I spend a lot of time thinking about the purpose of science education. Lots of folks have written at length in academic journals about why students should learn science and how to define scientific literacy. While these arguments are important pieces of the science education literature, most of my thinking about the purpose of science education is more personal and contextual. I start teaching an Physical Science course for non-science majors next week, so have found myself reflecting once again as to what I hope my students get from my science classes.
1) Critical thinking. More than anything else, I hope to help students further develop their critical thinking skills. I think science is particularly good at using evidence to support thinking, even if evidence is not the only factor affecting scientists’ thinking. If students can debate ideas, support their thinking with evidence, and recognize logical flaws in their own and other’s thinking when discussing the natural world, I believe these skills will transfer to other domains.
2) How science works. In science education, this is related to the field “nature of science”. Too often students leave science thinking that a scientist is someone who recreates investigations others have done. I’ve had students explicitly say this too me. Why wouldn’t they think this when all they do is verification cookbook labs? I want students to leave my class knowing the investigative nature of science, that science requires creativity, and that personal and social factors impact scientific investigations. While such ideas can lead to skepticism of science, I also want them to learn about the importance of the scientific community, consensus building, and the role of paradigms in science. If they learn how science works (rather than just how to plan an experiment), they are better equipped to critique the sensationalized headlines they see concerning science.
3) Science content. Given that I am teaching a science course, I do want students to leave knowing something about the natural world. However, I am not overly concerned about them knowing particular factoids or equations. Instead, I want students to understand broadly applicable ideas in science. I don’t need them to remember PV=nRT if they can accurately picture how particles react to various stimuli. Indeed, a particulate view of matter applies to gas laws, density, fluids, chemical reactions, plate tectonics, weather, and probably some other ideas. My hope is that by deeply understanding fundamental, rather than trivial, ideas about nature, students develop a more accurate intuition about our current understanding of how nature works.
There are other things I hope my students get out of my science classes (and all of my classes), yet these three seem to be the most fundamental for me right now. For example, I want students to be effective communicators, but we can’t communicate effectively until we can think critically. I also want students to engage in socio-scientific reasoning. However, such reasoning requires an understanding of some content, critical thinking, and understanding the nature of science doesn’t hurt. I also want students to value science, but I don’t think they can do that until they understand some content and how science works.
Sometimes our curriculum or textbooks cause us to forget what we really want for students. My list doesn’t have to be your list, but I hope you find a way to focus on your list rather than the list that was handed to you.