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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The sorry state of science education

    There are two obvious ways to view the role of education.

    The first is to say education exists to prepare our youth for the workforce. According to this view, students need strong backgrounds in math, science and writing. The other perspective states education should prepare young people to be good citizens.

    If there’s any doubt that the Founding Fathers supported the latter position, there probably shouldn’t be. But this viewpoint is usually used to argue that history and social studies should play a much greater role in primary and secondary education, so that students can be responsible voters and that science and math do not need to be emphasized to as high a degree.

    But in a world where scientific issues and public policy continue to overlap, it’s impossible for responsible citizens to avoid being scientifically literate. Our era is one in which anthropogenic global warming and creationism in schools continue to be hot topics – and ones in which many Americans continue to cast ballots.

    Even greater scientific quandaries loom just over the horizon: Walter Wagner, a former nuclear safety officer, recently filed a lawsuit in Hawaii’s U.S. District Court demanding that preparations for the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, be ceased for a few months while its safety is reassessed.

    Wagner, along with a small number of vocal opponents of the LHC, fears that the high-energy particle collisions could start chain reactions which would convert the entire Earth to a foreign kind of matter via the introduction of strangelets or magnetic monopoles. They have also expressed concerns that miniature black holes produced in the collisions may not decay, but rather may expand to swallow the entire Earth.

    The overwhelming majority of experts disagree with Wagner. But with bogus scientific matters like this threatening to clog our legal passages, the day will soon come when far-out science becomes a matter of serious political discourse.

    The greatest service we as a country can do to help prepare our citizens for this eventuality is to teach them to think like scientists.

    Science education in primary and secondary schools is in a sorry state of affairs, as anyone who has had to endure American high school science classes can attest. The solution popularly proposed by politicians is to increase science funding and to place greater emphasis on science in standardized tests – in other words, throw money at the problem and make it more difficult to pass.

    Meanwhile, we continue to present students with a laughably simplified cartoon picture of the scientific method. Science, as it is currently taught, features none of the experimental rigor or methodological discipline which characterizes the way science is really done. Your average high school biology student can probably tell you a fair bit about mitosis – but do they have any idea how we know this? (Biology majors: Do you?)

    Rote memorization of facts and equations isn’t science. It’s theology.

    By far the most common complaint in science classes is the simplest one: “”When are we going to have to use any of this?””

    It’s true that, as a high school graduate, I might never need to balance a chemical equation or compute the current exiting and entering a node on a circuit. But can I think critically about the external world? Can I examine a study or journal article and decide whether to accept or reject its results? Do I have any idea how peer review works, or how scientists actually go about doing science? English classes are devoted to the analysis of texts and the development of critical reading skills – why not require similar standards for our science classes?

    These are the scientific skills that everyone can use in everyday life. But if our country’s embarrassingly high rate of people who reject evolution and anthropogenic global warming are any indication, they’re also the exact skills our population is lacking. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “”If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be”” – and a scientifically ignorant populace is just waiting to be preyed on by all sorts of snake-oil salesmen.

    All of this isn’t to say that current science education is a total failure, or that we would gain nothing by promoting it. Knowing the basics of chemistry, physics, biology and related fields is still essential to understanding deeper scientific quandaries, and being able to think quantitatively, not just qualitatively, is critical to succeed in just about any field.

    But as long as everyone agrees we need to expand science education at large, let’s make sure we’re doing so in a way which fosters respect for the scientific method, arguably the best method of gaining empirical knowledge mankind has ever produced. And let’s make sure that, at each step along the way, we don’t neglect the role of science education in producing graduates who are prepared to be optimal citizens, not just good workers.

    Taylor Kessinger is a junior majoring in math, philosophy and physics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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