Why Science Education is Essential for Democracy

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10/31/16

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screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-4-31-58-pmThe current election cycle scares me in ways that I have never felt before. It is not so much the hatred and lies that Donald Trump spews regularly, but the potential for sanctioned violence and irrationality from my fellow citizens. History and morality demand vigorous challenge. My realm is science education. I believe it has a role to play in promoting widespread human decency, equity, and reason.

I came to science education advocacy as a young person by way of curiosity, social action, and history. I’m still there. Sure, effective STEM education can prepare students for the jobs of the future. Yes, it can enhance workforce competitiveness is a global economy. However, that is not what drives me.

I grew up in a rural suburb. The woods behind my house was my favored playground. Hunting frogs, floating sticks in ditches and creeks, and dropping stones off cliffs captured my imagination. My parents’ evocation of what it meant to be a Jew in the shadow of the Holocaust, intensifying civil rights struggles, and my participation in the antiwar movement shaped my values and life’s direction. It led me to study history and science and to teach.

Equitable education in a healthy democracy includes science and engineering learning for every student. Great science and engineering education engage student so that they develop the knowledge and intellectual dispositions to make sense of the natural and designed worlds. But that’s not all. It prepares young people to understand how beliefs and values intersect with evidence in decision-making.

These are times of hope and despair. Advances in science and technology linked to social responsibility offer promise to address timeless human problems. In this presidential election millions of American¬- especially young people- identify with a progressive direction for our country. But simultaneously, the twin demons of spreading authoritarianism and hatred threaten the wellbeing of all. Hope and despair.

In his 1956 book, Science and Human Values, Jacob Bronowski recalls his still vivid memory upon arriving in 1945 in a military Jeep as part of a British team visiting Japan to document the nuclear devastation in Nagasaki. He reports that a then current tune, Is You or Is You Ain’t My Baby, was broadcasting from a nearby Navy ship. He writes,

Nothing happened in 1945 except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man…. The implications are both the industrial slum which Nagasaki was before it was bombed and the ashy desolation which the bomb made of the slum. And Civilization asks of both ruins, Is You Or Is You Not My Baby?

The urgency of accepting responsibility for the fate of the planet and everyone on it is as compelling now as it was in 1945. Ubiquitous inequity in how people are fed, clothed, housed, and kept safe and healthy remains our primary challenges globally and in the US. Whether those challenges are mediated or ignored depends on whether governments are democratic or authoritarian and ruled for the benefit of the already empowered or those not yet empowered. Solutions depend on whether or not democracies are informed by compassionate citizens who understand how scientists develop, test and revise models of how the natural world works and how engineers design and improve solutions to human problems.

I worry that some of my fellow critics of currently dominant education policy appear to view advocacy for STEM education with distrust and as a tool of those who seek to turn education into a market commodity in the service of corporate profit. We do not need to choose between education for life, work, and citizenship. We do not need to choose between STEM, arts and humanities education. We can have it all in service of equity and democracy.

The National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education was designed to provide educators with guidance for the next generation of science education. Several key features point to an opportunity for students to grapple with the how science, technology, and engineering intersect with evidence-based decision making and human impact. First, it emphasizes that the technological products and processes that govern our lives are a human enterprise, guided by informed engineering designs that rest on an understanding of the natural world. Second, it asserts that this learning is for everyone, not just those already headed to related careers. Third, it places practices such as justifying claims and engineering-design decisions based on evidence at the center of learning. Fourth, it makes considering human impact an essential feature of scientific literacy. For example, one core idea at the high school level is: When evaluating solutions, it is important to take into account a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, and to consider social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Developing students’ capacity to interpret information, and then to make, critique and revise claims based on evidence must be a primary goal of education. That implies a shift from the current educational emphasis on students showing what they know on standardized tests to instead giving prominence to students demonstrating that they can find out what they need to know and use that information to solve problems. However, the capacity to assemble and interpret relevant information and the inclination and skill to generate evidence to defend and revise claims are not enough. Resolution of the trade-offs implicit in evaluating solutions turns not just on evidence, but also on often unexamined beliefs and values.

Non-evidentiary factors influence what information is collected and how data are interpreted. It is impossible to avoid the fact that values shape how and what students learn. School systems have a choice. They can either allow that influence to happen by default in unexplored darkness or in the revealing light of explicit intent. For example, many students attend racially and socioeconomically segregated schools but never discuss that this is the result of policy choices, delivering an implicit message about what is normative and what our society values. When teachers avoid explicit discussion of contested decisions that affect humanity, students do not learn to grapple with the ways in which values influence whether and how evidence is considered. Alternatively, when high-school students learn about the production and heat capturing properties of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane, they have an opportunity to investigate the interaction of values and evidence in policies regarding the use of fossil fuels. Avoiding issues in which beliefs and values play a role leaves them ill prepared to participate debates about a major policy issue of our time.

It is time to be inquisitive in the classroom and explicit in education policy debates about how values and beliefs determine the ways in which evidence is interpreted and how that interaction influence important decisions that impact humanity. Yes, Dr. Bronowski, these decisions are indeed our babies.

Arthur H. Camins is the Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky. The views expressed in this article are his alone.
His writing is collected at http://www.arthurcamins.com
He tweets at @arthurcamins

Follow Arthur Camins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/arthurcamins

 

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One Response to “Why Science Education is Essential for Democracy”

  1. ciedie aech November 3, 2016 at 5:33 pm #

    Your recognition that “[d]eveloping students’ capacity to interpret information, and then to make, critique and revise claims based on evidence must be a primary goal of education” crosses all curricular lines. When children are taught to not only think, but to back up personal beliefs/assignments with evidence, our whole country wins.

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