Lessons from the Pandemic about Science Education

Phi Delta Kappan magazine recently published an article we wrote about improving the Next Generation Science Standards, with the title above. The text begins:

If students in the United States master everything in the Next Generation Science Standards but learn nothing else about science, then they will graduate high school without knowing anything about immunization, viruses, antibodies, or vaccines, or about organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. They will never have been asked to investigate such topics as the efficacy of measles vaccine or the risks of vaping. They will never have been asked to read science-related books or articles in the popular press. Nor, for that matter, will they have been taught how to find reliable sources of information about science or how to evaluate and reject scientific misinformation, such as, for example, fringe theories about the origin of the 2019 novel coronavirus. And yet, these same students will have been required to master a host of more technical standards, such as learning to “use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem,” even though few of them will ever use such knowledge.

In the middle of a devastating pandemic, is this the best set of national science education standards that the United States can muster? We don’t believe so, and we are not the only ones.

Since the standards were released, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) has issued position statements in 2016 and 2020 reiterating how important it is for students to learn about science “in the context of societal and personal concerns,” whether to inform their own health care decisions or to allow them to participate in public debates about vaccination requirements, the regulation of pesticides, online privacy protections, the importance of “social distancing,” or any number of other policy issues.

Unfortunately, the NGSS does not include “societal and personal concerns” as priorities. We believe more students would be interested in science if their teachers taught the subject in the context of personal and societal concerns. Moreover, by adopting that approach the United States would educate a more scientifically literate population.

NSTA has largely done its part. Improving science education standards will require leadership at the state level and among other national organizations, including the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science. It was the NRC that developed A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which acted as a blueprint for the NGSS. Although the Framework prioritized teaching science in the context of societal and personal concerns, the NGSS largely abandoned that perspective. It is time for the NRC to weigh in.

We hope that the Kappan article attracts a large number of readers, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and not only science educators. As we wrote, “It is often said that war is too important to be left to the generals. One might add that science education is too important to be left to the scientists.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s