Thursday, February 12, 2009

No, misrepresentations about the process of science don't help prepare Earth Science students

I filled out a survey for ACT (the group that does one of the college admissions tests, I think) yesterday, and it's been bugging me ever since. The purpose of the survey was to find out what people who teach college-level Earth Science courses think students should know before they come into the class (or at least, what kinds of things help them succeed). There was a section on experience doing science... and all the questions were about experiments. Should students know how to design an experiment? Should they know about controls? Should they do double-blind experiments, or be able to predict how a different experimental design would affect the results?

Experiments are part of science. But not of all science. Dear ACT: scientists don't necessarily wear lab coats and play with Ehrlenmeyer flasks.


(Apologies to XKCD.)

I wrote a rant on the comment page at the end of the survey, suggesting that ACT look at some great websites dealing with the process of science (UC Berkeley's Understanding Science, Visionlearning). But it still bugs me (especially because I lost the envelope to return the survey, so ACT may never see my rant). The limited view of science (and the scientific method) that's predominant in K-12 books hinders student understanding of Earth Science. (Was plate tectonics recognized by controlled experiments? If it wasn't, does that mean it's not really science?) And it plays into the popular misunderstandings of topics like global climate change. (Or evolution - Darwin's work was based on observing the natural world. It's really cool that the idea of evolution by natural selection has become a unifying theory for a science that now involves plenty of experiments and lab work.)

I would like my incoming students have an idea for how science works - but not the misconceptions implied by the survey.

12 comments:

John Fleck said...

One of the biggest problems I face in doing science journalism is the fundamental misunderstanding my audience have about what science is, and what scientists do. This is a great example of one of the misconceptions.

Callan Bentley said...

Bravo! Hear, hear!

BrianR said...

Kim ... I couldn't agree more! Thanks for posting about this.

I think the 'Understanding Science' visualization here does a great job of moving us forward from the old-school linear scientific method I learned in grade school (and is still taught):

http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/scienceflowchart

CJR said...

I completely agree. And you could go further: the whole "science is something you do in labs" misconception must have a bearing on the disconnect between most people and science that we here so much about.

And I hope you find the envelope.

Geology Happens said...

Let me agree also.

From elementary school on through high school the idea of science done outside is just unheard of. I love the drawing. I can visualize T-shirts!

andrew said...

It makes you wonder how much crap we were taught in English Lit, too. And history.

Kevin N said...

I worked as a high school science teacher for seven years (I taught everything -- chemistry, physics, biology, Earth science :) , and web page design). There is not a high school Earth science textbook that presents the "scientific method" any different than in a laboratory science textbook, such as chemistry or physics. There is never a mention of geology being a historical science; that the experiment has already been run in nature and our job as scientists is to figure out what happened.

academalia said...

I'm an earth science student I had trouble with the classic scientific process definitions. Surprisingly, I got the best perspective on natural experiments and looking backward in time from a labor ECONOMICS class I took as an upper level elective.

ScienceWoman said...

I got one of those surveys too and that section annoyed me so much that i never finished it. Just today I consigned it to the recycle bin - but I'm sure I could fish out the envelope if you need it!

saxifraga said...

I love this post. I hope you do send in your rant (maybe using ScienceWoman's envelope). I agree with everything you say here and actually hope that we as earth science teachers and communicators can do at least something to change this misconception.

FWIW. The country where I currently reside recently introduced geoscience as a high school subject of the same value as biology, physics and chemistry. I just read an article* about it yesterday, and was so impressed that a group of enthusiasts had actually been able to make this happen on a national scale (granted this is a small country, but anyway). they were doing interviews with some of the students and several of them mentioned geosciences as an attractive career option.

*The article is in a Scandinavian language, so I won't link to it, but if anyone is interested and would be able to read it, let me know.

kurt said...

Yay, Kim!
There is a wonderful diversity in science that is unknown to many.

(I didn't get a survey, though (sigh) )

Ben Lillie said...

Very well put. It's especially disappointing to hear this from a testing agency, since that sets so much of K-12 curriculum.

I hope you do manage to send in the survey. (Actually, I'm kind of surprised that they aren't doing it electronically. Are our testing agencies that far behind?)