Monday, 10 June 2013

Real science-land and skills

The fluoride debate in the media at the moment (in relation specifically to the Hamilton council deciding to remove fluoridation from the city water supply) has reminded me why we as science teachers have the potential to play a vital role.

It is not enough to simply teach pre-determined science content to our young people any more.

We must teach them the skills to be scientifically-minded, responsible consumers of digital technology. We must teach science to them in authentic ways that resonate with them, and make a difference in how they view the world. It is not enough to teach them as if we lived in (as I call it) "perfect science land" where every experiment works and all theories are apparent and obvious, and nothing is laborious and repetitive.... and you simply have to persevere until your research provides the long-awaited-for fruition. They need to see a glimpse of what 'real' science is like and that good research and scientific findings take time and effort.

These students have a huge amount of content and resources at their fingertips, but we have to provide the context of the content and show them how to use the skills to best utilise the content.

These are young people that have grown up as digital natives, surrounded by the internet, and yet for the most part these young people do not approach the constant flow of information they receive with caution or wariness; it seems more often that they blindly trust anything their friends link to on facebook.

Recently, in a class discussion on nutrition within a Human Body unit I was doing with a year 10 class, a student earnestly told me that fast food was bad because (wait for it!).... they put fish genes into their chicken burgers. What's worse is that no-one in the class questioned the statement - they all looked horrified and were no doubt gearing up to tell more of their friends later.

Now I grew up with urban legends about fast food outlets, but they remained just that - urban legends. With the internet now such a omnipresent force, these once urban legends spread (and these 14 year olds are not exactly checking on first!) and become somehow more believable because they are on a website somewhere.

The student had not considered what her statement even meant, simply that it sounded shocking enough to tell others as a party trick. The how's or why's went unthought of. I explained that as a researcher, it had taken months of writing applications to the relevant government bodies and an awful lot of funding to even import a genetically modified organism into the country, and there was strict control about exactly where this organism could be used and stored..... but apparently all you need is the kitchen of a fast food outlet and you can somehow shove fish genes into burgers! And it was a given that these imaginary fish genes were of course harmful. The idea that you consume fish genes every time you eat fish also hadn't occurred. (I did inform the student in a gentle way, getting them to come to the alternative, more likely conclusion by themselves, but inside I was horrified that an otherwise pretty clued-up 14 year old could think this way - my naivety perhaps!?)

Regardless, it is our role as science teachers to guide these impressionable students into becoming scientifically-minded, objective (and dare I say, slightly cynical) thinkers. They need to understand the difference between sciencey-sounding writings on a random blog and the scientific findings published in a peer-reviewed journal. They need to be able to take a wide-range of information and draw their own well-thought-out conclusions. In this age of instant gratification, the correct answers are not always the ones we come to first, and real science can take time and deep thinking about issues.

I want my students to leave school with the ability to question material that they read; to ask the why's and how's; to take their time in coming to a truly informed decision - one where they have considered both sides of an argument and looked deeper for the real science behind the presented facts, an informed decision where they see where the bias and vested interest is and take that into account, an informed decision where they look past the pseudoscientific language that is so often thrown around and in reality means nothing.

They also need to have the basic knowledge to interpret those findings, to understand what the language means and to know where they can go to reliably further inform themselves.

I want my students to be informed, responsible consumers of and contributors to the internet age and to make scientifically-sound decisions based not on the random ramblings of someone who is inherently anti-science and pro-conspiracy theories. To give them an insight into the efforts and diligence that go into science research. And to me, that is where the future of teaching science lies.
Further thinking: I want to clarify that I still believe there is a place for science content being taught - there are so many aspects of science that need to be explicitly explained and demonstrated so as to avoid the misconceptions that students so often have, and teachers are in the position of being able to see where to build the scaffolding and how to allow the students to understand. However, this alone is not enough; we must teach them the skills and context to properly understand and value the content, and more importantly, we must teach them to question the content, including what we teach them!

I'm also aware that ranting is not enough.... blog post to come on what I am doing to put my thoughts into action...

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