face in the classroom.

      It seems not to matter whether they are local or international students, but the majority (and of course there are many exceptions, fortunately) seem to have been trained primarily in memorization skills, with precious little training in rational thinking–not to mention in any creative thought.

      Those that are bright and motivated are still able to adapt, but I fear that the “average student” is unable to make this expected transition. I am certain that training at an early age in critical thinking would leave many more students who would be better capable of what is expected in graduate training.

      Sounds like your friends made a wise choice.

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