As a scientist, I am often doing science. It’s my job. I know science. By any measure, I’m as much a scientist as any other scientist.
But if you look at what I do on a day to day basis, it looks absolutely nothing like what people think science should look like. Fixing misconceptions about science requires much more than correcting stereotypes of what scientists look like, though that’s a great start. (By the way, here’s my entry to This is what a scientist looks like.)
Science is taught in school as a linear process. In practice, it never is a linear process. It’s not even a linear process in the labs in which we teach the scientific method.
I was in a high school classroom last week, and on the whiteboard of this classroom was that odiously wrong conception that we see everywhere. I see this all the time, and if I was doing my job better I would openly contest it every time I see it.
In its stead, let me share with you what it looks like when I am doing science:
What science really looks like is a little more complex than how it is marketed by publishing companies to our children when they are in school. They’re not training kids to be scientists, they’re selling textbooks to teachers who are not scientists. Many of these teachers are reluctant to teach science because they are not adequately prepared, and because their bosses are making them overdose on math and English to maintain test scores.
Teaching science isn’t easy for those who aren’t used to doing science, so this cute linear process that kids see in school is what publishers have done to make teaching science as simple and boring as possible.
How do our kids really learn what science is? By actually doing science. By having teachers that understand science and do real science with them. What is often missing is the red arrow in the figure above. Even those who buy into the linear model of science need to realize that it is cyclical, that answers lead to questions. It’s not a plodding march of progress. It’s a messy tumble and jumble forward in which new information leads to even more confusion, but with broader horizons. Science expands the circumference of our ignorance.
How can teachers get our kids to do science if they don’t even know what real science looks like? We need to teach real science to the teachers. We can do this in college, but if you look at the science coursework that is required by future elementary- and middle-school teachers, you’d be either dismayed or outraged. This is the starting point in fixing the science education crisis in the US. We need elementary and middle-school teachers who understand, enjoy and prioritize science.
As scientists in science departments, we have the latitude to seize this curriculum and teach these classes the right way, and by the right people. And we can make sure that people don’t leave our classes without understanding and being excited about science. We can make sure that they’ve been involved in a genuine science experience. We can use genuine inquiry in our teaching.
We also can skip the middle man and do science with current teachers.
This summer I’m taking one of many small steps. I’m having an experienced master teacher at the middle school level joining my group in Costa Rica for a month. He should go home with a better idea what science looks like, I expect. If you want a teacher in your lab, and you’re one of those (declining few) with federal funding, just call up your program director and you probably could get hooked up mighty quickly once you find your teacher. To find a teacher, just ask around, and many will jump at the chance as long as they’re getting paid. Even if it’s just a lot of pipetting. Having a teacher in your lab can change science education for hundreds of kids in a short period of time.
To be clear, I’m not the only one who has this idea in mind. The more of us working to explode the notion that science is linear, the more opportunity kids have to get to do real science.