Building A Better General Science CoursePosted: November 18, 2014
I’m lucky. I teach within a small community of adult educators across the province of Nova Scotia. There are only a couple of dozen of us, across 13 campuses who teach Science IV, the general science course for students who need a science credit to receive their High School diploma. Every so often we are called upon to to review the curriculum and provide input into what we should be teaching. Since there are so few of us, it is a great opportunity to put ideas forward and have them realized. This post is meant to share my ideas around a new Science curriculum for adults but it’s also to solicit feedback, advice and good ideas from other Science teachers from a variety of different schools, teaching all ages. I’m interested in what people think a good, general science course looks like.
I have been thinking a lot lately about what this course should be. Science IV is an appreciation of science course, often referred to as a “Science for non-scientists”. Many students do go on to take the academic sciences, however, the purpose of this class is to provide a basic education for those who will take it as their sole experience with Science. I want to build a course where students get to explore their interests, satisfy their curiosity, experience the wonder of science and leave with a basic knowledge of how science works and what it tells us about ourselves and our place into universe.
From this perspective, several questions act as starting points for a curriculum revision:
1. What Is Basic Scientific Knowledge?
If a person is only going to take one science class, what should they know when they come out? There are thousands of possible scientific topics a course like this could cover but we should ask ourselves, what does a scientifically literate person know, and what ideas have they been exposed to? The question isn’t limited to just scientific fact, it extends to the history and philosophy of science as well. Answering this question should provide the basis for the topics covered in the course, either as units or as parts of units.
2. What Are Basic Scientific Experiences a Student Should Have?
When scientists talk about their upbringing they often share an anecdote or two about some experience they had with science as being formative. This could be the first time they looked through a microscope, it could be making something like a crystal radio or playing with a chemistry kit. Science IV needs some provision for these scientific experiences. While doing a variety of labs is important and a good teacher will create many opportunities like this, are there some basic things we should all be doing in order to provide a thorough, well-rounded education in Science? Basic scientific experiences need to be incorporated into the delivery of the course explicitly.
3. What Are Basic Scientific Skills?
Do we expect a Science IV student to set up a cancer research lab by the time they are finished the class? Probably not, but what should a student be able to accomplish from having taken the course? The skills a student leaves with are developed through applying the knowledge gained to the experiences had. If we design the course properly, the skills will fall out.
In answering all three questions around, “what is basic?”, we also need to consider the fine balance between exposure and mastery. What should students at least see or do versus what do they need to fully understand? Both are important to a well rounded, fun and interesting Science course.
Where To Begin?
Currently Science IV has 7 disjointed topics, shoehorned into place with little in the way of narrative to connect them together. I would like to create a course that tells a story. The big picture for me is a course that demonstrates what science tells us about ourselves and our place in the universe. My thinking around this has been shaped by the Big History Project, a movement to make history accessible and contextual. If I were only going to take one history course, that would be it. Big History starts at the beginning, the big bang, and runs through the history of the solar system, life and civilization right up to today showing how the past is connected to the present and future and leaving students with the knowledge of their place in it. I would like a general science course like Science IV to resemble that. Each unit can be taught as a stand alone (a requirement of the program I teach in) but together they form a scientific big picture.
Here Are My Answers To The Questions Above:
1. Basic scientific knowledge in my mind means knowing a little astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics and social sciences. After that, the specifics are debatable. A holistic science course, like Big History, starts at the beginning and moves out from there. Each unit should allow for discussion of historical context and application of the scientific method.
Unit 1 – Space: Students study astronomy and what’s out there in the universe starting with the Big Bang. Students should know the difference between a star, a planet & a galaxy for example. In the end they will have a basic idea about where the Earth fits in to the wider universe.
Unit 2 – Planet Earth: Students look at the geological history of the Earth, weather systems, oceanography, and/or other earth sciences giving them insight into how the planet works. Global warming/climate change could be incorporated here.
Unit 3 – Life on Earth: Some basic biology & ecology in this unit, maybe a little chemistry. Ideas like evolution, cell theory and/or ecosystems would be presented in this section. Students see how humans fit into the bigger picture of life. Currently there is no biology in Science IV.
Unit 4 – The Human Body & Mind: This unit would cover basic human anatomy like the heart and lungs as well as some neuroscience and psychology. Students get an idea of how their brains and bodies work.
Unit 5 – Science and Society: This could be a bit of a grab bag. There is room under this topic for things like sociology, environmental science, forensics (which we do now), engineering, etc… It could also incorporate technology development and use. Basically anything that connects science to how we live in and understand our modern world.
Unit 6 – Student Directed Learning: Units 1-5 are about what science has taught us about our general place in the wider world. There are many things that would necessarily be left out. This unit is the opportunity for a student to study a topic of their choosing or go back and dig deeper into one of the topics from the previous units. It could also act as a unit for teachers to deliver lessons on a scientific topic they are passionate and knowledgeable about. Ideally, it would be some combination of student choice and interest with a teacher’s passion and knowledge. With respect to andragogy, it is important for students to have as much choice as possible within this and the other units so that they can personally connect to the subject matter and see their own place within the big picture of Science.
The units above are broad, more like themes. Following the principles of andragogy, what I would like to see is some form of curriculum where teachers and students pick and choose the aspects of each unit that interests them the most. For example many outcomes/elaborations/suggestions may be written for one unit and the teacher and student negotiate a prescribed number of them to be completed. Right now we allow flexibility in the choice of units we do. Instead in a new curriculum the “themes” would be mandatory, preserving the narrative thread but the choice is moved to within the units themselves. Since there are many ways of exploring “Science & Society” (for example) the curriculum could be written so that multiple paths lead to the goal of connecting science to society. This approaches is firmly rooted in andragogy but since it is based on human curiosity I believe it applies to students of any age (anthrogogy).
I have given some details that could be used for outcomes in each unit however, they are suggestions only. Overall I would like to see a flexible course where students have a good experience with science, both in a hands on way and through exploring personally interesting topics and issues related to science. Lastly, this course should provide opportunities for students to think critically about their place in the universe.
2. Here is a somewhat random list of easy to do, science related activities that provide what I consider basic experiences everyone should have with science:
Everyone should see a cell under a microscope
Everyone should mix two chemicals together and see a chemical reaction
Everyone should conduct an experiment
Everyone should watch a plant grow, chicken hatch, etc…
Everyone should look through a telescope
Everyone should dissect something
Everyone should plot & interpret a graph
Everyone should analyze an aspect of their own life from a scientific perspective
Everyone should make something
Everyone should be exposed to the history of science as well as the cutting edge breakthroughs of today
Everyone should have the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and explore the wonder of science
These experiences could be included in one or many of the units suggested above.
3. The skills I would like to see formed or fostered in Science IV include:
Know how to use the scientific method
Know how to collect and interpret data (i.e. plot a graph)
Know how to think critically about Science through literacy and numeracy
Know how to turn curiosity into answers
These skills are easily developed and practiced in each of the units and could be taught in a spiral fashion throughout the course.
In the coming months I’ll be meeting with my colleagues to hash out what this Science course is going to be. I’m excited to hear their ideas and also from other stake holders like the students themselves. I’ve created a survey asking them about what they like about the current course and what they would change and I’ll be bringing that to the table. I hope to add to the lists above and get feedback on what the best basic science offers as the curriculum rewrite progresses.