A Call to Action for Science Education

In early 2021 we received news that the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Science Education created a new ad-hoc committee whose purpose is to:

“author a national call to action to advance science education programs and instruction in K-12 and post-secondary institutions in ways that will prepare students to face the global challenges of the future both as engaged participants in society and as future STEM professionals.”

We have been concerned about the need to improve K-12 science education goals and standards for years, so the creation of this new committee, under the leadership of Margaret Honey, President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, is welcome.

There is general agreement that the goal of elementary and secondary science education is for students to become scientifically literate. For students who do not become scientifically literate by the time they graduate high school, the chances are great that most never will. We agree with authors of A Framework for K-12 Science Education that scientific literacy for students is a broad concept that includes not only preparation for college and careers but also “sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues [and become] careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives” (quoted from page 1 of the Framework).

Similarly, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) takes a broad view of scientific literacy, as does the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The latter group has written: Scientific literacy is defined as the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.

Unfortunately, authors of the Next Generation Science Standards chose to adopt a far narrower view of scientific literacy—as we have been writing about for more than a year. The goal of teaching students how to use science when they face science-related personal and societal issues is almost entirely missing from the NGSS.

With this background in mind, a month ago three of us provided input to the committee, intentionally keeping our comments brief. The committee requested that public comments identify “the two biggest challenges facing science education in the next decade” and suggest “the most important two messages to send to state and national policy makers.” Our memo responds to these requests, and is reproduced below.

We understand that the committee will consider many different opinions. However, the comment we submitted speaks for many individuals and groups, and represents an important point of view. Indeed, on April 8, as part of public testimony, and after our memo was submitted, committee staff reported that among the first 600 comments received by the committee one of the top concerns is promoting “science literacy, science for citizens, science for more than workforce preparation.” In other words, our concerns are widely shared. We hope the committee’s report reflects these concerns, and look forward to seeing the report whenever it is completed.

(Note: Our memo is reproduced below, and a two-page Adobe Acrobat copy of the memo is also available here.)

_____________________

March 30, 2021

To:          Committee Members, NAS/BOSE Call to Action for Science Education
From:    Andy Zucker, Ed.D., Penny Noyce, M.D., & Cary Sneider, Ph.D.
Re:         Comments for members of the committee and the public

We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments to the committee. As science educators with decades of experience leading state and national projects, we have studied and written about improving K-12 science education, especially the role of science education standards. Dr. Zucker was the keynote speaker at the 125th annual meeting of the Science Teaching Association of New York State in 2020. Dr. Noyce is a past member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Dr. Sneider was a lead author of the Next Generation Science Standards. In 2020 Zucker and Noyce published a popular, free curriculum unit for science classes called Resisting Scientific Misinformation.

The challenges

What are the two biggest challenges that need to be addressed? Testimony for the committee on March 24 identified multiple priorities, making the committee’s task a tough balancing act. At the top of our list is this: Science education in schools should help students make decisions about science-related personal and societal issues. This goal is not widely recognized as a national or state priority, which is strange because there is great interest in civic education, which keeps growing. A second key challenge is students’ diminishing interest in science as they move through school. According to NAEP, for example, in 2015 fewer than 60% of American high school seniors enrolled in any science class, and half of those reported they enrolled only because they had to. Too many students lose interest in science as it is now taught.

Few people in the United States are scientists, yet all of us make choices about health and diet for ourselves and our families, and we all purchase products that claim, with variable accuracy, to be based on scientific research. American citizens vote for candidates and ballot initiatives, contribute to political campaigns, run for office, manage town meetings and legislatures, pass laws and issue regulations, and create spending priorities. Science education ought to help students think about issues, questions, and decisions that they face both now and in the future. This means decisions about college and careers but also decisions related to their personal and civic lives that can and should be informed by science. Because such decisions are rarely based entirely on science, students (who include future politicians and policymakers) need practice applying values and balancing costs, competing interests, benefits, and tradeoffs as they make decisions that have a scientific component. This kind of practice may help mitigate our society’s current tendency to polarize rigidly over complex issues. Students also need to learn how to guard against misinformation. Practice judging the quality of allegedly scientific information, through whatever media it may come, including advertising and social media, can help hone students’ ability to resist misinformation of all sorts. At present, schools provide students with little practice making judgments related to scientific issues.

Preparation for college and careers is the sole explicit goal of most science education, but one-third of all high school graduates never enroll in college, and many students will work in careers that have nothing to do with science or technology. Meanwhile, even many college graduates struggle to apply scientific thinking to personal or civic decisions. In our view, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) should be revised to strengthen preparation for daily life.

The NGSS has many strengths, including a focus on “scientific practices” as well as disciplinary core ideas (content), and placing a priority on teaching about climate change. Although the NGSS includes the idea that science, technology and engineering profoundly influence society and the environment, the authors did not include it as a core idea, a decision we lament. We believe this idea should be elevated, with a focus on such issues as public health and the role of science in government affairs. As examples of what is missing, we would like to see the NGSS prioritize teaching about public health, vaccines, immunity, the CDC, the FDA, the EPA, the IPCC, and how to judge the quality of sources of information about science. Since it is a model for most states, we recommend broadening the NGSS to more clearly connect science to one’s own life and to other people’s lives, which should be essential goals for all students, whether or not they eventually pursue a science career. We hope the report of your committee will include this recommendation.

Proposed messages to policymakers

We advocate that policymakers promptly and clearly identify preparing students for civic life as a major goal for science education, in addition to preparing students for college and careers. Massachusetts, one of the highest-performing states on NAEP’s science assessment, already does so. The Massachusetts Vision for STE Education identifies three important goals: civic participation, college preparation, and career readiness. The state’s STE Vision notes the importance of “leveraging multiple relevant societal contexts from STE,” and one of its Guiding Principle states that, “An STE curriculum that is carefully designed around engaging, relevant, real-world interdisciplinary questions increases student motivation, intellectual engagement, and sense making.”

Similarly, the National Science Teaching Association issued a three-page Position Statement in 2016 advocating teaching science “in the context of societal and personal issues.” The National Association of Biology Teachers believes that excellent biology teachers “follow an integrated approach by incorporating other subjects, technology, society, and ethics.” People are interested in themselves and others, as well as phenomena. In 2020 alone the three NSTA K-12 teacher journals published more than 50 articles about teaching science in societal or personal contexts. These articles were more popular than others, and received more than 12,000 views online. As one example, an excellent article in Science Scope describes a science unit for middle school students about the lead pollution problems in Flint, Michigan, which especially affected low-income families of color.

In short, teachers already know that teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues is important, despite the fact that the NGSS and most state science education standards do not make that clear. State tests, teacher professional development opportunities, and model lessons based on the NGSS or state equivalents also do not place a priority on teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues. They should. Eventually, the NGSS should be revised to include a focus on personal and societal contexts, although that seems unlikely to happen soon.

In the near term, we recommend that state and local policymakers prioritize teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues. The NGSS describes minimum expectations, and is not a curriculum. More science lessons can and should include personal and societal issues, and more states should adopt a broader vision for STE education.

Whether connected to the NGSS or not, it would be helpful to see an effort focusing on personal and societal issues that identifies what is important to teach, at what grade level. About half of adults in 2018 did not know that antibiotics won’t kill viruses. That topic would be straightforward to teach even in elementary schools, but is not in the standards. Similarly, it would not be hard to teach students in the middle grades what a number of science-related agencies like the CDC and the EPA do, and how they reach decisions. All students should have these opportunities.

Middle school is also an ideal time to begin teaching students healthy skepticism about statements made in popular media.  Such instruction makes a difference. E.g., in one experiment researchers found that explaining the flawed arguments used by climate change deniers “fully neutralized the polarizing effect of misinformation.” That calls for science instruction about how advertisers, and others, can try to mislead people—material that is easily available but is not included in the NGSS, per se.

It is more challenging, but also vital, to teach some science in personal and societal contexts in a way that considers costs, benefits, tradeoffs, and values. Which vaccinations should be required by law, for whom, and why? Should humans be cloned? What are the tradeoffs when buying an electric or hybrid car, or voting for a state ballot initiative about clean energy? There are dozens if not hundreds of relevant, tested lessons. We recommend that science teacher preparation programs include components that help more teachers manage class discussions about science-related issues with multiple right answers and multiple points of view consistent with scientific evidence.

Changing the emphasis of science education in this way will come naturally to some teachers, but not to others, which is why support for such changes is vital. Such support could come from national statements, state standards, teacher preparation programs, learning materials used in schools, encouragement of interdisciplinary and team teaching, and new reward structures for teachers, among others.  If the nation can successfully achieve this change of emphasis, students will be more interested in science than at present, and they will become more scientifically literate.

Developing Students’ Scientific Literacy

The primary goal of K-12 science education should be to develop students’ scientific literacy. For example, the New York State P-12 Science Learning Standards identifies that very goal, stating that, “our education system [should] keep pace with what it means to be scientifically literate.”

But what exactly does “scientific literacy” mean? One way to define it would be to stack up the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the appendices to the NGSS, and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (the template for the NGSS). Scientific literacy could be defined as everything in those documents. But that is close to 1,000 pages of text.

English teachers and science teachers can agree that 1,000 pages makes for an unwieldy definition. Can we do better?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—which periodically tests thousands of students in dozens of countries across disciplines, including science—developed a more concise definition. For PISA:

Scientific literacy is defined as the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen….

That’s not bad. Actually, it’s quite good. PISA’s definition can easily encompass the three dimensions of the NGSS: disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), scientific practices, and cross-cutting concepts. Scientifically literate people know some science content and understand, generally, how scientists practice science and develop new knowledge.

But beyond that, and equally important, PISA’s definition emphasizes, as the NGSS does not, that scientific literacy is for everyone, not just for college graduates or those who often use science as part of their jobs. In other words, the goal of developing students’ scientific literacy is simply not the same as “preparing students for college and careers,” the stated goal of the NGSS. The latter is a cramped, narrow view of scientific literacy. It conveys a message that the NGSS is a “prerequisite” to the real work that comes later: college and careers. “Don’t worry about applying science outside of college or careers,” is an unintended message, especially to the millions of students who are not college-bound.

For more than three decades, from the time that Science for All Americans was published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1989, key leaders in science education have focused on educating all students. As the AAAS book states, “When demographic realities, national needs, and democratic values are taken into account, it becomes clear that the nation can no longer ignore the science education of any students,” including the non-college-bound student and the many others who won’t use much science in their careers. The book’s introduction expands on the idea:

Education has no higher purpose than preparing people to lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives. For its part, science education—meaning education in science, mathematics, and technology—should help students to develop the understandings and habits of mind they need to become compassionate human beings able to think for themselves and to face life head on. It should equip them also to participate thoughtfully with fellow citizens in building and protecting a society that is open, decent, and vital. America’s future—its ability to create a truly just society, to sustain its economic vitality, and to remain secure in a world torn by hostilities—depends more than ever on the character and quality of the education that the nation provides for all of its children.

As Penny Noyce and I have written recently in Education Week, the narrow view of the NGSS almost certainly makes science class less appealing to many students. People are interested in themselves and other people, and the national science education standards say little that humanizes science, little that could literally put a human face on the subject. For example, the NGSS does not mention a single scientist by name and the words “women” and “minorities” don’t appear in the text of the NGSS.

If Americans want to develop all students’ scientific literacy, Penny and I believe science teachers need to put a greater emphasis on the following five topics, “keys to scientific literacy.” These are:

  1. Teach science in the context of societal and personal issues
  2. Tie scientific literacy to traditional forms of literacy
  3. Teach how to find reliable scientific information and how to reject junk science
  4. Include some important events in the history of science
  5. Help females and minority students realize their potential in science

The NGSS devotes hundreds of pages to identifying what students should learn, focusing almost entirely on science content and scientific practices. By having students learn mainly about investigating scientific “phenomena,” the NGSS leaves behind many other important aspects of scientific literacy.