“Revisiting Science Literacy”


For me, science literacy or rather scientific literacy, expresses the idea of understanding science in a way that helps to understand the problems of science, not necessarily to be a scientist. In one sense, being scientifically literate offers one the ability to think independently, critically, and creatively.

One of the first science education papers I presented, way back in 1986, was entitled “In Pursuit of Learning: The Rediscovery of Scientific Literacy.” This was not an argument for becoming a scientist but, rather, for understanding how science is a part of our lives and how to use the processes of science as a means to problem solving in all areas of life.

I would make the argument in 1987 that how one views the role of science is especially critical if one is to be successful in today’s increasingly technological society. In 1994 Carl Sagan wrote,

We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That is a clear prescription for disaster.” (Carl Sagan, http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/06/what-is-science/)

But it would appear today, with the debates over climate change and the teaching of evolution, that the idea that we need to be a scientifically literate society has somehow gotten lost in the discussion. These leads me to ask two questions:

  1. How did we get to this point in time?
  2. What do we have to do to change our course of action?

How did we get to this point in time?

When I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I looked at the goals of the chemistry curriculum projects developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The various curriculum projects in biology (BSCS), chemistry, physics, and earth science, were developed in the early 1960s as a response to a perceived need for an increased awareness of science and mathematics following the 1957 launch of Sputnik I by the then Soviet Union. The focus of these programs was experimentation and development of thinking skills (see Liberal Arts and Science Education In The 21st Century). It should be noted that the central focus for the three versions of the BSCS curriculum would be evolution and its role in the development of biology.

Referring specifically to the chemistry programs, the overall goal was to help

“… the student to acquire a knowledge of chemistry, not merely some knowledge about it.” (Pimentel, G. C. and Ridgeway, D. W., 1972, “CHEM Study: Knowledge of Chemistry”; Pimentel, G. C. and Ridgeway, D. W. – Science Activities.

Basolo and Parry also presented a discussion of the development of the CHEM Study program in “An Approach to Teaching Systematic Inorganic Reaction Chemistry in Beginning Chemistry Courses”, Journal of Chemical Education, 57)

Students would engage “in the pattern of scientific activity – experimental collection of data, assessment and organization of facts, deduction of unifying principles, and application of these principles in developing expectations (making predictions).

Science teaching in general would improve because “real” teaching would replace authoritarian pedagogy, true chemical content would replace descriptive chemistry facts, study would replace memorization of unrelated facts, and students would be evaluated on their “true learning” instead of simply how much information they would “regurgitate” (quotes by authors) during exams. As a result of these programs, students would be better prepared for college science courses. (G. A. Ramsey, A Review of the Research and Literature on the Chemical Education Materials Study Project, Research Review Series – Science Paper 4 (Ohio State University ED 037592), 1970, p 2. and Osborn, G, 1969, “Influence of the Chemical Bond Approach and the Chemical Education Materials Study on the New York Regents Examination in High School Chemistry”, School Science and Mathematics, 69, p 53)

But each of these curriculum projects were based on students being involved in active experimentation and the development of knowledge through experimentation.

The problem with this approach, at least from an administrative viewpoint, is that it is an expensive approach. Experiments require equipment and supplies, items on a budget that cannot be amortized over a period of years. This was not necessarily a problem at first because there was plenty of money available through federal grants to buy the necessary equipment and supplies but as other issues arose (such as the Viet Nam war), this money was some of the first money to be cut from the overall federal budget and it was never replaced by state or local funds.

So as the supplies ran out and the equipment wore out, the teaching of science became dominated by the information in the textbook (textbooks have a long shelf-life so they are favored by school accountants). And without experiments to show how information was gathered and theories developed, scientific theories slowly became scientific facts or at least the correct answer on standardized examinations.

No longer were students asked to critically analyze the information before them; rather, all they had to do is know which facts fit which holes and respond accordingly. And in today’s environment, where scores on standardized tests are used to measure both student success and teacher proficiency (neither of which are the purpose of such exams), we don’t know what a scientific theory is or what it means.

We no longer have the ability to analyze the information before us. And we rely on many individuals, some qualified, others not qualified, to tell us what the information means or doesn’t mean.

Interlude

Literacy can mean many things but the most important thing that it means is that we have the ability to understand the information before us. And an inability to understand is probably the greatest challenge we face today.

This is when science intersects with society. Let’s face it, there is something going on with our climate and our environment that is not right. There is data that suggests changes are taking place in our climate that will soon be irreversible; yet we continue to hear from individuals in position of power and other quasi-experts that there are no changes and that we should keep continuing doing what we have always been doing.

Being scientifically literate does not necessarily mean that one is a chemist, a biologist, a geologist, an astronomer, a physicist, or anyone of a myriad of possibilities in the sciences; it means that one has the ability to see the data and analyze the data and understand what is happening. The scientific process is more of a thinking process and can be the basis for all that we do, no matter the area.

We need critical thinking at all levels, and an ability to question any and every “trend” be it social, scientific or political. It does our society a tremendous disservice if our government buys into one line of thinking, because literally, they will have bought one line of research.

A truly open society will have an open discussion, and an open marketplace, regarding finding out what’s wrong, and how to fix it. Right now, it seems that we are unwilling to have such a conversation or discussion.

Somewhere in the process, our educational system has regressed backwards into the 19th century, with openness and creativity being sacrificed for the goal of rigid right and wrong testing. There are great educational ideas being offered, but few are listening, and fewer are interpreting or implementing with sensitivity to true liberal education. By liberal I mean, wide ranging, open-ended, possessing or manifesting a free and generous heart. A broad and enlightened approach to thinking is the foundation of a truly liberal education.

We have been engaged in a number of wars over the past few years that are, perhaps only indirectly but nonetheless, tied to the world’s supply of oil. I realize that the reasons behind nations going to war are perhaps a bit more complex but it seems rather limited to think that the only way to world safety is through military power.

Clearly, we cannot afford to have ideological dictators in possession of nuclear weapons but how do we solve that problem? There are those who will say that only the threat of military action or possibly the imposition of such action are the only way to solve this problem. But that is an answer locked into the old way of thinking.

It is clear that more liberally open discussions about the nature of evil are a step to the ultimate solution, the law of love. But the sin of religious rigidity has made that discussion extremely difficult.

Why do we constantly seek other sources of fossil fuels instead of seeking alternative sources of energy? How long can we ignore the evidence of the destruction of water supplies and the environment in general that comes with the search for fossil fuels?

What are we doing in the world to remove the causes of war? What are we doing to remove the poverty and the oppression that feed the fires of violence and encourage war. What are we as a total society doing in places to help the Sudanese and other nationalities affected by war and violence? Except as people of faith, one at a time, we are doing very little.

As I commend those who freely offer of themselves, I am reminded of the conversation attributed between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau but which may not have actually occurred. Emerson is supposed to have visited Thoreau when he was in jail and asked him, “Henry, why are you in jail?” Thoreau’s response was to the point, “Waldo, why are you out of jail?” No matter whether this actually took place or not, we are one side of this question or the other. We are at a point where we must take positive action, seeking solutions that transcend the normal responses, responses that seem to have failed us too many times.

What do we have to do to change our course of action?

First, we have to realize that there is no quick fix to this problem. And that will make it very difficult to actually change things. We have fallen into the notion that we can quickly solve any problem, no matter the difficulty, and problems that can’t be fixed immediately can’t be fixed at all. Our thirty-second sound bite has come back to bite us hard!

We need to reorder our priorities and quit spending money on the destruction of the planet (through war and neglect) and begin spending money on the development of the planet and the people who inhabit it. Military power and its ability to destroy is not the way to create a new world. But investing in people seems to me to be the most logical way of insuring that we have a future. What is really needed are more creative approaches to all of it. I believe that education requires this paradigm shift, toward creative, executive and critical thinking.

We have to change minds and hearts. We need to begin putting money back into our schools, improving the science laboratories and providing support for science and mathematics education, not only at the high school level but in the earlier grades as well. And let’s not forget the other subjects either. Music, art, and literature play an equal and important part of the creative process as much as science and mathematics.

When we begin the process of teaching thinking skills with the younger children, we help them gain higher order skills in addition to preparing them for the later so-called academic learning. If we are able to make the paradigm shift, and teach with brain development in mind, it should not cost as much as we think it needs to.

What students need are real problems to work on. Students are always surprisingly brilliant if you let them be, by asking questions that are truly curious about what they, the students, are thinking. It’s also the way to tap into what truly motivates them, and will help them soar beyond anything we dull-minded adults could dream of.

As some of my former students will tell you, I have often noted that the most curious creatures in the world is a two-year old. And yet, by the time they arrive at high school and college, all of the curiosity seems to have disappeared and many will say that they “hate science.” Let me just say that society desperately NEEDS their ideas and creativity, it’s how the world will ultimately be saved. Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret Mead’s daughter wrote in her book, Peripheral Visions,

It takes adult effort to turn a bright open child into a sullen underclass.”

She meant that our emphasis on “correctness” eliminates their fresh view of the world, and grows up people who are dependent and bored.

The scientific process is and will always be a cooperative process. It may be a cliché but two heads are always better than one and allow for a diversity of views which can lead to productive discussions. Separated twin studies have shown that God did make us both conservative and liberal, possibly because He understood better than we that His Creation works because of the beautiful dialectic of thesis ~ antithesis ~ synthesis.

I began this by noting that the issue of scientific literacy, for me anyway, is almost thirty years old. I will not say that a focus on it will change the way we are headed but it will help find the means and the processes to make the changes that do need to be made. It will offer a way to renew the creative processes we have had from the very beginning of life and allow us to create a better tomorrow, not only for ourselves but for the generations to come.

“So You Want To Be President?”


Ann and I watched a documentary on Robert Kennedy the other night on YouTube (link). It was first presented on the American Experience series on PBS and it was, in view of the fact that the 2016 Presidential campaign has now officially started, worth watching.

Some of the points expressed in this documentary are worth noting. First, it showed Robert Kennedy growing as a politician and moving from the hard and fixed views of the 1950s to a more nuanced understanding of the problems of the 60s. And yet, he never lost his moral compass; in fact, it was that compass that drove him to understand the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten people of this country and the world. It was that moral compass that lead him to question our policies in Viet Nam, knowing full well that there were going to be those who would point out he was one of the architects of that very policy. But, in the end, he could justify the morality of war.

It was noted that he didn’t really like the welfare system in place at that time but it was also noted he worked to get companies involved creating jobs and investing in the people who needed the jobs the most.

He challenged the privileged classes of this country to literally get out of their country club environments and move to where the people were (look up the speech he gave to medical students Ball State University the morning Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated; see “To Build a New Community” for a link to references of that speech). He challenged governments to change their policies of oppression (his trip to South Africa when apartheid still ruled – “Suppose God Is Black”).

On the night when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, the Indianapolis police didn’t want him to go to a scheduled rally in one of the black sections of town. The police felt that they could not protect him but he went anyway. And it was Robert Kennedy who told the people assembled there that Dr. King had been murdered. The people gathered left in peace and returned home. And because of what he said that night, a night when violence erupted in over 100 cities across this country, there was peace in Indianapolis.

Being President is more than responding the demands of a select few; it is responding to the needs of all the people of this country. Please consider what Robert Kennedy did and tried to do in 1968 to bring this country, divided by economy, war, and race together, and do the same.

To Learn Or Not To Learn


On a number of past occasions, I have made the comment, or at least implied, that we are slowly, inexorably becoming dumb. We may know a lot of facts but we can’t seem to connect the dots. And instead of pushing for improving the situation, we seem bound and determine to keep getting dumber and dumber.

I noted awhile back that there is a great deal of opposition to the idea of the Common Core. There seems to be a belief, without substantiation, that this was a project of the Federal Government forced upon the various states. At least one Republican Senator has called for the abolition of the law mandating the adoption of the Common Core as a set of standards. In one sense, that is a great rallying cry for those in opposition to the Common Core but there is a problem. There is no such law at the Federal level!

And to call for the abolition of a law that doesn’t exist is only matched by the level of ignorance we have concerning other countries and cultures. Consider, as one example, another Republican Senator who does not know the name of the capital of a country he fears is going to have nuclear weapons unless he leads a charge to prevent it, in the process violating the United States Constitution.

Were it not for our own general ignorance of other countries and cultures, that may seem a little ludicrous. But it is just symptomatic of the general educational level in this country.

Our knowledge of science and technology is such that we do not understand the basic facts of science and are quite willing to allow others with no scientific background whatsoever to dictate what will be taught in the classroom, and excuse me for adding this, from the pulpit as well.

I am trying very hard to complete a project dealing with the science behind the creation, not in some manner to justify the words of Genesis nor in any sort of manner to deny the words of Genesis, but rather offer an understanding of what has taken place over the past 14 million years or so.

I am not bothered by the statistics that tell me most people accept the Genesis version of creation. What that tells me is that if anything about evolution and creation were taught in high school, it has long been forgotten. Which supports, I believe, my contention that we are getting dumber. Second, from a sectarian viewpoint, there seems to be a dichotomy between those who accept the Biblical story and church attendance, but that is a point to be raised at another time.

More to the point, there is a serious lack of knowledge, both about what is creation and then evolution, and how long the argument has been going on. I would think that most people probably feel that this argument has been taking place from perhaps the very beginning of time (excuse the pun).

For the most part, the present day debate between evolution and creation has its roots in the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. That is not too say that there haven’t been arguments about the nature of the words in Genesis.

I have discovered that even 1900 years ago, there were church leaders, philosophers, and theologians telling the people that words of Genesis 1 – 2 were more allegorical than literal. And that over the years, other church leaders, philosophers, and theologians have repeated the same thoughts. Even John Wesley held the idea that there was more to the words of Genesis than what was written in those first two chapters.

He wrote,

The inspired penman in this history [Genesis] … [wrote] for the Jews first and, calculating his narratives for the infant state of the church, describes things by their outward sensible appearances, and leaves us, by further discoveries of the divine light, to be led into the understanding of the mysteries couched under them (John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press, 1987), 22, quoted in Falk, Coming to Peace, 35. Also available online at John Wesley, “John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible,” Wesley Center Online (accessed Oct 21, 2011).

Wesley also argued that the scriptures “were written not to gratify our curiosity [of the details] but to lead us to God.” (John Wesley, A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation: or, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, 3rd ed. (London: J. Fry, 1777), 2:463, quoted in Falk, Coming to Peace, 35; cited in http://biologos.org/questions/early-interpretations-of-genesis)

There will come a time when we will find that our ignorance will be our downfall. If we are not willing to explore the unknown, we will be unable to solve the problems that will face this world in the coming days. And if we are not willing to seek a better understanding of who God is and our relationship with Him, then our own lives may not have much promise.

Further Thoughts On Academic Freedom


As noted in the title, the purpose of this piece is to offer some additional thoughts on the idea of academic freedom. This was prompted by a recent piece on the Retraction Watch blog, “Yes, we are seeing more attacks on academic freedom: guest post by historian of science and medicine”

But this requires a few thoughts about the nature of education in this country first. There is, in my own mind at least, a subtle attack being played on the educational system in this country. It is a subtle attack because, as so many attacks do, it is cleverly disguised as reform and improvement. Now, this is not going to be a diatribe or rant about Common Core because 1) I happened to believe that there is a common set of information everyone should have and 2) my disagreement with the Common Core Curriculum is with its implementation and not its content.

I think that most parents have problems with it because they don’t understand what’s going on and they do not want to take the time to visit with their children’s teachers and find out what they, the parents, need to do. In one sense, that’s nothing new; for the most part, parents have never really been involved in the children’s learning process, other than to complain when their children are failing educationally and then it is all the teacher’s fault. I suppose I could go with this topic but I will save it for another time.

The second problem is that Common Core is trying (or at least I think it is trying) to bring back certain aspects of the learning process that have been kicked out, namely the process of thinking and analyzing. It is one thing to remember information; it is an entirely different thing to think about the information and analyze what it means and what one can do with it.

I have said this before and I will say it again. If all we do is teach our children how to answer the questions on a test, they will be unable to solve the problems that haven’t arisen yet. But if we teach our children how to think and analyze, then no problem is unsolvable.

Second, the purpose of teaching should never be to prepare a student for the next year of study (though that has to be the dominant thought in the early years of education). One must teach the skills necessary for a student to learn on their own and to continue learning after formal education is completed. Right now, it appears that we are doing quite well in the first area but doing very little in the second.

And I am coming to believe that there is a cadre of individuals who would rather our children be an army of mindless robots, unable to question authority, so as to insure that they remain in power and have the ability to name their successors. I cannot help but think that this cadre of individuals would much rather return to the days of royalty and the divine-right of kings with the ability to choose who shall lead this country instead of accepting the ideas and ideals that made this country.

There are many aspects to the idea of academic freedom. I will accept the notion that, having been educated in how to teach chemistry as well as the actual field of chemistry, I should be given the freedom to teach it in a way that helps my students learn the material that is designated by the curriculum and prepares them for future learning.

And I will admit I have received in the years that I taught at the high school and college level much grief when I wouldn’t teach the answers on the test.

Now, as I pointed out in “Continuing Thoughts On Academic Freedom”, academic freedom, it can also mean allowing thoughts which you may not accept to be presented. But one has to understand the difference between an academic discussion of an idea and the presentation of information on what is essentially a “my way or the highway” approach.

What I think bothers to many people is that the purpose of education is to provide the skills necessary for the development of free thinking. And free thinking, while not always the greatest, is the greatest single challenge to totalitarianism one could ever imagine. For me, it would be a violation of my own academic freedom for any group to dictate what I can say in the classroom (and perhaps, also in the pulpit).

For me, the greatest attack on academic freedom has to be in the area of thought about the creation of this universe, this solar system, and the life on this particular planet.

As a lay speaker, my focus is on the Gospel and its application to life. As such, I very seldom find the opportunity to introduce science ideas. Having said that, having a science background helps to critically analyze the Scripture readings. In doing so, it makes it easier to show the truth of the Gospels.

Now, it might be different in the chemistry classroom. At the beginning of an introductory chemistry course, I spend some time with theory development. There are opportunities to suggest the difference between science and faith. But when one teaches in a public school, one has to be very careful not to emphasize one over the other.

A few years ago we were discussing 1/2-lives. For some of my students, this presented a quandary. As conservative Jews, the implications of this idea created a problem with their religion and its view of the world. Now, because these particular students were going into emergency medical response professions, this was, for me, not a problem. These students knew how to work the problems they would encounter and this would allow them to pass the course. In after class discussions, I pointed out that they had to resolve the problem created by the two situations.

I don’t think it is my job to challenge a student’s faith but I have to suggest ways to resolve the conflicts they are likely to encounter between science and their faith.

I think that at one time I had been required to memorize the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Charge Of The Light Brigade.” But I have probably forgotten most of it. But I do remember some verses of it, most notably, “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” If that is all that our education system will do, we have a problem.

 

“What Is Fracking?”


I don’t know about you but up here in New York there is a lot of discussion about “fracking” and how this will increase our supplies of crude oil and reduce our need for foreign supplies. But along side this discussion is also a discussion about how this process is not very environmental friendly and, as a secondary topic, how we need to be looking for alternative energy resources instead of continuing our reliance on fossil fuels.

So what is “fracking”? The proper name for this procedure is hydraulic fracturing and it is a technique for increasing the flow of crude oil out of bedrock. It and variants on the technique have been around probably since we first started drilling for oil.

To explain what it is, we need to have a better picture of how crude oil is taken out of the ground. I think that the most common conception of an oil well is a large pool of oil in a large cavity in the rock several thousand feet below the surface. In part, this is true but the cavities in which the oil is imbedded are very small and there is no large pool of oil.

When an oil well is set up, the pipe reaches the oil bearing rock strata, it cracks those micro-cavities and, because there is a pressure differential, the oil “flows” out of the rock strata and up to the surface. After the well is established, a pump jack is set on the wellhead to pump the oil out of the rock.

At some point in time, the pressure differential becomes to low for the pump jack to work and, in the past, the well is shut down. This is where “fracking” comes into play.

The process of “fracking” involves pumping water and other liquids under pressure back into the oil-bearing rock strata. This causes the strata to fracture and open up other pathways for the oil to flow out of the well. One benefit of this process is that it allows the extraction of oil from other oil-bearing strata normally not considered in oil production.

And that brings us to the downside of hydraulic fracturing. If all that was being pumped back into the ground was water (and I think that was the case many years ago), there might not be any problems. However, along with the water that is injected into these wells, other solvents, mostly hydrocarbons and essentially insoluble in water, are also being used.

These solvents are used to dissolve the oil and make it easier to extract but left behind in the bedrock, they end up in the water table and pollute the water. It also appears that the injection of this mixture of various solvents, under pressure, has increased the frequency of earthquakes in the area of the wells. Neither of these outcomes can be categorized as welcome and/or safe.

There are going to be those who say that the downside of “fracking” is minimal in terms of the oil that is produced from the process. Those who support this process would say that producing more domestic oil removes the need for the importation of oil from other localities. But is it worth it? Is the pollution and what would be the destruction of an underground water table worth the reduction of foreign oil?

Once upon a time, I began a science methods class by pointing out the two most important liquids in society were water and oil and that one could easily construct a curriculum based on that notion. There is no doubt that there is a limited supply of crude oil (fossil fuels are notoriously nonrenewable) but there is also a limited supply of clean drinking water. And having all the oil in the world won’t matter much if there is no water to drink. (A side note – there is plenty of water on this planet but the majority of it is undrinkable.)

Second, a focus on a process with so many downsides to it takes us away from seeking alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind. And we need to find other ways to utilize what limited resources of the fossil fuels that we do have, possibly through the use of fuel cells which would use the fossil fuels but not produce the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide associated with the combustion of the same fossil fuels.

There are probably countless technical details that I have overlooked but I hope this has provided some insight into this issue that seems to be a dominant part of the energy discussion in our country today. The reader will clearly know my bias but I hope I have left it there for them to decide on their own what their opinion will be and what action to take.