Science Education for Everyone: Why and What?

By Trefil, James | Liberal Education, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Science Education for Everyone: Why and What?


Trefil, James, Liberal Education


THE NOTION THAT a liberally educated person should know some science is well accepted these days. You would have to go pretty far in American academe to find the kind of academics C. R Snow talked about a half century ago in The Two Cultures-the ones who were proud of their ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics. What 1 would like to explore in this essay is nt so much the "whether" of general science education, but the "why." What exactly constitutes good science education, and how can we recognize when our students have received it? Once we have answered this question, the answer to the "what" question-the actual content of the curriculum-is relatively easy to find.

Before going on, I need to make one point. There are (at least) two different kinds of things that go under the name of "science education." One involves the education of future scientists and engineers-an endeavor that is, I think, in pretty good shape (although improvements are always possible). The other involves the education of what I call "the other 98 percent"-the students who will not go on to careers in science and technology. It is this latter sort of education that I want to discuss. In particular, I want to ask what sort of education the other 98 percent should get in the sciences.

There is a long history of thought on this subject in both the United States and England. John Dewey set the stage for our current debate in 1910, when he argued that the proper goal of science education (what we would call today general education in science) was to create a "scientific habit of mind." Dewey was somewhat vague on the details of this goal, although his main motivation seemed to be social utility (what I will call the "Argument from Civics" below). By the 1930s, however, University of Wisconsin educator I. C. Davis had expanded Dewey's notion as follows:

We can say that an individual who has a scientific attitude will (1) show a willingness to change his opinion on the basis of new evidence; (2) will search for the whole truth without prejudice; (3) will have a concept of cause and effect relationships; (4) will make a habit of basing judgment on fact; and (5) will have the ability to distinguish between fact and theory. (Davis 1935, 117)

Who can argue with that?

The problem with this sort of goal-a goal that, I suspect, the great majority of academic scientists would endorse-is that it is both completely unrealistic and totally out of line with the way science is evolving. If we have this sort of goal in mind, we will treat the purpose of general science education as being the production of students who are, in effect, miniature scientists. "If we can't make you into a full-fledged scientist," the argument seems to go, "we'll get you as far along that track as we can." In the words of Nobel Laureate Carl Weiman of the University of British Columbia, scientists engage in the general education of students because "we want them to think like us."

The result of this attitude is the almost universal general education science requirement of "eight hours of science," with or without a laboratory, that we find in American academe. Departmentally based, these courses typically are of the "Physics (or Chemistry or Astronomy or Biology) for Poets" type, aiming to get the students through a simplified version of the main concepts of a single discipline. The problem, of course, is that anyone who has spent time in the trenches knows that very few students are going to acquire a "scientific habit of mind" in these courses, and the majority of them can be counted on to forget most of what they learned shortly after the final.

The Argument from Civics

My sense is that the main problem with general education in the sciences is that we have set ourselves the wrong goal. Rather than think about the problem of producing miniature scientists, let me advance a Modest Proposal for an alternate goal: Students should be able to read the newspaper on the day they graduate. …

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