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MSPnet Blog: “The social contract of science education”

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posted November 25, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

I had occasion this week to read the Pew Research Center’s 2015 reports “Public and scientists’ views on science and policy, ” and a follow-up, “An elaboration of AAAS scientists’ views.”  Got me to thinking about the work of science education, and how our society (the US for sure, and probably elsewhere) is a multiculture with respect to science.

The Pew study ask about a range of topics, from specific (e.g. views on vaccination, fracking, or evolution) to more general, policy-level questions (e.g. how US science ranks in comparison to other countries’, whether government investments in science are worth it).  The analysis disaggregates the data according to various demographics;  the “elaboration” disaggregates responding scientists into “working PhD scientists,” “active researchers,” and (with respect to specific questions) “domain experts.”

Interestingly, the various sub-groups of scientists tended mostly to agree, with occasional sub-group divergence — for example, on the desirability of fracking, 47% of “working engineers” approved, while only 38% of “working earth scientists” did.

For science educators, though, the most interesting differences may be the gap between the opinions of scientists as a group, and the general public.  Some special points of interest:

A. Fifty-four percent of the general public believes that US science is “best in the world”; 34% see it as “average.”  Scientists have an even more positive view:  92% see it as “best in the world,” and another 6% see it as “average.” (Hard to know how “best” is measured, of course.)

B.  On three big topics, the public disbelieves that there is a consensus view among scientists, the 3 being the Big Bang (52% believe scientists are divided), climate change (37%), and evolution (29%)  (The actual figures are considerably higher, e.g. evolution 98%, climate change at least 87%).    This divergence is of great interest, because there’s so much sociology involved. Evolution controversies have persisted since Darwin, and  the imputation of disagreement among scientists has been an important weapon in the arsenal of creationist rhetoric.  The Big Bang theory resembles evolution, in that it replaces a biblical account of “origins” with one relying on natural causes only;  in this case, too, disagreement among scientists is desirable in the eyes of opponents.

The same goes for climate change, of course.  Moreover, the creation of doubt about the science and scientists of climate change has been the aim of a well-documented disinformation campaign over many years.  Yet Pew shows that scientists as a group are seen as more trustworthy than any other group in public life, except the military.   At least one study (Ping et al 2015) provided evidence that when people who disbelieved in human-caused climate change are told the actual extent of scientific agreement about it, that information results in a measurable reduction in “skepticism” or denial.  (I know of no comparable study about public attitudes about the Big Bang or evolution.)   This obviously has potential importance in the effort to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

C. Opinions on the quality of US STEM ed are also interestingly divergent.  Among the general population, 29% see it as “best in the world,” 39% see it as “average,” and 29% see it as below the international average.  Scientists are more negative:  16% see it as “best,” 38% as average, and 46% as below average.

Other studies over the years have shown a high public interest in science topics, so the basic picture is, “We are interested in science, and US science is really good, but we are cautious about accepting guidance from scientists, and we aren’t really satisfied with our STEM education.

The disjunct around specific issues often relates to the ways in which scientific research intersects with other values, all within the context of an anxiety-provoking (post)modernity. I myself am quite clear that science is not the only tool we must use to make our way forward in the world, yet it is a powerful one which can provide an effective approach to many questions both natural and cultural.  To quote Dewey:

Science represents the fruition of the cognitive factors in experience. Instead of contenting itself with a mere statement of what commends itself to personal or customary experience, it aims at a statement which will reveal the sources, grounds, and consequences of a belief.,,,The function which science has to perform in the curriculum is that which it has performed for the race: emancipation from local and temporary incidents of experience, and the opening of intellectual vistas unobscured by the accidents of personal habit and predilection… In emancipating an idea from the particular context in which it originated and giving it a wider reference the results of the experience of any individual are put at the disposal of all men. Thus ultimately and philosophically science is the organ of general social progress.  (Democracy and Education ch. 17)

Perhaps I would demur at calling science THE organ of progress, but science as a method of intelligent action is indispensable.

Like many science educators, I think of the gap, or even alienation,  between scientist and citizen to derive from insufficient exchange.  In discussing controversial topics with nonscientists,  I have often felt it important to get across how laborious it can be to establish even a little new insight into some small question — and how fallible even this excellent enterprise can be, how much in need of reflection, correction, debate, revision.

Thus, it seems to me that, though I am not a big fan of NGSS, the call to engage students with content through ” the practices” is surely in the right direction, and needs to be accompanied by stories of many kinds  — from theory-building to narratives of discovery, disputation, refutation, and further inquiry.  For this, scientists and science educators need to keep working more and more effectively together, each learning from the other more and more attentively.

But there’s another thing:  Who is it we are trying to educate?  Are we bold enough?  Scientists have in the past few years been critiquing the way they take part in the public discourse, playing a leavening part in creative civic ferment. Jane Lubchenko, the great ecologist and quondam NOAA director,   said a few years ago:

In my experience, scientific information is often not taken into account because the information is not readily available, or it’s not understandable, or it’s not seen as being relevant or useful, or it’s not seen as being credible to the person making the decision. Oftentimes, it’s a combination of many or all of those.

Scientists bear responsibility for all of these failures, to varying degrees. And we can be proactive in addressing the reasons why scientific information is often not available, understandable, useable, or credible. For example, in my experience, many, many people, including many politicians, simply assume they won’t understand what a scientist is saying. “It’s too technical!” “I don’t understand all those big words!” “Scientists caveat everything so much; I guess they don’t aren’t confident about anything.” These are statements I’ve heard multiple times. I think this is highly unfortunate.

Later in the same address, Lubchenk0 said

I believe that academic scholars have a responsibility to be proactive in engaging directly with society. I believe that part of our obligation—our social contract, if you will—involves a two-way communication with society. Specifically, in exchange for public funding, our jobs are both to create new knowledge and to share it widely with transparency and humility. When I first proposed this idea of a social contract for science eighteen years ago in my presidential address, the academic culture was so chilling toward public engagement, I was pretty darn sure that I would have rotten tomatoes thrown at me when I gave my speech. However, much to my surprise and pleasure, I was given a standing ovation instead. I was told it was the first standing ovation that an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) presidential address had garnered. I took it as the beginning of a new awakening within the academic community.

Well, and the same  thing needs to be true of learning scientists and science educators — we must learn deeply, research passionately, sure, but also feel it as part of our contract with society to tell the story — of findings and of methods — far beyond our usual circles.  Not just to colleagues;  not just to policy makers;  but to as many kinds  of people as we can.  And when your practice comes to include this kind of public engagement, tell colleagues how it went, so they are equipped and emboldened to do it themselves.


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Lubchenko and Academic responsibility to the public...

posted by: Joseph Gardella on 11/27/2016 11:49 am

Brian, for me it's been a while since I had time to engage on these posts, but the issue of social responsibility as a scientist in higher is an area of great passion for me for my whole 40 some year career.

For twenty years, along with my work in the community in science/STEM education, I have worked on community environmental work in Western New York and elsewhere in NY state, and overseas in China.

Recently, my institution's research institute on environment and energy hosted Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech. He's is a graduate of the University at Buffalo, and he and I exchanged a lot of information on engaging the public. His work in DC and Flint on lead in drinking water has made him a hero to most people, but an anathema to some in the academic community. The editor of the American Chemical Society lead journal in environmental research, Environmental Science and Technology, editorialized that academics diving into public environmental issues risk ruining the funding outrageous statement in my view, especially for those of us working in public higher education.

In any event, I have spent 20 years working across community boundaries with the public on environmental issues in their community, have worked with citizens, residents, (with and against) government agencies and (with and against) industry/corporations. I've worked with Advocacy groups, taken political heat for speaking about issues that affect equity and public health, and actively engaging in that. My institution has supported and rewarded me for sticking my neck out. I have seen the work as a chance to learn and improve my knowledge, improve my teaching methods and learn communication in the public and help serve the people who contribute to paying my salary. It's had a positive impact on EVERY aspect of my work and ilfe, but I have learned that humility, and building trust, especially in minority communities has to be the first part of the work.

In any event, I've written about the effects on my courses, service learning as a vehicle for the work, effects on students, community results, etc.

Much of this experience has been duplicated in my approach to K-12 STEM education work in Buffalo, and my reputation with elected officials (mostly positive) has helped to build trust in leading the collaboration for STEM education.

So, my point, other than blathering on a Sunday morning to those readers of this blog, is that much can be learned by watching those people in higher ed who engage in environmental outreach (there are many!!!). and vice versa, K-12 outreach/teacher professional development and other aspects can help us learn how to do these broader outreach issues in science and STEM.

If folks are interested in the publications I have done on these two topics, let me know by email and I will send them to anyone interested.

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving!
Joe Gardella
Joseph A. Gardella, Jr.
SUNY Distinguished Professor and
John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry
University at Buffalo, SUNY

Director, Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) with Buffalo Public Schools

ISEP Professional Learning Community on EdWeb

more on science education "in the world"

posted by: Brian Drayton on 11/29/2016 4:22 am

Joe, it's good to "hear" your voice again!

It's always been puzzling to me, how Americans can express such high value for science and scientists, but can also seem so little to understand what it really is, or how it works. I have always wanted to understand what "science for all" can really mean.
But as I read your post, I'm reminded of an essay by Peter Medawar, with a title like, "On the effecting of all things possible" in which he explores science and the imagination, among other things. The sense of science as engagement with the real, the actual matter of the world, in all its forms, is what is appealing to people - most especially when the "matter" touches them personally...
And i have to say, the personal element is essential - the taste and experience of a real man, woman, boy, or girl, whose own involvement in the work and its implications (human as well as intellectual) makes them an ambassador for the whole enterprise.
When one writes a paper, it's usual to reflect in the "Discussion" on possible practical implications of the work presented - but much of the time, the working out of those implications is left for someone else, and one's day can hold only so many enterprises and threads of activity. But surely more of us can find ways to play that ambassador role-- and the cultural shift you (and Lubchenko and others) describe and embody can help make that happen.
How do others grapple with "science for all"?

PS: How did you learn

posted by: Brian Drayton on 11/29/2016 6:13 am

ways to engage in new ways, or with new communities or stakeholders, around STEM and STEM learning?

Related Resources

posted by: Kimberly Descoteaux on 12/1/2016 12:19 am

Thank you to Joseph Gardella for providing these related resources:

post updated by the author 12/1/2016