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Appreciating Science: A New Approach to Science in our World

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

November 14, 2012

Members of the public don’t know much about science, and they seem fine to leave science to the scientists. That’s Trouble.

Generally, your average person is lacking in knowledge of scientific concepts and does not fully appreciate the value the scientific endeavor has on his or her own life. How can we overcome this? Science is the most reliable way of knowing about nature, and its thoughtful use is key to fixing societal problems that threaten all of us. How can we get science to be taken more seriously in the public sphere so that we see in-depth debates and discussions on science issues in the mainstream media and we no longer have to beat back the anti-science voices rampant in politics, in schools, or at the doctor’s office.

Even having many physics classes to my credit, I don’t know the laws of thermodynamics off the top of my head. Even though I can easily rattle off the order of the planets in the solar system, I still have to look up the geologic time scale for era names and dates (even though I am a geologist). At our fingertips, through the Web, we have access to the biggest trove of information ever. I don’t ever need to memorize another factoid that isn’t pertinent to my daily activities. I can just look it up.

High school science classes—biology, chemistry, Earth science, physics (if you get that far)—are still exercises in memorization. It’s not very fun for many kids to go through these classes. Many will not become scientists. The rest of the student body who avoids these classes will also never become scientists. Yet, science is everywhere. It affects us daily—individually and collectively, as a family, as a society and as citizens of Earth. We need to pay attention to it to make the best decisions at several crossroads of our lives.

Scientific knowledge and especially how science works is considered out of the range of understanding for most people by those same people. They don’t see science’s relevance; they think it’s a bad word, that it ruins things, that it’s for someone else to do. They don’t know any scientists. They perceive no connection to the practice of science at all.

Therein lies a fundamental problem and perhaps the crux of the scientific literacy problem we have: You can’t get people engaged and enthusiastic or even respectful about a subject if they don’t see any value or connection to themselves.

What If We Were Taught to Appreciate Science?

I’m drawn to the idea that maybe teaching science isn’t about the nuts and bolts facts and figures but about appreciation. People take appreciation classes in art, literature, music, and more. They can take a stroll through the ideas of the field, which things are important, why we should pay attention. Why not science appreciation class? For the nonscientist.

Such a thing actually exists. It’s about time.

Dr. Andrew Read

Dr. Andrew Read is in his third go-round of a general education course at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) called “Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy”. The class for freshman assumes no background knowledge of science and fulfills the credits that might otherwise be filled with “Biology for Beginners” or “Rocks for Jocks” (those aren’t the actual names but you get why they are called that). It is particularly suited, he says, for students who loathed science in high school.

This year’s class contains 170 students. The first year filled a maximum of seventy, the next was up to one hundred. Dr. Read and the Sciences Department at PSU have recognized its popularity. They are onto something.

I was able to connect with Dr. Read in the midst of this busy semester and ask him about the course.

How did the class come about?

“The Dean of Science has an alumni group who advises for the school,” he explains. “They were concerned about the state of public discourse on science in America. Are we, the college of science, doing enough to train the students who weren’t scientists?”

As with many American universities, all students at PSU are required to take a certain number of natural science credits to fulfill general education (“gen ed”) requirements for a degree. Dr. Read, who works in the area of evolutionary biology, notes that the majority of students have not had a good time with science in the K-12 grades and find these “gen ed” courses for science challenging and not much fun. Forced to do these “survey” courses in geology, biology, or meteorology, which are not particularly interesting to non-science students, they are not enjoying them. Therefore, they are unlikely to get much out of them, including how science works or how it relates to their daily lives.

These English, business, and other non-science career majors will go on to be leaders in their community and future decision makers. They ought to know how science works and its value.

What do these non-science students know about science?

“They don’t know much about how science works,” says Read. “They think that science is somehow conjured up, as if you look it up in a big book. They are stunned to discover science is the ultimate in anti-authoritarian existence. There is no Supreme Court, no Pope, no Minister of Science, no one telling them what to do or think in science. It’s a free market of ideas: if you can persuade someone that your ideas are better, you win! It doesn’t matter if you are twelve years old or seventy. That’s quite a shock to them because they’ve been taught there is a right answer and you look it up in some big textbook.”

Today, when you can look up anything on the Internet, is there a need to teach kids “facts” of science? One can argue it would be very good to know basic information like the age of the Earth, the planets in the solar system, how cells work, etc. But that’s not useful to most people in their daily lives. Facts do change (Goodbye, planet Pluto). Issues of importance certainly change. For example, global warming and stem cells were not topics we discussed in high school, yet now they are hot-button policy issues that involve understanding and appreciating the science behind them.

What kinds of topics are of interest to kids these days?

Dr. Read observed when you get a hook into a topic or question that you are deeply interested in, all of a sudden, it becomes important to know what’s going on.

The students in his class are required to research and write blog posts. They typically blog about things to do with to their daily lives, “which is what I want them to do,” Read says, “to see science as relevant to their daily lives.”

“They are obsessed with their bodies and each other, so topics tend to be things around health, sex, mate choice, alcohol, and drugs.”

Getting them engaged in topics of their choice serves to illustrate the points the class is designed to emphasize—how to think critically and to get used to using a scientific approach to thinking.

Is religion a barrier to science appreciation?

I was interested to know if the students came in saddled with religious baggage that inhibited them from appreciating science.

Dr. Read noted that his class does not explicitly talk about religion but gets very close. “It feels to me as if religion is kind of the gorilla in the room,” he admits. “Some of the students push back a bit and they feel uncomfortable.” He reports they have mentioned they feel the tension in the room.

“I’m showing them ways in which we discovered things that you couldn’t imagine by not taking a faith-based approach. Some of them find that quite threatening, but it never gets too overt.” He did recall that a few times people have walked out of class.

But this is college, and being exposed to uncomfortable ideas is sort of what you are there for.

What does the Internet look like when the students look for resources?

“That worries me a lot,” Read says. “I don’t see the internet the way they do. This is one of the things I have to try to teach better this year.

“Their tendency is to pick the first things that come up on Google or Yahoo as the truth. The sources on a lot of their blog posts have me thinking ‘what on earth are you doing reading off a place like that?’ They trust a site that you or I would not. Trying to get them to look at different sites to see a range of opinions is quite hard.” And, he marks their work hard if they just cite one source.

These young adults also seem to fall all-too-easily for pseudoscience. He is alarmed that they happily accept anecdotes about paranormal experiences. “I’m a bit disappointed by how many of them are into conspiracy theories. A bunch of them are persuaded that one of the dorm rooms is haunted. I’m amazed they can say it in my class after I’ve been banging on about having a proper rigorous look at things.”

Dr. Read is trying to undo some ingrained ideas about science. He’s trying to point out that it’s okay to disagree in science; we don’t know everything. He talks to them a lot about how hard and inefficient the process is but that it’s still the preferred way to knowledge, the best we have.

A large concern for Read is the difficulty in assessing if he is doing a good job. The typical metrics used to evaluate a class don’t apply as much here. “It’s hard to assess, and frustrating, if you’re doing a good job,” he acknowledges. “What I’d actually like is some way of knowing three to five years down the line, when they see something in the media or in discussing a scientific issue, are they doing better than their colleagues that didn’t do this course? That’s extremely difficult to assess.”

The college of science at PSU has embarked on stressing the importance of “gen ed” courses as influential to molding the whole student, not just instructing them in their major. A goal of university is to create informed citizens and to prepare them to lead better lives. So, as Dr. Read notes, the emphasis has been moving to delivering these courses with rigor and style.

“It’s a privilege to have this captive audience to deliver science,” he says. “The responsibility is great. This is an incredibly important audience. As a teaching challenge this is as good as it gets.

“Scientists, most of the time, never know if they are going to have an impact [with their teaching]. If you do this right you can have a massive impact.”

And society may be a better, more rational place.

Comments on this piece can be sent to shill@centerforinquiry.net.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.