scientific literacy

SMeissne at AOL.COM SMeissne at AOL.COM
Wed Feb 3 17:57:02 EST 1999

Hello Dr. Kramer,

Thank you for the interesting comments on teacher-training.  And thank you for
your efforts to help bring things up to a better standard.

I am going through something similar.  I am working with an intro biology
course which is using the text by Gould and Keeton (Biological Sciences, 6th
edition, Norton Press).  I have been shocked by the errors in this text, most
of which deal with the plant sciences.  Of course, most of the molecular and
genetic material seems fairly up to date and accurate!  But fungi are
described as plants.  Xylem is labeled as phloem.  Pollen is said to be a
gamete etc, etc.  In fairness, plants seem to get poor treatment in other
general biology texts as well, but in my opinion that is no excuse.  Some of
the teaching assistants in the course are education majors, and will be using
this text as their "core" reference when they teach.  

I'd suggest that if more plant scientists made the effort to help as reviewers
of these introductory texts, and could offer interesting and exciting topics
as well as catching gross errors, that might also help as well.  

I agree with you that elementary school teachers can not realistically be
expected to know the technical details.  But I would defend them a bit in
their dismissal of "wrong" hypotheses.  Is not this the way science is taught
in most college courses?  Most times a concept is taught as "correct" and then
the experimental data supporting it are presented.  Given how common this
approach is I can well understand how elementary teachers can fall into this
trap.  Has anyone taught a course where they have presented the material as a
set of conflicting hypotheses?  If so I'd love to hear how it worked!  My
first guess would be that students would be clammering for "the answer"!

Good luck with reworking your workshops.

Scott T. Meissner

Aure Entuluva!
\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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