Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How To Stop Science Alienation Syndrome - Deborah Blum on k-12 education (Slate)

Today there is an article on the Slate website by Deborah Blum about k-12 science education. The article can be found here.

Instead of leaving a comment at the end of the list of 102 comments I decided to blog about this entry. (This, by the way, delays publication of my blog about infant nutrition that I was going to do today.)

Blum's idea is to create tracks for K-12 students so that everybody is required to take four years of science education. There would be a track for future scientists, a track for college-bound poets and perhaps a track for noncollege bound, vocational-type people. (Or something like that- details to be worked out as needed.) Overall, I think this is a good idea, however, I have a few hesitations when it comes to "tracking" people.

The problem with creating tracks in science is the same as the problem with creating an "honors" program in the humanities. While I agree that we need to accommodate more science education into our schools,I'm not sure this is the place to start. Here is why:

The tracking system creates cliques of people. It is exclusive. It leaves out people that were erroneously placed in the wrong "track" and have forever been bored out of their minds. Sometimes it even creates situations where higher level work is going on in a "lower" track. I can say this from personal experience.

I started my high school honors program in the 7th grade and completed every year of it through my senior year in high school. Except one semester, I was in it all the way. Yes, we read more books, generally produced more papers and generally worked harder than the regular classes did. But we were also left out of a lot. During the semester that I spent in the regular classrooms, I saw the variety of people and socioeconomic classes at my high school. I met people I'd never met before and worked with people I never knew were interested at all in school. I saw some discipline problems in those classes as well.

Did that experience make me work less hard? No, it didn't. It made me appreciate my own love of literature, history and the arts. It made me appreciate that I care and some of them don't. But- most of all it taught me that I really wasn't that different from the people in the lower track. There were times when I felt the discussion was more lively, more engaging and more intellectual in the classrooms of the lower track. So all this leads to the question of what the upper track was doing that was really all that special?

We did have more required coursework than the lower classes. But- I think that in the end a lot of the higher track was just a reputation, a group of exclusive people who thought we were better than the average student. And in some cases we really weren't.

My current experience at the local junior college has taught me that it is very helpful to teach chemistry "warmup" classes to students who want to take college-level chemistry (for whatever career track be it science or medicine). For three semesters I have taught various renditions of a chem 100 class. For one school it is strictly for nurses. For one school it is for all prescience majors (premed, prenursing, preengineering mostly).  I have observed one important thing about the course description and how it makes people feel.

The students who take a class that has a label of being for beginners, nonmajors, nonscientists, etc are generally labeled as less intelligent. They have less confidence and generally perform more poorly.  But I'm not always confident that they have less ability or even interest. In this section of my chem 100 class I cover more chapters of the textbook, give more tests, and expect the students to do more experiments than those in my section that is geared toward engineering and medical school students. Its almost as if someone overcompensated the standards and decided that the nursing majors really need to prove themselves in chemistry to get their degree. In some cases, I feel the content is not really fair- it is a lot of information that is cherry-picked from a diverse area of the field. It's not well covered in the text. For this reason, I include extra handouts on my blackboard site. (I do not have those handouts in my premed class because we don't cover that topic.)

The point is that the designated levels that these chem 100 courses are supposed to fulfill are not consistent across schools and disciplines. It is luck of the draw to know how difficult of a chem 100 course you are going to get. It depends on which teacher you get, which school you take it at and during what time period you take the class.

Does this type of tracking make me confident that we can successfully "track" k-12 students? No, it doesn't.  It is too subjective as to what the people in charge feel are the standards at any given time.

I can confidently say, however, that having a chem 100- style class that students take prior to taking college-level chemistry is very helpful. Sheepishly, after teaching this class I actually understand the concepts on a deeper level because the class is presented strictly from a conceptual point of view. So often in general chemistry it is the manipulations of formulas, getting the right answer and the math that everybody gets so hung up on. While this is an important part of introductory chemistry, the more important part is getting people to understand the large concepts behind the math and the details.

The textbooks that I've worked with in this class include Bauer, Tro and Zumdahl. Each has its positive and negative points but all three have something in common: a focus on concepts.

So here is my proposal for updating science education in the future: Regardless of what the career goals of any individual are at any given time, students should be allowed to focus on concepts. This means professors and teachers will administer essay tests in the sciences. People need to be able to explain the behavior of an electron rather than just plugging numbers into an equation for an answer. I also propose more integrated programs of sciences with humanities, literature and the arts. Perhaps if we studied the lifestyle and literature of Richard Feynman in English class while we poured over the atomic bomb physics in science and studied the socio-political climate of Europe and America during this time in history then so much more of the science would be relevant.

Tracks can be helpful but the coordination of too many people is involved. I vote to streamline the classes into one big group of people. Then, propose honors/AP level projects that each student can take on as they have the time and interest. This allows anybody who wants to be involved  to perform at this level. Enough of exclusivity in education. We have enough of that already.