Last month, in a special science education issue of the online magazine Slate, one of my favorite science writers proposed an intriguing plan for the future of science education in America.  Deborah Blum, who wrote one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction that reads like fiction, is both an author and a professor of science journalism.  Her opinion as an educator and writer is worth listening to.

Blum writes that the solution to our growing problem of a ignorant scientifically-illiterate citizenry, is to split all science education into two tracks: one for “majors” and one for non-majors.  She describes this as a plan for K-12, but I think that it would need to begin in high school.  Her primary concern is that the intensity and competitive structure of advanced science classes alienate many students into become completely untrusting and averse to science in general.  I think that she has a point.

You see, science education serves two purposes.  On one hand, we seek to make the scientific method and its fruits accessible to everyone to ensure an “informed electorate”.  On the other hand, we want to encourage and prepare future scientists (and doctors and engineers).  The problem is that combining these two goals in one course causes us to fail at both.

Two tracks of science education would allow the “non-majors” courses to focus on the critical concepts and vocabulary that the media and special interests often use and abuse to make their points.  It would go a long way toward eliminating the effect of recent anti-science bias in the Republican Party, and making this democracy of ours much more effective in the long run.

It would also allow those students with a keen interest in science to move through the courses at an accelerated pace.  They could get more field and lab experience at an earlier age.  They could intern in various research facilities, both public and private.

The advantages of a system like this are clear, but the downside is perhaps less so.  One question that lingers is this: how early is too early to put a student on one track or the other?  How do we avoid choosing children’s destinies for them before they truly understand what they are selecting?

What do you think?

photo credit: Out of Chicago via photo pin cc

One thought on “Splitting Science Classes

  1. I observed in a conversation similar to this one on Twitter today, except the context was K-12 math education rather than science. I see a few different purposes for teaching math.

    in the name of “basic skills” – advocates for this approach suggest students should know how to do things that we’ll use in life: adding, multiplying, calculating tips, simple numerical awareness

    in the name of “critical thinking” – advocates of this approach suggest students should know how to solve a two-step linear equation, multiplying matrices without a calculator, or solve some sort of story problem with extraneous information is a cognitive exercise

    in the name of “preparing for higher education” – advocates of this approach suggest students need to know algebraic concepts to prepare themselves for advanced algebraic concepts which will help them pass a college algebra class or be successful in calculus.

    I’m guessing there are other frameworks out there, too, but I’m not sure the general public agrees on the purpose of math OR science education.

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