Saturday, June 07, 2008

Science Education for Everyone: Why and What?

This is a rather provocative and often insightful essay posted on RedOrbit. It discusses not just why a general science education for non-scientists/engineers is important (we all know that), but also how it should be done. There are certainly many points in this essay that I agree, and I certainly consider the general introductory course in Physics, for example, not quite as effective to non-science majors in terms of getting across the point. That's why I have tried to put down some suggestion on how to do this better from the perspective of the introductory laboratory exercises.

However, the essay goes a bit further than that and tackles the larger issue, which by and large, I agree with. However, I also think that the author may be missing an important point in all of this. For example:

When we take as our goal the production of students who are comfortable handling science-related issues that arise in public debate, two propositions follow immediately, both of which are profoundly out of tune with the current academic consensus: (1) the students need to know something about all areas of science, rather than a lot about a single area; and (2) the students do not need to be able to "do" science.

I have absolutely no problem with that one. But this one is where the author missed something important:

A common response to the notion of teaching all of the sciences is the claim that the standard type of courses really teach something called the "scientific method," and that this will magically give students the background they need to read the newspaper on the day they graduate. This argument is so silly that I scarcely know where to start commenting on it. If it were applied to any other field, its vacuity would be obvious; after all, no one argues that someone who wants to learn Chinese should study French, acquire the "language method," and learn Chinese on his or her own. If we expect our students to understand the basic principles of ecology or geology, we should teach those principles explicitly. To do otherwise is to indulge in what I call the "teach them relativity and they'll work out molecular biology on the way home" school of thought. Incidentally, the notion that there is a magical "scientific method" explains a bizarre feature of the modern scientific community. I am referring to the fact that, outside of their fields of specialty, professional scientists, as a group, are probably the most scientifically illiterate group in the United States. The reason is simpie: scientists are never required to study science outside of their own fields. The last time a working physicist saw a biology textbook, for example, was probably in high school. If you do not believe me, ask one of your scientific colleagues how he or she deals with public issues outside of his or her field. Chances are you'll get an answer like "I call a friend," a technique I refer to as having recourse to the Golden Rolodex.

There are 2 problems with the author's view on this:

1. Scientists, more than anyone else, I would think, know the limitation of what they know, and because of that, realize that that what they know about other fields are only at the superficial level. I can bet you that if you take someone off the street and another physicist, for example, evaluate carefully what each of them know about stem-cell, I will put my money that the physicist has a deeper technical understanding of what a stem-cell is. Yet, if you ask them casually about such issue, you can easily get the "I call a friend" answer. Why? Because most of us do not consider our knowledge to be on the expert level on such issues. Our "threshold" for considering that we have a valid understanding of something is SO HIGH, because we know what is meant to be an "expert" at something, that many of the important aspect of understanding something are in the DETAILS which one are not aware of by knowing something just superficially! So to deduce the fact that a scientist would rather rely on someone who is an expert in the other field as being "illiterate" in that area of study is bogus! This is where an "anecdotal" observation simply doesn't have enough substance to draw up such conclusion.

2. When we teach students science, or physics in particular, we are teaching them SKILLS, or more specifically, analytic skills. It is a systematic examination of the problems, looking at correlations via the relationships between various quantities and parameters, and then looking at the cause and effect. If one look closely, what I've mentioned here is totally INDEPENDENT of physics! You can apply such skill to any problem that one encounters in life! In fact, I just applied such skill in #1 to argue why the author's conclusion is faulty! When I did my series on the revamping of the undergraduate physics lab, the whole purpose of it is to make a CONSCIOUS effort to get the students to examine these aspects of the formation of knowledge. How do we accept something as being valid? When someone claims that "... scientifically illiterate group...", how do we judge that to be valid rather than just simply accepting it blindly just because someone writes it on a webpage? This is the whole essence of our ability to analyze a situation to make a valid conclusion, and thus, forming knowledge about something. While you do not study classical mechanics in introductory physics classes so that you can be able to understand the issues surrounding global warming, the SKILL that you acquire in thinking through a problem in classical mechanics is very much relevant in your effort to decipher the wide range of information that is contained in global warming.

But why can't we simply cut to the chase and just teach the kids about global warming, stem-cells, energy crisis, etc.. etc? Because there are an infinite number of scientific issues that can pop up! We simply can't cover ALL of these issues or even anticipate what's to come in the future. Nanotechnology is something that is fast emerging as something that could create quite a social issue soon. And who knows, there are those that could easily pop up anytime soon. Teaching specific subject matter rather than the skills that are subject independent is like giving a hunger person some fish, rather than teach that person how to fish. You can satisfy the immediate needs, but next time the same type problem crops up, you have to continue to provide more, rather than just give that person the skill to be able to solve it on his/her own.

I'm not saying covering these areas in a general science course is useless. They are not. However, they should be covered as ILLUSTRATIONS of the application of the analytical skills they learned in science classes. When someone mention "stem cell", a scientist wanting to know about it will first ask "OK, what is a stem cell? How is it defined? What does it do, and what are the properties?" Then the scientist will ask "OK, what are the social/cultural/moral issues? What are the points from each side? Do they make any valid ideas that are consistent with what stem cell is defined as? Are their conclusions unique, or can there be more than one conclusions based on the same set of data and understanding?" These are ALL the same type of questions a scientist asks in his/her own line of work, and the same skill applies when he/she tries to understand the same thing. I don't see any other way to evaluate something to be valid. This will allow someone to clearly know the boundary between something that is based on solid, physical evidence, versus something that has gone beyond that into the realm of moral decisions and social opinions.

The problem right now, as I see it, is that there isn't a conscious effort to tell these students that this is one of the main purpose of them enrolling in such science courses. Many, if not most, of the instructors are simply teaching the content, with little emphasis, even if they are aware of it, of the analytical skills that are being "accidentally taught" through such classes. So these students are encountering a very valuable skill without knowing it, and they lose it afterwards because it isn't something that was visible to them as being important. It is why, I think, that we can start with the revamping of the intro physics labs, because this is where science is right in front of their face, and where they see how we accept or understand something. Only through a conscious and deliberate effort of emphasizing such analytical skills can we generate a general population that can do their own self-evaluation of the information that they are being bombarded with.


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