Science Education for All: Moving from a Specialization Approach to a Holistic Approach

Science Education for All: Moving from a Specialization Approach to a Holistic Approach

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With the advent of modern science in the seventeenth century, a paradigm shift occurred in our understanding of nature and the world. No longer was our knowledge of nature simply passed down to a learned group in the Universities in Latin as facts elucidated through logic by Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen. Now, armed with a fledgling, but powerful, approach to the study of nature, this new breed of natural philosophers, the scientists, employed the scientific method to study the secrets of nature.   In addition, they shared their findings with other scientists writing in the language of the day. Not only did this new experimental approach yield a wealth of new information, but also it allowed for the gathering of such data at an ever-increasing rate. The rewards of using such a method included the development of new fields of study. Whereas the term science only took hold in the seventeenth century, various subspecialties under science, such as chemistry, were making significant advances by the eighteenth century.

This process of the gathering of scientific knowledge employing the scientific method has continued to grow at a dizzying pace ever since. In addition, such knowledge has been used to develop technologies that have dramatically changed our culture. Technologies leading to steam engines and the industrial revolution, the telegraph and telephone, the automobile, airplanes, spacecraft, the transistor, silicon chip, and the computer revolution to name a few. We tend to take the changes in our technological culture for granted, but such technological advances continue at a geometrically increasing rate. 

To allow scientists to learn, understand, and employ the growing knowledge in science, science education has become very specialized. The preparation of scientists begins with a presentation of some of the important facts and knowledge needed as background.  Then, more complicated theories are discussed as well as an introduction to the process of doing science. Although this process works well for the education of future scientists, such an approach does not work well for the vast majority of the human population who are not going to be scientists yet find themselves immersed in this scientific and technological society. They never get past the early presentation of background material, and thus never really get acquainted with the power of the scientific method. In addition, their ability to understand important scientific findings and new technologies becomes more and more difficult. The result is that we have a science educational system that fails to adequately prepare most of its learners to operate in a technologically sophisticated culture. The science educational system is broken and in desperate need of repair.  

In this paper, we will examine several attempts to change the way in which science is taught in the K-16 levels. The common thread for these new approaches is a movement from the specialization approach used to train future scientists to a holistic approach needed to educate non-scientists living in a scientific and technologically sophisticated society. The courses portend a new model emphasizing the integration of our knowledge from all disciplines to build a sophisticated worldview. With our technological world constantly becoming more complex, our approach needs to be able to adapt to this complexity as well. 

Science Education in K-8

Graduate education in science is very different from the science education most of us are aware of in the K-16 grades. It is really more like an apprenticeship. Early in a graduate student’s career, the student is located in a laboratory under the tutelage of her research advisor. Although there are other responsibilities such as taking a select group of graduate classes and duties as a teaching assistant directing a laboratory of undergraduate students in how to carry out their laboratory experiment, the main job is to advance the research project that the student has become part of. Such a process includes looking into the pertinent literature to see what work pertaining to this project has been done in the past, devising new experiments to allow the gathering of information, conducting the experimental work and making observations or collecting data, turning this into results obtained, and then discussing what the new results mean in trying to solve the problem of interest. These results and discussion typically become the starting point for the next experiment devised. In this way, the process of doing science is an iterative approach that little by little leads to an understanding of the larger problem of interest. There are no set experiments to run, no road map to follow, no guarantee of where the project is going.  The progress is dictated by each step along the way. For most scientists, this is both the challenging and exciting aspect of doing science. For me, this process of doing science is the reason I wanted to become a scientist.

 Yet, if we examine the way science is presented in the K-16 curriculum, we see very little of this process. Instead, the majority of what is done in the classroom involves the learning of scientific facts and/or how to solve scientific word problems. Very little experimentation is done. I was giving an in-service for grades 5-8 teachers a few years ago and asked how many experiments each teacher performed over the academic year. I was, unfortunately, not shocked to find that the average for these 50 teachers was 3 experiments each year. Clearly, the process of doing science is lost in the early grades.  Students who do well in science are those who are able to recall facts presented in class.   The high school and college years are not that much better. Although many of these higher levels have a fair amount of laboratory time allocated, the experiments are prescribed. The students follow a procedure, a recipe, in carrying out the experiment.  Again, this is important for science students because they are learning valuable techniques and laboratory skills needed to carry out experiments in the future. But for the non-scientists, it sends the wrong message about how science is done. 

The problem is further exacerbated because some of the students in these K-16 classes go on to become K-12 teachers. Let’s look at how we prepare future K-8 teachers. Many of these students major in liberal studies. As such, they take a breadth of courses from a variety of disciplines. The science courses they encounter tend to be of a few types. First, these liberal studies majors may be required to take the same courses that the science majors take. These courses focus on presenting an accumulation of basic knowledge in the field. The material is then supplemented with laboratory experiments designed to build skills needed to be a functioning scientist. Another option requires the future teachers to take an introduction course to the field. These courses tend to be less rigorous than the majors course, but many times do not have any laboratory experience at all.  Therefore, the process of science is completely removed from the study of the discipline.  Finally, another category includes specialty courses describing an area of interest to the scientist. The professor hopes the students will come to gain an appreciation for the interesting process of scientific discovery. And although this may be true, it leaves the pre-service teacher wanting for descriptions of how all the information fits together.

In gaining a multiple subject credential, these new teachers are expected to teach a wide variety of subjects each day. The lesson plans they develop must meet the educational standards set down by the state. There is pressure to deliver the content prescribed within the given grade level. Indeed, this pressure has intensified by recent measures at both the national and state levels to assess if schools are achieving at levels to ensure continued funding. If we add to this problem a real lack of exposure to the process of doing science during the new teacher’s own K-16 education, it is not surprising that very little hands-on work is done in the K-8 classroom. So, the result is that many times science is not taught in the classroom, or if it is, it is as a collection of facts. The K-8 teachers we train are simply not well versed in the process of doing science. And as the teacher continues to write lessons, there is a tendency to put less effort in the area you feel most unsure about or untrained in.

Some years ago, we developed science classes for future elementary school teachers at the college level. These courses were developed under a five-year National Science Foundation collaborative grant to improve future teacher training. The Los Angeles Collaborative for Teacher Excellence (LACTE) brought together five four-year colleges partnered with five two-year community colleges. In these courses, we concentrate on the process of doing science. Yes, content is important, but we feel understanding the process of how science is done is equally important. These students, future teachers, come into the class both fearing science and not interested in science. There memories of science in elementary school is either a positive one usually involving a particular experiment done in the classroom, or negative ones including lots of memorization, frustration with the mathematics involved in science problem solving, or chemistry.

In our classes for future elementary school teachers, we conduct many experiments and activities using a guided inquiry approach. They learn that doing science is integral to understanding science. That indeed the process of discovery, the integration of this new knowledge, and the application of the knowledge are what science is all about. We work with the students to help them develop their own activities for use in the classroom. We address the barriers they will encounter in doing science in the K-8 classroom. They then have an opportunity to visit a local elementary school classroom and conduct their lesson.  For many of the students, this is their first time teaching in the classroom. 

Our data collected from a pre- and post- survey done over many years shows that at the end of the course, students feel they are both better at doing science as well as more interested in the subject. We have modeled a new way to do science in the K-8 classroom. Because research shows that we tend to teach the way we were taught, these future teachers are more involved in doing science in their classrooms. In addition, there is a context in which the content of the course is learned. Students understand that the content they are learning comes from experiment. This allows opportunities for the integration of the knowledge they are exposed to. They begin to ask questions and assemble their knowledge. It becomes more than just a collection of facts. The result are teachers willing and able to do science in the K-8 classrooms. But these teachers are also contributing to changing the K-8 science education paradigm. 

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Science Education

Science and Religion Courses

The science and religion dialogue serves as a wonderful template for how to change science education for the non-scientist. By having opportunities in which the learner is exposed not only to content from each discipline, but also how the disciplines relate to each other, the student is asked to integrate this knowledge into his worldview.

We developed a course over ten years ago called Science, Theology, and the Future. This course starts with a discussion of some history of the science and religion debate using the Galileo affair. We then move to a discussion of the scientific and theological methods attempting to nuance each of them. Next we present Ian Barbour’s typology for the relationship between science and religion. We continue with a discussion of the Big Bang and then explore the physical, chemical, and biological evolution of the Universe. We follow by looking at some current advances in science and technology such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and environmental problems, and end with the future of the Universe. As we discuss what Ursula Goodenough would describe as the “History of Nature,” we take time to explore the theological questions that arise from each topic.  But this discussion is informed by the science just presented. We have found that this course is very popular for both the science as well as the non-science students. Students really enjoy learning material from the two disciplines side-by-side.

We developed this course to be team-taught. In particular, as a scientist, I would present a section of material on the science under discussion. My colleague, a theologian, would then present the discussion of the pertinent theological questions. This team-taught approach allows each of us to present material within our discipline, yet do so in light of material from the second discipline. Of course, the preparation of such a course required each of us to become familiar with the science and religion literature as well, no small task. So, yes, it is a stretch for us to teach such a course, but we are able to remain in our discipline comfort zone, within the box. 

Meanwhile, the students struggle to integrate the knowledge they are learning. We give them many assignments to help them integrate their knowledge. They are asked to do reflections after each class. Another larger assignment is to develop a web site focusing on a particular topic, e.g. biological evolution. The students work in teams of three on this project. The web site produced contains content with a format reflecting the level of the integration of their knowledge. 

One criticism of our teaching style, though, is that it does not really model how to integrate the knowledge from the two disciplines. This became very apparent one year when we were teaching a class of predominantly science majors. I would present the science information. The next class section would be the theological counterpart. We found that the science students would routinely look to me for assurance that the information they were being presented on the theology side was legitimate. My teaching role became that of an authority. Not only an authority of the science material, but also of the validity of the theology. This is problematic because there are many times that my colleague and I would like to have a discussion about the material we are presenting, a discussion that may involve disparate views with no obvious resolution. We did find that when the class was a mix of science majors and non-science majors, which was typically the case, the issue just raised seemed to disappear. 

Capstone Courses

More recently, we taught an interdisciplinary class for college seniors that we dubbed a “keystone” course. This course was meant to be a capstone experience for the students both within their discipline as well as as within the core curriculum. We had six instructors from disciplines including psychology, philosophy, accounting, screenwriting, theatre arts, and natural science. Faculty involved represented each of the various colleges/schools on our campus. Likewise, we had students from all five colleges/schools as well. The topic was the environment, but it could have been almost any topic. In particular, we were exploring the tension between a large housing development under construction close to our campus with the desire to save and restore this land as wetlands.  The topic allowed us to easily explore questions from a large number of disciplines.  Initially, we established a baseline of knowledge through common papers followed by an examination of ways of learning in various disciplines. We then followed by inviting selected guest speakers. The remainder of the class involved the students identifying research problems of interest, forming interdisciplinary groups to address the problems, working on the projects, and making a final presentation of the results. 

We were trying to move the students from the classroom to the real world. In this format, faculty members become facilitators and resources for the students instead of the authorities. The goal is to empower the students in their own learning. It would have been easy to simply split up the weeks in the semester and have the faculty sign up for their share giving the student a dose of material from their discipline. We resisted this temptation. But the approach we selected required faculty to move significantly out of their comfort zone, definitely outside of the box. We routinely met as a group of faculty to plan the next class. Our meetings tended to focus on where our students were in their process and how we could help them.  We worked from consensus. Our meetings in many ways mirrored the same process our students were going through. 

The course presented emotional upheaval for many of the students (and faculty!). They were used to faculty telling them what they needed to do next. Also, several students had difficulty in working in groups. We realize now that more group building exercises are needed to generate trust among the students. In addition, we found that many of the students lacked the critical thinking skills we assumed were being instilled early in their core curriculum. But even with these problems, the students were able to use skills learned in each of their respective disciplines to tackle the problem at hand. They did manage to learn to work together in groups. The final reports were presented in an interdisciplinary manner and were well done. 

The format of the course did foster the integration of large amounts of knowledge from a variety of fields in addressing a problem of interest. This is what the students will face shortly after they enter the “real world.” For the science majors, they realized the importance of relaying their information to the general public. While for the non-scientists, they gained appreciation for how the science data is collected and the significance of it. All learned that there is much more to understanding a problem than looking at it through the lens of a single discipline. 

Integrated Science Program

Finally, we are currently developing a new first year program for life science majors and will pilot it in the fall. Even within the sciences, students perceive each discipline to be completely separate and isolated from each other. They do not begin to integrate their knowledge until they begin research projects either as upper division undergraduates or as graduate students. In our new program, Life Science Early Awareness Program (LEAP), students will work in blocks of time when we present general chemistry, general biology, and pre-calculus concepts. These concepts will not be presented in a discipline specific way. Instead, the program will have projects that the students will work on.  These projects will be designed to integrate their knowledge for these three disciplines.  In addition, other components are included in the program. All students will utilize technology in the classroom by using MacBook Pro laptops. There is a linked English composition course as well as a special course designed to help students transition into college and to make them aware of career opportunities within the life sciences. All students will live together in a learning community. Finally, there are both trips before the start of the school year to build community and a field trip occurring during the mid-term break. 

We are hoping this model works to help life science majors better integrate their science and math knowledge. Although they will return to more typical classes in their sophomore year, we hope this approach of integrating their knowledge will carry over to other science courses as well. In an ideal world, these students may even begin to integrate what they learn in non-science courses as well. We would anticipate that this model may even serve to guide non-science majors’ exposure to the sciences. If a model is developed, it would introduce all students to transdisciplinary learning early in their college careers.

Creating a New Worldview Using a Holistic Approach

My experience with the courses described above has fundamentally changed my view of not only science education, but education in general. We need to move from the specialization model that started with the advent of modern science to a holistic model integrating the disciplines, a model which is transdisciplinary. Our new culture, highly technological, demands that we develop such a new approach. Our specialization model no longer is able to equip us with the skills needed to adequately function in such a society.

We are at a point when the holistic model is just beginning to emerge. Our experience with environmental problems shows us that we need an approach that can synthesize a great deal of information and bring it to bear on a problem. If each of our disciplines is like trees, then we now see trees strong and tall with many branches and full foliage. But what is emerging is the forest. This is a new concept. The only way we can describe the forest is by not focusing on the individual tree, but to ponder the landscape from a broader view. When we do so, we will begin to see the big picture for the knowledge we have. This holistic approach will better inform our ongoing development of worldview.  And of course our worldview informs how we operate in society.

This holistic approach to education is an exciting next step in our development as humans. With it, we will be better able to address the problems that face our society and culture. With it, we will rise to new heights and move in new, yet undetermined, directions.