It is not enough to prepare our students for the future. We must prepare them to change it if necessary.
Too often, our vision for our students becomes clouded by our vision for ourselves. When we speak of creating an education system to "prepare our students for the future," we are too often speaking of creating the system that we wish we could have had; one to prepare us for the realities of a world that is more connected and technologically demanding than our parents could have imagined for us.
When we promise to train our students for the "jobs of tomorrow," we are really referring to the jobs of today that we feel offer stability in an unstable economy because they require recently developed skills. This vision of an education system optimized for the present belies the reality that today's young people will live their lives in a future that they will largely create themselves. As we strive to give them the skills to survive in our world, we are depriving them of the skills to shape their own.
Science education is at the epicenter of this unfortunate tradeoff. Science holds the key to so many of the skills necessary to compete in today's economy that there is tremendous pressure to make sure that students learn this formula or that programming language in order to join one industry or another. Yet scientific inquiry is also a set of values at the very core of the critical thinking framework our students need to evaluate their world.
As a scientist, I believe it is imperative that we not miss the forest for the trees in science education. Above all else, science education must give students the critical thinking tools to become better agents at improving tomorrow. There are many ways to do this, but I will focus here on three simple guidelines for creating science curricula that will prepare our students to change the future.
1. Don’t Waste Precious Science Education Time Memorizing Simple Facts
“How many moons does Jupiter have?”
“Let me check on that. It looks like the answer is 63.”
“What is the molecular weight of glucose?”
“Let me check on that. The answer is about 180 grams per mole.”
This is a conversation I had with my smartphone while driving to my office this morning, and it nicely serves as the basis of my first recommendation: Don’t waste precious science education time memorizing simple facts.
As we prepare our students to change the future, the first thing we must acknowledge is that the future will be significantly different than the present. If our smartphones are capable of providing immediate access to scientific facts today, imagine how much more available this type of information will be in fifteen or twenty years!
Rather than pointlessly challenging the computer in memorizing simple facts, science education should be directed at higher levels of comprehension and use of the facts that can easily be obtained elsewhere. We should train our students to use technology to find relevant facts. More importantly, through hands-on experiences and in-depth scientific thinking, they should learn how to determine which scientific facts are relevant in any given circumstance.
I recall a recent discussion with a middle school school principal who complained of students cheating by using handheld devices to secretly go “online” to find test answers during class. This practice led him to ban these devices. However, such prohibitions may well be shortsighted. Rather, we should design our quizzes and test questions to measure critical scientific thinking, so that quickly obtaining online facts is simply the first step in formulating a correct answer. The second, and more important step would then be to interpret and use the facts correctly in the context of the question.
2. Don’t Use Current Trendy Science Topics As the Basis of Science Education
Precollege science education should train students to think scientifically, based on scientific facts and principles. The temptation to build science curricula around discussions of global warming, alternative energy production, conservation and other critically important topics of current interest is understandable. However, doing so runs the risk of sidelining scientific content in favor of the political, economic and philosophical aspects of these issues.
It is essential that students first understand basic physics concepts like the laws of motion, force and energy prior to forming an opinion about solar energy or other alternative energy sources. It is essential that students first develop a concept of atomic structure and an understanding of the physical and chemical properties of the elements and compounds prior to forming an opinion about food additives or environmental pollutants. It is essential that students first understand the dynamics of energy-flow through a food chain, the interdependence of species and the molecular mechanisms of inheritance and adaptation prior to forming an opinion about deforestation, the use of pesticides or the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms.
Returning to our mission of preparing our students to influence and change the future, we must remember that today’s current trendy science topics will likely be replaced by new topics of more immediate importance, representing future challenges that we simply lack the ability to imagine today. Given our inability to perfectly predict the future’s technical and scientific-related issues and problems, our best bet is to prepare our students with a good grasp of basic science facts, principles and thinking so that they may approach such problems as they see fit, not only with current knowledge, but with the knowledge and tools that will evolve between now and then.
3. Place Science Education in the Context of a High Quality Liberal Education
When we set aside our vision for ourselves and examine our true hopes for the education of our students, we find something rather more aspirational than job training. In science, we hope that our students will be prepared to be the masters of technology. We hope they will be able to control and direct future technology and innovation for the good of society. In doing so, we hope they will be able to ensure that new technology and science improves the human condition and never loses sight of ideals such as fairness, justice and compassion.
To direct future technology and science towards improving the lives of all humans, regardless of social situation, birthplace or genetics, science needs to take its place as a coequal partner in a liberal education. Students must understand that the values of scientific inquiry that they learn in science class are fundamentally connected to the values they learn from subjects like history, art, literature, music, philosophy, ethics and so on.
The importance of accentuating other domains of learning in science education has already begun to take root in modern thinking about curriculum. We’ve seen suggestions that the traditional acronym STEM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, be changed to STEAM by incorporating the Arts, or further modified to STREAM by incorporating Reading and wRiting. Other educators have suggested the incorporation of other domains such as ethics, philosophy or religion into the mix.
Perhaps we can move past acronyms (like STEM) altogether and simply realize that a soundly and liberally educated student will be in the best position to deal with the new science and technology of the future. However, let us be clear: placing science in a liberal arts context is not the same as combining the science curriculum with the curricula of other subjects. That is a common modern mistake in the rush toward STEM education. Science should not be "diluted" by STEM curricula - it should be augmented by it. If science is not rigorous, it is bad science.
The essence of science stands on its own. It’s thinking is unique and wonderful. Nonetheless, it is likely to be most useful when practiced by well-rounded, thoughtful and compassionate individuals. By encouraging these traits in our students, we give them the tools to change their world for the better.