• iceberg
  • boy with flowers
  • checking water quality
  • planet eclipse
  • solarsystem model
  • rangitoto trees
  • kids with test tubes
  • kids with earth
  • snowy mountains
  • teens in physics class
  • Rainbow Clouds

    Refraction and diffraction of light through ice crystals in the clouds

  • Philippa On The Ice

    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher

Teacher Education in Science

“Real science land” and skills

We need to help students become critical thinkers by giving them insight into the effort and diligence that goes into science research, writes ANDREA HENSON.

The fluoride controversy that has been taking place recently in Hamilton (the Hamilton City council removing, then subsequently having to reinstate, fluoride into the city’s water supplies in response to public feedback), as well as other New Zealand councils going through similar debates, has reminded me why we, as science teachers, have the potential to play a vital role.

It is not enough to simply teach pre-determined science content to our young people any more.

We must teach them the skills to be scientifically-minded, responsible consumers of digital technology. We must teach science in authentic ways that resonate with them, and in ways that make a difference to how they view the world.

It is not enough to teach them as if we lived in (as I call it) "perfect science land" where every experiment works and all theories are apparent and obvious and nothing is laborious and repetitive … and you simply have to persevere until your research provides the long-awaited-for fruition. They need to see a glimpse of what “real” science is like and that good research and scientific findings take time and effort.

These students have a huge amount of content and resources at their fingertips, but we have to provide the context of that content and show them how to use their skills to best utilise that content.

These are young people that have grown up as digital natives, surrounded by the internet, and yet for the most part, these young people do not approach the constant flow of information they receive with caution or wariness; it seems more often that they blindly trust anything their friends link to on Facebook.

As an example, recently in a class discussion on nutrition within a biology unit my Year 10 class was doing, a student earnestly told me that fast food was bad because they put fish genes into their chicken burgers. The interesting thing is that no other students in the class questioned the statement – they all looked horrified and were no doubt gearing up to tell more of their friends later.

I grew up with urban legends about fast food outlets, but they remained just that: urban legends. With the internet now such an omnipresent force, these once urban legends spread and become somehow more believable because they are on a website somewhere.

The student had not considered what her statement even meant, simply that it sounded shocking enough to tell others. The ‘hows’ or ‘whys’ were not considered. I explained that as a researcher, it had taken months of writing applications to the relevant government bodies and an awful lot of funding to even import a genetically modified organism into the country, and there was very strict control about exactly where this organism could be used and stored, and it was unlikely that a fast food outlet was going through this process. It was a given that these imaginary fish genes were, of course, harmful. The idea that you consume fish genes every time you eat fish also hadn't occurred.

Regardless, it is our role as science teachers to guide these impressionable students into becoming scientifically-minded, objective (and dare I say, slightly cynical) thinkers. They need to understand the difference between sciencey-sounding writings on a random blog and the scientific findings published in a peer-reviewed journal. They need to be able to take a wide range of information and draw their own well-thought-out conclusions. In this age of instant gratification, the correct answers are not always the ones we come to first, and real science can take time and deep thinking about issues.

I want my students to leave school with the ability to question material that they read; to ask the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’; to take their time in coming to a truly informed decision. This decision should be one where they have considered both sides of an argument and looked deeper for the real science behind the presented facts. It should be an informed decision where they see where the bias and vested interest is and take that into account. It should be an informed decision where they look past the pseudoscientific language that is so often thrown around, but in reality means nothing.

They also need to have the basic knowledge to interpret those findings, to understand what the language means and to know where they can go to find further reliable information.

I want my students to be informed, responsible consumers of, and contributors to, the internet age, and to make scientifically sound decisions, based not on the random ramblings of someone who is inherently anti-science and pro-conspiracy theory. I want to give my students an insight into the effort and diligence that goes into science research. To me, that is where the future of teaching science lies.

I still believe there is a place for science content being taught because there are so many aspects of science that need to be explicitly explained and demonstrated. This helps to avoid the misconceptions that students so often have, and teachers are in the position of being able to see where to build the scaffolding and how to help the students to understand an issue.

However, this alone is not enough; we must teach them the skills and context to properly understand and value the content, and more importantly, we must teach them to question the content, and this includes what we teach them.

Andrea Henson is an ex-medical researcher who teaches secondary school general science and biology in Auckland. She keeps a blog here.

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