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Science Education It Isn't Rocket Science.

Mr. Weld describes an approach to science education that meets the demands of a technological and pluralistic society.

WHAT IF English classes were found to dramatically favor red-haired students of diminutive stature? For whatever reason, their test scores in English on national exams are inordinately high. They make up the bulk of enrollees in Advanced Placement English classes. Departments of English in colleges are filled with short redheads. And most journalists and writers are short redheads as well.

The rest of us might shrug and wonder over the curious equation: red hair equals good grammar. Carrot-topped infants would be cooed over as future authors and linguists.

But what if we found out that the advantage of redheads wasn't the result of any particular strength inherent in them, but had to do with the particular approach used in school English classes? And what if that approach wasn't necessarily a better one, just one that favored certain students? Imagine the collective indignation if we found out that lots of other youngsters could be good at English too - if it were taught differently. If they were taught better.

Cause and Effect

If height, hair color, and English class in the paragraphs above are replaced by gender, race, and science class, then this story is no longer a fantasy. Researchers have accumulated much data that indicate the existence of a bias in science instruction, and we know better ways to proceed. Real live indignation on our parts is surely justified.

All children enter school with roughly the same attitudes and abilities in science, but by high school females and members of ethnic minorities do not like science as much as white males do.1 It should come as no surprise that there is a direct correlation between attitude toward science and science achievement,2 and this might be the basic reason for some troubling statistics. Female high school students take fewer advanced science courses, have lower science test scores, and are less interested in science-related careers than their male classmates.3 In high school, 39% of calculus students and 15% of physics students are female. The result is that female scientists and engineers are outnumbered six to one by their male colleagues.

A similar situation exists for minority students. Science scores for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans on the ACT (American College Testing) exam are lower than for white examinees.4 African Americans make up 11.9% of the U.S. population, but they account for only 2.9% of professional scientists and engineers. Hispanic Americans make up 9% of our population, but they account for just 1.3% of recipients of bachelor's degrees in the sciences.5

The trend away from science is not isolated to females and minorities; overall graduate enrollments in science and engineering steadily declined for a drop of 20,000 science and engineering graduate students between 1993 and 1996.6 The disappointing performance of American youngsters in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is a stark reminder that our current practices in science education are not working all that well.

Equal Access to Science

We do know of a better way to teach science - a way that has been shown to improve attitudes toward science across gender and ethnic lines while establishing equity and excellence in science performance as measured by content retention, science process skills, and creative problem-solving ability.

The Science/Technology/Society (STS) approach to teaching science has been researched and practiced for more than 20 years. Indeed, this movement is among the most rigorously scrutinized and pedagogically durable of all the reform efforts of recent decades. What all the scrutiny has shown is that students who experience an STS approach have better attitudes toward studying science and toward careers in science, have improved ability to apply science concepts to their daily lives, exhibit more equitable achievement outcomes in science across gender and ethnic lines, have improved ability for decision making, show greater creativity, and perform on standardized science tests as well as (or better than) students who have used textbook-based science approaches.7

The Science/Technology/Society approach uses current issues in the lives of students and society as the foundation of study. Students identify issues and share in the planning of activities that seek to find out about and possibly help resolve these issues. The content and processes central to traditional science courses arise from, rather than steer, an STS course. STS advocates recognize that context gives science - or any discipline for that matter - its meaning and relevance. All other things - terminology, noteworthy figures, equations, procedures - are sought out on a need-to-know basis.8

What STS Looks Like

In the Classroom

Teaching STS science requires nothing more than a shift in emphasis and a willingness to empower students. A typical scenario for an equitable and authentic ecology unit in a high school biology class, for example, might go something like this.

An instructor and his or her students start by establishing that there is relevance and personal interest in the subject. A good way to get started is with a brainstorming session in which individuals share topics of an ecological nature that interest them.

Students team up to learn more about a specific topic of interest. They assign roles to themselves and delegate responsibilities for various aspects of the project - from contacting local experts, to designing experiments, to conducting literature searches, to Internet surfing, to designing a brochure or a multimedia presentation as the culmination of the unit. The role of the teacher is that of facilitator - guiding students toward resources, planting seeds of ideas for experiments, verifying the safety of student work, and introducing relevant content as the need arises.

Weeks can easily slip by as students meet daily to update one another on visits to local industries or to apprise one another of valuable Internet sites or debate the value of an experimental design or conduct yet another trial of a lab test. Eventually, all data and findings are brought together for the task of presenting the project to the class. Again, the teacher facilitates discussion, guides students to sources, offers suggestions for experiments, and assists with technology needs.

Many STS teachers prefer a seminar-style format for presenting results and conclusions. Student groups inform the rest of the class of their newfound expertise on a topic. Mirroring authentic science practice, this procedure may generate more questions for the students to answer or may help them discover changes to make in their experimental design or new ways of interpreting their conclusions. A project can often lead to an extended inquiry - frequently pursued voluntarily after school or during the lunch hour.

The result of such a project is a class of students who know far more about ecology than they would ever have learned from a textbook/verification lab/lecture format. They also understand how to design an experiment that stands up to critique. They know more about working together to solve a problem. They believe that science class is about their world and that they can participate actively. Their creativity has been tapped, and their sense of curiosity has been restored.

Girls who experience an STS approach in their science classes are far more likely to think of science class as fun.9 Researchers arrived at this conclusion by using before-and-after measures of attitude comparing 20 science classes taught in either a traditional, textbook-oriented way or with an STS approach. It has been well documented that achievement levels and positive attitudes toward science decline for girls between the ages of 9 and 14.10 But when a science curriculum that focuses on problem solving and community issues is employed, this trend is reversed.

Girls in STS science classes are more likely not only to view science as fun, but also to perform as well as or better than boys on content exams. In a study involving 12 teachers who taught comparison sections of middle school science, using either a text-driven or an STS approach, scores on attitude measures were significantly higher for all students who experienced the STS approach, with girls making even greater gains than boys. Moreover, as measured by the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, content scores also showed improvement for both boys and girls, and the usual achievement gap between the sexes at the ninth-grade level on the ITBS was erased for students in STS

science classes.11

Two studies that used a similar class-comparison design confirmed these results. One study involved 10 middle school teachers, and the other involved 15 middle school teachers. In both studies, significant and persistent gender gaps on science concept tests were closed when an STS instructional design was used. And attitudes improved for all students, with particular growth seen among female students.12

These encouraging results with regard to female students have been seen with minority students as well. Glaring discrepancies exist in performance between white students and ethnic minority students when a traditional text-driven curriculum prevails.13 In traditional science classes, minority students have lower scores on application assessments (measures of ability to apply content from a particular science unit to novel situations), poorer attitudes toward science class and science careers, lower scores on measures of creativity, and lower scores on measures of content knowledge.14

In a research study that involved two sections of middle school science for each of two teachers in an urban setting (55% minority students), comparison sections of STS science versus text-driven science revealed polar contrasts in performance. The STS courses allowed students to help define the issues of investigation, to locate resources, to debate the validity of information, and to arrive at group consensus.15 When this format was used in science class, attitudes toward science and science careers soared for minority students, surpassing the positive scores registered by white students in both traditional and STS classes. Minority students' creativity scores in the STS class were double those of minority students in the control class and equaled the scores of white students. Measures of the ability to apply knowledge show a similar pattern: minority students in STS classes were as good at solving novel problems using content background as were their white peers. And by measure of the ITBS, white students maintained similar performance in the two contrasting classes, while minority students made encouraging gains.16

Unstacking the Deck

So the secret is out. The pervasive bias inherent in traditional science education doesn't have to exist. Sizable portions of the American population need not shy away from science courses and science careers simply because of gender or ethnicity. STS unstacks the deck for all students in science - once it gains a foothold in schools. But that foothold is going to require firm grounding in research if it is to change the curriculum.

Dozens of studies like those I have cited here attest to the benefits for students who learn science through STS: an improved understanding of the way science works, dramatically improved attitudes toward science and science class, improved ability to apply science knowledge to novel situations, improved ability to solve problems creatively, and no loss (and in some studies, marginal gains) in content knowledge as measured by standardized tests.17

We can hardly afford to simply shrug and wonder in amazement over the gifted few who excel in an archaic brand of science education. Our success as a modern society depends on having all citizens participate in the governance and practice of science. STS meets the demands of a technological and pluralistic society.

1. Judy Ann Rowell White and Gloria D. Richardson, "Comparison of Science Attitudes Among Middle and Junior High School Students," paper presented at the annual meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association, Memphis, 10-12 November 1993.

2. Theodora Petros DeBaz, "Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Students' Characteristics and Achievement and Attitudes Toward Science" (Doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, 1994).

3. Sophia Catsambis, "Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Science Education in the Middle Grades," Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 32, 1995, pp. 243- 57.

4. Helen J. Walton, "A Study of the ACT Scores of Similarly Situated African- American/Black and Caucasian American/White Students" (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 1995).

5. Steven J. Rakow and Andrea Bermudez, "Underrepresentation of Hispanic Americans in Science," in Shelley Johnson Carey, ed., Science for All Cultures (Washington, D.C.: National Science Teachers Association, 1993), pp. 12-67; Mary M. Atwater and Joseph P. Riley, "Multicultural Science Education: Perspectives, Definitions, and Research Agenda," Science Education, vol. 77, 1993, pp. 661-68; and Foundations: The Challenge and Promise of K-8 Science Education Reform (Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation, NSF 97-76, 1997).

6. National Science Foundation, "Overall Graduate Enrollments in Science and Engineering Continue Downward Move," 1998; available at http://www.

7. NSTA Task Force on STS Initiatives, "Science/

Technology/Society: A New Effort for Providing Appropriate Science for All," in Robert E. Yager, ed., The Science, Technology, Society Movement (Washington, D.C.: National Science Teachers Association, 1993).

8. Robert E. Yager and Rustum Roy, "STS: Most Pervasive and Radical of Reform Approaches to 'Science' Education," in Yager, pp. 7-16.

9. Susan E. Blunck, Caroline S. Giles, and Julia M. McArthur, "Gender Differences in the Science Classroom: STS Bridging the Gap," in Yager, pp. 153- 60.

10. Jane Butler Kahle, "The Myth of Equality in Science Classrooms," Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 20, 1983, pp. 131-40.

11. Srini Murtinah Iskandar, "An Evaluation of the Science-Technology-Society Approach to Science Teaching" (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 1991).

12. Mackinnu, "Comparison of Learning Outcomes Between Classes Taught with a Science-Technology-Society Approach and a Textbook-Oriented Approach" (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 1991); and Yu-Ling Lu, "A Study of the Effectiveness of the Science-Technology-Society Approach to Science Teaching in the Elementary School" (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 1993).

13. Kenneth C. Holt, "A Rationale for Creating African-American Immersion Schools," Educational Leadership, December 1991/January 1992, p. 18.

14. Joan Braunagel McShane and Robert E. Yager, "Advantages of STS for Minority Students," in Robert E. Yager, ed., Science/Technology/Society as Reform in Science Education (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 131-38.

15. Ibid., p. 132.

16. Ibid., p. 134.

17. See Yager, Science/Technology/Society as Reform; Blunck, Giles, and McArthur, op. cit.; Chin-Tang Liu, "Evaluating the Effectiveness of an Inservice Teacher Education Program: The Iowa Chautauqua Program" (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 1992); Lu, op. cit.; Iskandar, op. cit.; and Lawrence Howard Myers, "Analysis of Student Outcomes in Ninth Grade Physical Science Taught with a Science/Technology/Society Focus Versus One Taught with a Textbook Orientation" (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 1988). K

JEFFREY WELD is an assistant professor of science education in the Department of Curriculum and Educational Leadership, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.
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Author:Weld, Jeffrey
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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