BU Conference: “How HPS can contribute to science education” 2/5

The breakout meeting I attended focused on how HPS might be used to improve science education in the areas of : ethics of science, the role of science in a democratic society, and the evaluation of scientific evidence.  By finding ways to include these topics in high school science education the group hoped to make science classes more appealing to under-represented groups, improve science literacy as it pertains to social issues and make students better consumers of science in the public sphere.  One challenge raised was that science teachers lack training in how to discuss the relevance of ethics and values in science, and lack training in how to direct discussions that pertain to these issues.  Another challenge raised was that further broadening of the science curriculum would take away time from improving technical skills, which many believe are already lacking

A method that could be studied to see if it can achieve these goals while overcoming the challenges is ‘structured academic controversy’.  This instructional device is already used in other academic disciplines.  The method works by presenting students with a historical or contemporary debate, and providing details about what each side thought and why.  The students then work through the issues and try to reach a consensus on the question at hand. The controversies could be crafted in ways to address the desired learning outcomes.  Examples include

whether there is sufficient evidence to support global warming, whether current use of animals in research is appropriate, and whether current food safety guidelines are adequate.

The hope is that this kind of educational strategy would be more appealing to students that normally are not engaged in classroom discussions about science.  This method is also a good way of introducing current hot topics in science that appear in the media.  If successful, this would help produce students better able to critically analyse the sensational scientific claims often made in the media.

In order to study whether this methodology would be successful, the panel recommended preparing trial lessons plans employing structured academic debates that would be provided to interested science teachers.  These teachers would then be asked to take note of how the students responded to the lesson plan, which special emphasis on the number of students participating in the class discussion, whether the discussion was more or less inclusive than normal, and whether students were able to apply the analytic skills learned in other contexts.

In general, I think the ‘structured academic controversy’ device is a promising way to achieve the desired goals of the panel.  However, as one panellist stated, there have been many attempts to develop and test trial curricula and most have not had adequate uptake amongst  the teaching community.  Even if this technique turns out to be successful at achieving the desired goals, there is the problem of changing the current culture around science education and I think that will require changes at a more fundamental level than giving teachers new tricks.

Also, an impression I got from the conference as a whole is that much of what the presenters want to achieve is improved critical thinking skills in students.  Instead of using HPS to teach science, I am left wondering whether in fact they are trying to use science to teach critical thinking.

Critical thinking was a recurring theme throughout the conference, and in the next post Melissa Jacquart will delve into it in more detail.