Improving High School Science Education

As I read this fascinating NYTimes piece on a Florida teacher covering evolution, I was reminded of an interesting email exchange I had recently with Kevin Padian, a UC Berkeley professor in the Dept of Integrative Biology, and curator of the UC Museum of Paleontology. He was at Science Foo Camp, and afterward wrote in email:

My area is evolution, the most misunderstood concept in all of science. Two websites that help the public with this are at Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology (evolution.berkeley.edu) and the National Center for Science Education (www.ncseweb.org) (our ExecDir Genie Scott was one of the other participants at camp). I’m in the process of constructing a website on major transitions in evolution to which scientists can contribute, and which will be available to all teachers, students, and textbook writers. We really want to get this stuff into textbooks so that the creationist assertions that we have no evidence for microevolution can be countered. I’ve outlined a strategy for this in an article (PDF).

Kevin was kind enough to send me a copy of his paper. His thesis is that highschools react to college demands, so providing great free resources for college textbook authors will raise the bar for highschool textbooks. He points to a new type of illustration, the evogram (caution: long, see also this PDF of the relevant slide), which clearly shows evolutionary continuity over both organisms and time. He suggests evograms as a useful addition to the educational toolbox.

My reaction was that I didn’t think targeting colleges would work:

I enjoyed your paper. I disagree with your pivotal assumption, though, that if colleges up their game then the high-schools will have to follow. That’s just not the case–you only have to look to computer science to see how CS has been gutted at the high-school level. It’s as though math were taught in high-schools as “how to use a calculator”. Despite our jests, math isn’t that bad in high schools–there’s still serious math education happening even if it could be done better, but there’s precious little serious computing education at all.

Kevin stuck to his guns, though:

Interesting observation, but I think you’re making a slightly different (and highly valid) point: that “simplification” for lower grade levels can mean “dumbing down” or even “subvert crucial skills” (like using calculators for everything because they’re not making kids learn multiplication tables, estimates, and so on). As a result, the whole structure of CS — what kids need to know to be literate about CS at the HS level — is lost. That’s exactly what happens when the whole science of macroevolution becomes reduced to making “molds and casts” of fossils instead of teaching concepts about biodiversity through time.

But I will stick to my thesis: K-12 curricula won’t include this stuff unless it’s taught at the college level. Everything is downward-driven. High schools structure their course offerings based on what will get their kids into colleges. Even at the university level we structure our major requirements for many science departments based on what medical and professional schools want as preparation. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if something is in a college text it will be taught in high school, but I’m making a different point: if it’s not an important part of the college curriculum, it definitely won’t be taught in K-12.

PS: take a look at our UCMP website, evolution.berkeley.edu to see what can be done informally to circumvent the usual textbook-curriculum-standards bottleneck.

I now agree with Kevin—if something’s critical at college level, high schools will want to teach it and teach it well. I also love the idea of providing free educational materials that make it easy for textbooks and teachers to cover a topic well. It reminds me of csunplugged.org (created by Kiwis!) that Google funded to be publicly available at no cost. I’d love to see more organized efforts to improve the high-school and college education of science (and computer science) through small reusable teaching resources. Anyone know of some?

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  • Susan

    One resource I’m aware of which covers multiple disciplines is http://www.merlot.org, Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching.

  • http://www.mymeemz.com Alex Tolley

    If kids are not going to have to study evolution at college, then isn’t this proposal the wrong approach to ensure that the principles of evolution are understood by all graduating high schoolers?

    Isn’t the issue more political and its effect on how school text books are written and distributed? I’m all for better approaches to explain evolution well, but it is not clear to me why the proposal will achieve this given the other factors involved.

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