Thoughts on Science Education
Why Science Education?
"I love learning about this stuff, but I hate teaching it because I just don't know enough about it."
-- a high school "integrated science" teacher, with a background in biology, sharing her enthusiasm and frustration about earth science.

Originally, I wanted to do outreach for selfish reasons Ė working with kids is fun because they have an astonishing curiosity and enthusiasm for understanding the world around them. Eventually, I started working with teachers on various professional development projects. Even more than the students, these devoted teachers had the intellectual fire to learn about the way the world works. However, I saw that many of them lacked the tools to teach earth science effectively (even teachers defined as "highly qualified" in the subject area by the standards of No Child Left Behind). In fact, some of them even claimed that they hated teaching earth science because they didnít know enough about it. As someone devoted to studying the Earth, this nearly broke my heart.

Factoid-based learning
"Should we really be learning earth science from 'dictionaries with pretty pictures'?"

Flipping through a 6th grade earth science textbook, I found startling similarities with my own college geology textbook. They covered a surprisingly similar range and number of topics in the same order and same depth, and used an unfortunately similar number of bold faced vocabulary words. We could debate the effectiveness of the college geology textbook, but I was a little frightened to think about how middle school students would deal with their version of it. At that age, their brains are wired differently and they have different needs. The way that the publishers tried to accommodate the younger students was by cutting out the connections between ideas. As if they were producing the textbook for MTV, they put factoids in discrete boxes with short text, essentially producing a series of disjoint vocabulary words.

For example, the chapter on plate tectonics begins with a section on convection, and recommends that teachers do a demonstration on a stovetop/burner. The next section defines plate tectonics and the types of plate boundaries. The order makes some sense scientifically because, at least in the simplest explanation, convection in the mantle drives plate tectonics (though modern research is refining/contradicting this connection). A teacher I worked with said that she always enjoyed the convection demo, but she used it for the section on weather because she had no idea why they stuck that concept into the section on plate tectonics. The textbook was very concerned about teaching the individual factoids about convection and plate tectonics, but had apparently removed all the connections between ideas so that even a teacher (with no background in earth science) could not realize why she was supposed to teach the two ideas together.

Discovery-based learning
"The primary role of the geologist is to recognise the existence of phenomena before trying to explain them"
-- B.M. Keilhau, Norwegian Geologist, 1828

Science is about discovery. It's about opening our eyes to things that we never knew existed. I feel like we should teach our students to think about the world around them, question how it came to look the way that it does, and began to look for features that provided evidence for that process. The learning process should facilitate this through inquiry-based learning. While it's true that the product of scientific knowledge (factoids, processes, and conclusions) are exciting and valuable by themselves, science education should not be divorced from the scientific process of discovery. My students express extreme frustration when they find out that many geologic problems lack sufficient evidence to come up with a "correct answer." Their frustration stems from their previous science education that emphasized facts.

For the example of plate tectonics above, why start the book out with convection? Historically, scientists observed the earth and started to realize that there might be evidence that the surface is in motion. Only then did the ask the question, "why or how could this happen?" Today, the driving forces of plate tectonics are still hotly debated, with advanced computer models used to explain things. I feel like science education should reflect the science process from observation to discovery to explanation. In many cases (including plate tectonics), great alternative teaching approaches already exist.

Education makes me a better scientist
All I ever learned about being a geophysicist, I learned in kindergarten.

I firmly believe that scientists should devote more of their time and energy into education because it will make them better scientists. Communicating ideas to young students requires understanding them well enough to boil them down to the essential ideas. We spend so much of our time as scientists talking with people that obsess over the caveats and details, that we sometimes forget the big picture. Our science will improve when we learn to think about what is most important and why it is a main idea. Students also ask questions that appear completely non-sequitar because children are not familiar with our artificial subdiscipline boundaries. We will be better scientists if we, too, become more familiar with broader science than our narrow subdiscipline. It's sad to think that as a Ph.D. in geology from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, I still cannot answer some of the basic questions about the Earth posed by third graders because I spent so much of my time becoming the world's foremost expert on a single, narrow topic.