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The Sciences

The Quest for Better Science Education

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonSeptember 1, 2005 1:59 AM


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Today's New York Times* has an article by Laurie Goodstein on the results of surveys conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The title of the article is "Teaching of Creationism Endorsed in New Survey", although there are several components to the survey (which are also reported in the article), including correlations of the reported beliefs with political party support, etc, religion and politics, gays and lesbians in the military, Intelligent Design, and lots of other good stuff. My immediate impression is: Yes, we have our work cut out for us in this Science Education quest to which I referred in a recent post. You should read the article in full, but here are a few extracts which speak to the science education issue that is the subject of this post:

42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time"

48 percent said that they believed that humans had evolved over time....

But don't get cocky, folks, because:

of those, 18 percent said that evolution was "guided by a supreme being", and 26 percent said that evolution occured through natural selection.

...and to cap it all:

In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.

(The sample size was 2000 people, and the margin of error is quoted as 2.5%) John C. Green, who is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, is reported as calling the willingness to teach both creationism and natural selection in the classroom as a reflection of "American pragmatism".

"It's like they're saying, `some people see it this way, some see it that way, so just teach it all and let the kids figure it out'.....

Which puts me in mind of an earlier post on this blog. So there you have it. Whatever are we to do? Well, there are several ideas to consider. My own favourites for immediate action are along the lines of focussing on the places where people get most of their education in this country. So (sadly) I don't mean schools, I mean the popular media. So (as I've talked about before) this can include more portrayal of science, scientists, and the scientific method in TV drama and the movies. Yes, that means working with the folks who create those shows we all watch. I'll talk about that more at a later point. (Note that the Sloan Foundation has taken this approach to heart, and has a number of programs in that area of endeavour.) Here's an idea that was suggested by a colleague of mine here at USC, Samantha Butler, in the form of a letter to the Gates Foundation:

From: Samantha Butler Date: August 31, 2005 1:07:22 PM PDT To: Subject: Public Education Dear Sir/Madam, I am an assistant professor at the University of Southern California in Biological Sciences. I am very troubled by the recent survey announced by the Pew Centre (covered in the NY Times this morning, see reference below) suggesting that the level of general science education is still worrying low in this country. As a scientist, I feel a responsibility to reverse this trend. One solution might be a series of "public service" advertisements on television during commercial breaks - short entertaining spots that would explain key scientific concepts. Nothing controversial - they would just be informative, for example, What is a cell? What is DNA? What is gravity? etc etc. They would have to be snappy and well produced and would aim to give people some facts that would allow them to think about the critical scientific issues of our day (stem cell research for example) and perhaps spur them into further reading. Would the Gates Foundation have any interest in such an idea? Yours faithfully, Samantha Butler

Actually, I think that is a good and potentially effective idea that I'd not thought of before. Let's hope that the Gates Foundation -or any such organisation interested in education and the future science base of this country- is supportive. Lastly, I'd like to point out that this is not just an American problem. I think that science education is rather poor in other places too, such as the UK. So don't get complacent over there. We're all in this together! -cvj *Thanks, Samantha [Update: JoAnne was writing a post about this at the same time I was! So you can find hers here.]

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