Why Science?

Amid STEM enthusiasm, stepping back to consider the broader purpose of teaching and learning science

By Leah Shafer, on November 13, 2015 2:08 PM
Why Science?: Amid STEM enthusiasm, stepping back to consider the broader purpose of teaching and learning science #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

The push for STEM initiatives — coding workshops for elementary school children, or extended-day science experiments for middle school students — reigns at the forefront of the education conversation today. But anyone in the classroom knows that science can be a tough subject to teach, with educators at times overwhelmed with the amount of material to cover, and students simultaneously discouraged with the amount to master.

As STEM enthusiasm percolates, the teaching of science — its importance, its challenges — isn’t always part of the conversation. Usable Knowledge spoke with two Harvard faculty members, one an experienced high school teacher and the other a philosopher of science, whose thoughts may help to reframe and revitalize the mission of science education. Both argue that science should be much more than the rote memorization of theories, formulas, and vocabulary. It should be an education in problem solving and collaboration.

Science as Skill Building

HGSE Lecturer Victor Pereira, who taught high school science for more than a decade before becoming the master teacher in residence (science) in the new Harvard Teacher Fellows Program, knows the challenges firsthand. Classes can vary hugely in terms of students’ prior knowledge, experiences, and interest in the subject, he says. By the time they reach high school, many students are wary of science, thinking the material is boring and useless, or that they themselves are incapable of learning it. And building an understanding of science depends on acquiring a new and complicated vocabulary, which can be odious to teach and to learn. 

To confront these obstacles, educators should help their students approach science as more than an academic subject, Pereira says. “The nature of science itself is: make observations of the natural world, try and identify patterns, ask questions, find answers, ask more questions,” he explains. “It’s solving. It’s a way of thinking.” He argues that educators should portray science as acquiring skills, rather than memorizing facts. If the classroom focuses on the scientific process of discovery, more students will be engaged in the subject matter.

Collaborative Search for Truth

Teaching science should be much more than the rote memorization of theories, formulas, and vocabulary. It should be an education in problem solving and collaboration.  - Usable Knowledge, HGSEHGSE Professor Catherine Elgin, who specializes in the philosophy of science, has theorized that learning science includes the pursuit of another attribute: morality. Scientific inquiry, Elgin says, requires collaboration. Any project, in fields ranging from astrophysics to microbiology, requires a team of scientists working together to garner results. This collaboration requires trust: In order to be confident in their findings, scientists need to be able to trust both their teams and the researchers whose work they have studied.

To uncover new knowledge and advance their fields, scientists have to be trustworthy themselves. After all, they want their findings to contribute to the discovery of truth — an underlying goal of any scientific inquiry. What’s more, scientists know that the public depends on them to publish accurate research that will lead to necessary advances in health and technology. To meet these expectations, findings must be honestly and meticulously recorded. Because this trustworthiness is a moral attribute, Elgin maintains, scientific inquiry is a moral activity.

But how does this connect to science education?

Elgin explains that the process of learning science reinforces these attributes. Chemistry majors cannot become chemists — and high schoolers cannot pass their chemistry labs — if, as students, they do not work together, double–check their assignments, and remain honest in their reports.

“Science does not happen on an island or in isolation,” Pereira says. It’s the science teacher’s responsibility to make sure that students understand the importance of collaborating, along with staying organized and paying attention to detail.

Fostering Engaged Learners

These interrelated characteristics of science education — the process of discovery and the collaboration on trustworthy results — are not mutually exclusive. Pereira believes that science teachers should encourage their students to look at scientific advancements through an ethical lens, looking for patterns and asking questions about scientific developments. Science teachers should help students think critically about current technologies made possible by science, and reflect on whether future technologies will be morally acceptable.

The payoff of stepping back to consider the purpose of science education? Increased student engagement, Pereira says. Like all of us, students want to learn what’s important. “The science teacher has to make sure that the class is relevant to what’s happening in students’ lives, and that they know how they can apply it,” he says.

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Faculty in this article

Catherine Elgin

Catherine Elgin is a philosopher who works at the intersection of epistemology, aesthetics and the philosophy of science. She focuses on how science and art embody and advance understanding and how education enables us to learn from both the sciences and the arts.


Victor Pereira, Jr.

Victor M. Pereira Jr. is lecturer on education and Master Teacher in Residence (Science) of the Harvard Teachers Fellows Program. For the past 14 years, he taught, coached, mentored and worked in many teacher-leadership roles at Excel High School in Boston Public Schools.