Over the winter break I interviewed Chris Anderson of Science Over Everything about how science researchers can be better science educators. Outside of his scicomm blog, Chris is a consultant with the Hamilton County Educational Service Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. He primarily works as an instructional coach to educators and curriculum managers to help them build science curriculum and effectively teach science in their schools. Previously, Chris was a science teacher at Princeton High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He tells me that his overall job goal is to help science teachers be better science teachers!
What follows in an abridged transcript of our interview:
JB= Justin Baumann of UNdertheC
CA= Chris Anderson of Science Over Everything
Q (JB): What are some challenges you/ your clients face in the classroom with regards to teaching science?
A (CA: There are huge gaps in science knowledge among our students. For example: some high school sophomores don’t know what a food web is when the curriculum says they learned that concept in the fourth grade. This happens for a variety of reasons:
- The state (of Ohio) doesn’t test on science until the 5th grade so schools aren’t necessarily incentivized to focus on science knowledge at the elementary level (other subjects-like math and english are tested almost every year.) In high school students should be collecting data and doing experimental work.
- Not all elementary teachers are comfortable teaching science. They are often great teachers (well versed in teaching pedagogy) but they are not always given content experience in sciences during their own education (their graduate degree/certificate in elementary education).
- On the flip side, high school teachers have a lot of science content in their own education (and many major in science and then get a master’s in education), however they often do not get the same education in pedagogy (teaching methods) that elementary educators get. As a result, they know content but cannot always effectively teach it.
- There is not a lot of vertical communication between primary school and secondary school teachers even within a school district. The two groups could lean from each other but that communication doesn’t commonly happen.
- TIME. High schools are on a schedule. You can’t setup and expect students to run an experiment (and learn from it) in 50 minutes.
Overall there is a disconnect between what students need to be able to do to be “good” at science and what we (educators/schools) do to prepare them.
This is a huge problem because today’s jobs are all about being creative, being able to communicate, collaborate, and being able to think critically. If you’re a good scientist you can do both of those things! How we’re preparing students is not matching up to the jobs that exist. High school grads often lack the skills necessary to get a job right away. Schools as a whole are just not preparing them to do so. Critical thinking is super important as a modern citizen!!! People need to understand how data work. A better foundation as a society for critical thinking and analysis could really help us understand and solve big issues facing the world today (such as climate change). If we have a better understanding of these things everyone will realize that this whole climate change thing is a threat to everything. Not just coral reefs, giraffes, or condors, but human society as well.
Q (JB): Knowing that these gaps in science education exist, what can we (scientists, researchers, grad students) do to help improve science education?
A (CA): Partner with educators (be it through local organizations like SciREN, or not), especially at the elementary level. There is already a lot of lesson planning content out there (on the internet), but providing teachers with easily accessible, understandable, and digestible lesson will go a long way. Provide the teacher foundational stuff (what is a coral, why is biodiversity good, what lives on a reef) to teach to the class. This is the kind of stuff that people like us (nerds who loved science) learned on our own. Teaching it in the classroom early in life will get people excited and interested! Use your university network and connections to get out into classrooms (if you are local to NC try something like NC Sci Fest Invite a Scientist). Focus on elementary students and educators. Provide resources for both teachers and students. Lastly, do experiments in the classroom! Show people how to design them, set them up, and execute them. Experiments are exciting! The ocean is cool, people love it. Go talk to them and show them all the cool stuff!
Q (JB): What can we do to target our outreach to help educate the public and kids about important but controversial issues (like climate change and evolution)?
A (CA): In the classroom the answer is simple. Remove the controversy. You are teaching the science and the science isn’t up for debate (among scientists there is no real controversy). With students you can always remind them that they will be tested on this material (by the teacher, the state, a college exam, etc) so they should learn it. Make sure the people you are talking to know that you respect them and they are welcome to have their own opinions on theology, etc… but that in this context they need to learn the science.
It often helps to start with some basics, like the definition of a theory and some examples of theories. A theory isn’t a guess. Expand on that point and try working from there. Again, target elementary level audiences with this kind of thing. Build science knowledge at an early age.
(Justin here- if any readers have advice for how to deal with these issues outside of the classroom we are happy to share them via Twitter and Facebook).
Q (JB): What would say to scientists that don’t consider education and outreach important? How would you motivate them to pursue these activities?
A (CA): If any professor or researcher has ever been frustrated that their students don’t care, don’t understand, or aren’t prepared for their class; then that is evidence that outreach by expert scientists is important. Clearly the students lack the background, so we need scientists to get in the classroom and help train them. The worst case scenario of outreach is that you teach people critical thinking and analysis skills. These skills matter for all jobs!
Chris shared some great perspective that we don’t often get here at UNdertheC. It was very useful to hear from someone who is in the classroom. I see the takeaways from this conversation as these:
- Go do outreach. At the very least you will help people develop critical thinking skills.
- If you are just starting outreach work or want to be as effective as possible, start with younger age groups. Come prepared with background information for both the students and the teacher (just in case) and focus on some basic stuff (for example: talk about what a coral is, or what ocean currents are, or what diversity means). These may seem like easy and obvious concepts, but if students aren’t exposed to them early (and often) they not get the background that they need.
- Partner with an organization to help increase your scope. Get the message out. Try blogging, partnering with a museum, website, or other organization.
For more from Chris check out his blog Science Over Everything.