scientific literacy

David W. Kramer kramer.8 at OSU.EDU
Tue Feb 2 20:36:28 EST 1999

I agree with David Hershey's excellent remarks on scientific literacy.

Some of us are trying to correct the wrongs of the past even if we seem
powerless to affect change within the teacher training programs of today in
our own university!  As Chair of the Education Committee of the Botanical
Society of America, I have encouraged colleagues to undertake activities to
improve K-12 science instruction.  Figuring I had better "put up or shut
up," I decided to offer a "Plant Biology for Teachers" workshop last
summer.  I won't go into the details of the design of the program (it
included a cluster of courses in education, technology, biology, and
physical science) but can give those details to anyone interested.  We
enrolled 43 teachers K-8 from nine school systems... they enrolled as teams.

I just want to comment on the results:  Not up to my expectations (nor
theirs!).  I had worked with high school teachers for 5 summers and found
them to be eager learners.  They see themselves as biologists and are eager
to learn about current understanding of various aspects of biology...
information they can share with their students.  Much of the problem with
the elementary teachers was my own fault and although I don't really want
to air my dirty linen on the Internet, perhaps it will help others.

My philosophy of science education is something like an "iceberg" model,
i.e., that the teacher needs to know a lot more about the subject (the part
of the iceberg under the water) than he/she will share with the students
(the part of the iceberg above the water).  I also thought that as a
professional scientist, I could best help the teachers by explaining how
plants are structured, what they do, where they live (and why), etc....
basic plant biology.  I also spent a lot of time explaining that scientists
see science as a PROCESS, as a "method of inquiry," rather than as an
encyclopedic collection of FACTS about science phenomena.  I encouraged
them to let their students participate fully in that process and not simply
require the rote memorization of facts.  Fortunately, recent science
curriculum reforms emphasize process over facts.

I assumed that the teachers had experience at designing educational
hands-on science activities for children, or at least that they would know
what would "work" (...EVERYTIME seems to be essential!).  Indeed, each
school team, under close supervision and feedback from scientists and
educators, developed a unit of plant study that they are implementing in
this school year.  All was not lost... at least they are much less wary of
including hands-on science.

The teachers just weren't happy with the way the course was taught.  Here's
what the teachers wanted:
1.  Hands-on activities written out like recipes, complete with handouts
they could simply xerox for their students.

2.  They did not want to hear the explanation about why the experiment
worked.  [Since it absolutely HAD TO WORK, they also didn't want to hear an
explanation of what might go wrong and why!]  I wasn't able to convince
them that a "wrong" hypothesis is very often more exciting to scientists
than a "right" hypothesis!

3.  All activities had to relate to the science proficiency exams.

In their defense we must acknowledge that they cannot know what we would
like them to know about all the subjects they teach.  I, too, think it
impossible that they can  know what I would like them to know about plant
biology in addition to acquiring that same level of expertise in language
arts, math, physical science, social studies, etc., etc.  This points to a
systemic problem with our educational system... I think we will not have
good science instruction in the elementary schools until the teachers
specialize in a subject like science, and let the students move from
teacher to teacher throughout the day.  We also need flexible scheduling in
our schools so that a science lesson can get the time block it requires if
we want to use hands-on pedagogies.  If we had this kind of specialization
we would be equipping one, perhaps two, science rooms per elementary
building and they could be well equipped with microscopes, computers, etc.
rather than having this equipment distributed over more than a dozen
classrooms so that none of the teachers has enough equipment to let every
student do decent science.

I'm going to keep on trying because I think the problems our students are
having with science achievement compared to students of other countries
deserve our very best effort, but I'm putting a lot of time into rethinking
and revising before doing another workshop this summer.
David W. Kramer, Ph.D.
Asst. Prof. of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology
Ohio State University at Mansfield
1680 University Drive
Mansfield, OH  44906-1547
Phone:  (419) 755-4344      FAX:  (419) 755-4367
e-mail:  kramer.8 at

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