Friday, April 4, 2014

Teaching High School Science

Anne and I have been helping judge Pennsylvania high school student science projects for a number of years, including this week.  Students submit papers and give 12-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience, followed by questions, as in the format of many scientific society meetings.  The winners go on to national competitions.

There are many very fine projects, some just fine on their own--that is, as a reflection of a well-trained student picking a good topic, and designing and implementing a good, often sophisticated, experiment and analysis.

Garage vs University
But the projects fall into basically two categories.  The majority of the projects we see are ones in which the student, by him or herself, chooses and does a project, on a shoestring budget and with ordinary equipment and no fancy resources.  They may know how to find people to consult (such as people in departments of natural resources, fisheries, or agriculture), but they get their stuff off the internet, and do their work in their high school labs or in their own garages.  These projects are usually simple hypothesis tests, done by the student alone, on a simple question and with rather unclear results.  But they are, start to finish, the student's work and experience.

Controlled experiment: Wikimedia

By contrast, some hard-driven students (or, more likely, hyper-competitive parents) are set up with professional scientists in nearby major research universities or research-related industries like pharmaceutical companies, perhaps with friends of the student's parents, but perhaps not.

The student gets a mentor, is assigned a project and usually uses a wide variety of very sophisticated and expensive technical equipment, like DNA sequencers or very fancy microscopes, and works along with post-docs and technicians on some very sophisticated advanced project.  Even if all the work is technically done by the student's own hands, it is obvious that s/he is guided step by step, even in describing the methods and so on, by advanced faculty or staff.

The actual steps in the lab can be largely of the student's own doing and the student may even to some extent have identified the specific question he or she is asking but usually it is a cookie-cutter subset of what's going on in the lab.  The student takes a new detail or subcomponent and pursues it over one or sometimes even three or more years.  The resulting write-up is often in the form of a professional science article, showing that the student didn't really do this alone--the comparable journal articles usually have many authors.

So should the student's project be judged as a high school science project?  Or is this an unfair advantage over their in-the-garage peers?  This has to do, perhaps, with the objective of high school science projects.

The objective:  it is about thinking, or getting into MIT?
This evokes the more general issue of the elite and their unfair advantage relative to everyone else.  In this case, advantaged students have been set up in fancy university or industry labs as volunteers or summer interns, often because their parents know someone.  It's probably fair to say that these students often (if not always) learn more about the subject, even when largely by rote and of high technology, than the student doing his/her original work in the basement or back yard.  But the latter has gone through the entire process, from thinking up the problem to devising the experiments and carrying them out.  The latter may be a deeper thinker and greater innovator, but without real resources but the former is the one who will much more likely get into major university science programs, or get scholarships, and already be on the fast track to a serious science career.

So, is high school science for general scientific thinking or to prepare our next generation of STEM stars to contribute to our national economy and their own incomes etc.?   Probably both, but perhaps we should have tiered science project competitions: Garage science, and Institutional/Teamwork science.  In this way, innovative garage ideas would have a chance to be recognized.

Clearly most of the institutional-project students will be the ones getting scholarships to major STEM universities like Cal Tech, MIT, and so on.  That is not wrong, and may be in both the national and the universities' interests.

But perhaps a two-tiered system would give some daylight and recognizeability to the student who is working only with his/her brains and hands, not plugged into mentor-supervised use of this bit of gear, and that bit of gear, and advanced lab seminar meetings, and so on.  The value of the 'Garage' tier would be to recognize the fact that it may often be the case that the greater innovation will come from the less privileged, who have to do more thinking with less highly advanced supervision and resources.  It is widely known that institutionalized science can be incremental, technology-first, answer-second ways of consuming resources (we write about this often), while the freer environment of the non-institutional may be more inspiring for really new ideas.

Many are now recognizing that college is not necessary for advanced contributions to modern life, technological or otherwise.

Hypothesis testing: is it an out-dated way to teach science?
We were also curious about what may well be a growing gap between the way science is taught in high school and how it's currently being done in many fields.  High school kids are taught to conceive of a hypothesis and test it, following prescribed steps from start to finish, including writing up their results.  We all were taught that way.

But hypothesis-driven science is falling out of favor, to be replaced by "question-driven science", or strong inference, or multiple hypotheses (Jon Lorsch discusses all this here).  Indeed, the technology-driven production of Big Data has meant that what used to be sneeringly called "fishing expeditions" are now what many people do for a living; mine data for meaningful patterns.  Schools of education have some catching up to do.

Who does the teaching? 
The decline in American science (or, if you prefer, STEM) education can be laid at the feed of the national K-12 El-Hi system.  In some school districts, or probably more often private schools, things are just great, but not in most.  A major problem is the high acceptance, low admission standard, grade inflation, low graduation standard of schools of education.  This is well-known.  Further, when a teaching degree is in 'education' rather than, say, 'biology' or 'physics' accompanied by a few courses in educational techniques, the way science is taught may be stellar, but what is taught may not be.  We are not inventing this criticism, but while it's well and widely known, our nation seems not to have the guts to deal with it. As a result, we fall behind many other countries.

One problem could also be a positive in a sense.  Unlike small or relatively homogenous countries as in Japan or Scandinavia, we have a large, diverse population.  We are very democratic in that we insist, more or less, on compulsory K-12.  Perhaps our best students match the best anywhere, but our average is lowered by the fact that we give at least something to everyone, but a lot of people don't get nearly enough. It's a serious issue to try to understand, and where we fall short, to correct.

Nonetheless, on average, it seems quite clear that while there are surely many very fine exceptions, and they're found in every school district, the admission standards for degrees in education are far below what they should be.  If only university presidents had the determination to bite the bullet and deprive schools of education of resources unless and until they raise their standards in a major way.

Yet, it's clear from our time spent with students this week that some students are doing more than smoking pot during their high school years.


Tuomas said...

I've seen this totally same phenomenon in high school science projects in Finland, in IB or national curriculum high school projects. But probably due to the difference in context, my experience is a bit contrary: normally the best projects are those which are really simple and mundane. In assessing the projects I value the basic things: right format, research question, presenting the data, evaluating the data, etc. - it's not about the results at all. The more complex the project is, especially in the molecular biology done in university lab, the student seems to be more lost on what they've been really doing and how to relate that to the scientific method taught in school. Plus there's a lot of black boxes and difficulties to present the data. In some cases, there's been some much practical work that the students don't have motivation or time to finish properly their report. The fancy science gets into the way of understanding the science.

But the real problem is the assessment, when normally those doing the more complex work are the ones who are very motivated and will pursue the field. They might have contacted the university researchers and done a lot of work to get to do the work which then proves to be a great experience but ill-suited for science project. Then I just do my best to be as diplomatic as I can in saying this.

Ken Weiss said...

Absolutely. Thanks for these comments. There is, one might say, a time to learn and a time to do. The thinking can be more important than black-box button-pushing--even in Finland, I guess (and if there's a problem there--besides long, dark winters--then woe to the rest of us.

We have a problem you have much less of, which is too many way under-qualified teachers. That is something we could change, if we had the will and valued teachers as they should be valued. And there are many very skilled, very dedicated school science teachers in this country.....who are very frustrated with our check-box approach.

And we have commented on the over-stress of 'STEM' subjects here at the expense of broader education, even or perhaps especially at university.

The key point, to me, is that people, especially the best that we want to encourage, can indeed be both broad and synthesizing or integrative, and yet technically skilled.

Cascabel said...

In addition to the problem of science teachers holding degrees in "education," is the extent to which schools in the US subsidize athletic programs. As the Science Department Chair of a public high school in Texas (retired), I understood that it was built into the system that 10-20% of the science teaching slots were to be filled by teachers whose major was actually Physical Education (usually with a minor in Biology, since that requires the least mathematics). Consequently, any student taking the introductory Biology course stood a 50-50 chance of being taught by someone whose real interest was coaching football. Admittedly, some of these teacher-coaches did a good job, especially in motivating students whose main interest was also in athletics, but those were the exceptions. The majority of these individuals, however, did only the minimum required to "get by," short-changing their students in the process; some were even creationists!

Actually, science and math departments were not hit as hard by the athletic subsidy as the other departments, since STEM subjects were generally considered "hard" and avoided by those majoring in Physical Education. Social Studies departments were sometimes composed of 50% (or more) of coach-teachers.

Ken Weiss said...

Tell us about it! We have a daughter who is now a professional violinist, _only_ because we lucked out and live in one of the very finest, well-funded school districts.

As to STEM being hard, well, yes, and deep understanding may not be in the cards for everyone. But if the standard and rigor were increased, everyone could perhaps read the BS in the science and political news as more informed citizens. And those for whom these things were interesting could become more incisively-thinking scientists.

There should be no reason to abandon football (except because of head injuries?), if our society still believed in the social contract, by which I pay taxes for schools so that my politicians, and my plumber, doctor, and so on are better able to do their jobs.

If we can spend so much on go-nowhere research, on entertainment, on huge-size TVs and all the other wasteful things, we could, with properly informed leadership be coaxed into making teaching a profession the best of the best would rush into.

Not possible? Well,take a look at Scandinavia. Not perfect, we're told, but very close to this ideal.

Tuomas said...

I just read from the news that in Sweden anyone who wants to can become elementary school teacher. In Finland, it's the top 10% of applicants who get in to university to study education. I can go on to speculate why this is, but I think that's achievable in other countries only with very long-term goals. Asian countries seem to be on track to do the same thing.

Obviously, the university training doesn't make anyone automatically a good teacher, but requirements of teachers having a Master degree in the subject they teach (incl. one year studies in education and one year in any additional subject) does give a good start. It's expensive, but as you wrote, it's also a choice.