Three Myths of Science Education
Last December the U.S. Department of Education convened the YOU Belong in STEM National Coordinating Conference in Washington, D.C. The conference launched a Biden Administration initiative to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education with the ultimate goal of ensuring “21st century career readiness and global competitiveness.” Former astronaut and current Arizona senator Mark Kelly kicked off the event, making the case that training more STEM professionals is crucial to growing the economy and strengthening national security. It was the NASA Apollo missions to the moon, he explained, that inspired him to go into science in school and that every child should be inspired in some way to do the same.
Statements about the importance of science education for building the “American workforce of the future” are nothing new. Kelly’s words echo calls made again and again since the 1980s when the Nation at Risk report sounded the alarm over American students getting bested by students from Japan and South Korea. Such arguments were made again two decades later in Thomas Friedman’s best-selling 2005 book The World is Flat with the concern now that China and India were outpacing the United States in the race for technical talent. This led to the America Competes Act of 2007 which powered up Advanced-Placement science and math courses in the nation’s high schools to meet the challenge.
All this seems sensible enough. Science is the engine of technological innovation, which drives economic growth, and schools are not producing enough students ready to enter the STEM-career pipeline. The problem is that this is only half true.
Although science may very well be the foundation of economic prosperity, the claim about a persistent shortage of students in science is pretty far off the mark. Yet this misperception represents one of the predominant myths that drives science education in this country—the idea that we desperately need more scientists and engineers to ensure our economic competitiveness. It was only a decade and a half ago that Sloan Foundation vice-president Michael Teitelbaum testified before congress about the inaccuracy of the repeated claims about STEM shortages. Such claims remain just as inaccurate today.
According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 50 percent of 25 to 29 year-olds have earned an associate’s degree or higher, and of all the associate’s and bachelor’s degrees awarded, about 27 percent were in science or science-related categories. This includes everything from agriculture and engineering to nursing and dental hygiene. That means that in any given cohort of ninth-grade high school students, only about 13 percent go on to earn any sort of science-related degree by their late twenties.
Small as that percentage is, studies show that it is over double the percentage of individuals who end up actually workingin a science-related occupation. One recent study looking at bachelor’s degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields found that “colleges historically produce between 40 to 100 percent more STEM graduates…than are hired into STEM occupations each year.” And this is no one-off study. Data from multiple sources (the Census Bureau, the US Department of Commerce, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics) easily affirm this finding about the overproduction of degree holders in science and science-related fields.
When this is taken into account, the fraction of ninth-graders who end up earning science-related degrees and working in science-focused occupations gets whittled down to a mere 7 percent of all high school students—7 percent. That means that in a typical ninth-grade science class of twenty-five students, one or maybe two students will end up becoming engineers or dental hygienists or respiratory therapists.
Yet the myth of science and engineering shortages continues to shape what happens in our science classrooms resulting in more and more emphasis on student mastery of science content knowledge; the introduction of more “hands-on” laboratory work; and a growing footprint of Advanced-Placement, biotech, and engineering courses in school curricula in an effort to increase rigor and feed the STEM pipeline.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the current guiding framework for science education in the United States, developed under the auspices of the National Research Council a decade ago, strongly emphasizes disciplinary content and student immersion in the practices of science (and engineering!). It seems clearly tailored to meet the demands of the pipeline myth.
The resulting technical-training science education experience, however, does little to meet the needs of the 93 percent who are not going to earn postsecondary science degrees and end up working in a science-related field. It is hard to imagine a greater mismatch between this framework and the students and families actually served by public education.
Many would argue that science education isn’t just about jobs, that a rigorous science education focused on the central facts, concepts, and theories of biology, chemistry, and physics and their associated practices does far more than just prepare students for the twenty-first century workforce. Knowledge of scientific facts—how the world works—is useful in one’s daily life, they insist, either for personal use (knowing how to get a stain out of a pair of pants, for example) or in making decisions about various science-related social issues (whether to buy an electric car, wear a mask during a pandemic, or support a candidate pledging to take on climate change). Another myth, unfortunately.
Research shows that few of us remember the material taught in our high school science classes. National Science Foundation surveys reveal that we don’t recall many of even the most basic scientific facts. Fewer than half of the general public, for example, know that electrons are smaller than atoms, and almost a quarter believe that the sun goes around the earth and not the earth around the sun. And even if people do remember some of the science they’ve been taught (like how the immune systems works), rarely do they use this knowledge to make important decisions.
Think about it. If you need to get a stain out of your pants, will you think back to your high school chemistry class or will you see what stain-removing tips you can dig up on YouTube? And if the decision involves public policy, researchers have shown time and again that people are much more likely to rely on their social networks than on their high school science knowledge. When it comes to things like climate change, vaccination, and energy policy, political affiliations and what your friends and family think trump what’s in your biology or physics textbook.
Yale researcher Dan Kahan found that knowing more science content, in fact, correlates with greater rather than lower levels of political polarization. “For ordinary citizens,” Kahan concludes, “the reward for acquiring greater scientific knowledge and more reliable technical-reasoning capacities is a greater facility to discover and use—or explain away—evidence relating to their groups’ positions.” Social networks matter more than facts, in other words.
Science boosters will insist, though, that it’s not just about teaching the right facts. Getting students to think like scientists will not only help them learn the science, but also will help them develop better general reasoning skills. This is a powerful claim, one that animates nearly all the science teachers I’ve encountered in my time as a high school science teacher and now as a professor of science education. It is one of the central planks in the science education platform, one that drives the belief that that best way to teach science is to have students do science. It’s why the NGSS has made engaging students in science and engineering “practices” a key dimension of its “three-dimensional” approach to science teaching, and why, before NGSS, curricular reforms and standards initiatives like the National Science Education Standards pushed teachers to engage students in authentic scientific inquiry activities.
Reformers have always believed that engaging in scientific research—thinking like a scientist—has the power to cultivate critical-thinking skills, to foster the rational in an irrational world. Except that it doesn’t. This is the third great myth of science education.
Despite repeated attempts to shift science teaching away from teaching content to doing science, American science teachers have clung to traditional, fact-based instruction or briefly tried new methods in response to various reform initiatives before reverting to what they’ve always done. Following the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in inquiry-based science education reforms following the Sputnik crisis in the late 1950s, very little inquiry was happening in American classrooms. “State-of-the-art” curriculum materials could be found in the schools to be sure. But they were more often than not in storage or stacked in corridors, seldom being used. The National Science Education Standards revived the push for doing science in the 1990s, but it had little real effect on classroom practice. Studies showed that textbooks remained overstuffed with content and that teachers rarely engaged students in authentic inquiry experiences.
Is it possible—under ideal conditions—to teach students how to do science in an authentic way? Maybe. Cognitive psychologists have determined that students in certain circumstances can be successful with some scientific thinking tasks, such as distinguishing hypothetical beliefs from evidence, differentiating controlled from un-controlled experiments, and evaluating simple data sets. However, they struggle mightily with more complex scientific reasoning tasks, and the reason is because this specialized mode of reasoning is really hard. It’s a way of thinking so contrary to everyday cognition that it took thousands of years to emerge in the human species and requires years of intense training to develop even in scientists. It is simply not part of our cognitive equipment for everyday causal reasoning. No wonder it’s so difficult to teach.
But even if science teachers could get students to master the process of scientific thinking, it is unlikely to result in better everyday thinking. The problem of transfer, long studied in psychology, is one clear obstacle. The ability to apply a skill learned in one domain (like a school chemistry lab) to a completely different, non-school problem is well documented. More to the point, researchers have demonstrated that in everyday matters the average person relies on intuitive shortcuts, heuristics, and emotions that are largely tacit. Individuals rarely stop to engage in careful rational analysis. And when they do attempt to think carefully about a problem, such efforts are easily overwhelmed by emotion and personal bias.
This is especially true when it comes to setting public policy and in decisions individuals make about getting vaccinated, driving while drunk, or expending energy without regard for green-house gas emissions. The public has always relied on intuitive, gut-level, reasoning often driven by ethics, morality, or ideology. Over a century of formal science education hasn’t changed that, and it’s unlikely we’ll suddenly discover new teaching methods that will.
Science education for economic growth and prosperity, science education for everyday utility, and science education for critical-thinking skills (skills that are believed essential for democratic decision-making)—these are the myths currently driving science education in this and most other countries. The science education we have in our middle and high schools—heavily focused as it is on content mastery and technical training—is useful for almost none of these things.
Is exposing these myths an argument against science teaching in schools? A look around us tells us that that can’t possibly be the case. The challenges of global pandemics, climate change, safe water supplies, and countless other science-related social issues are beginning to overwhelm us. Surely, we need some understanding of science in our modern society. But ratcheting up the rigor (more AP science courses for more students); teaching more science facts, concepts, and theories; and having students do science (or engage in science and engineering “practices”) isn’t going to do the trick. Going faster along the rutted path we’ve been on since the middle of the last century will only leave us stuck in the end.
What we need is something new—really new. We need a science education that addresses the troubling tendency these days to discount scientific expertise in areas where expertise matters tremendously. Let’s get rid of the focus on facts and technical skills that are only relevant for the 7 percent of students who will go on to science-related careers. Let’s focus instead on how those facts are made, on how scientists come to know what they know about the natural world. We should do this not by teaching some oversimplified (and fundamentally misleading) version of the scientific method, but by examining the variety of ways science is done in the fields that matter, such as epidemiology, paleoclimatology, experimental physics and others. Let’s allow students a look at how science works in these and other fields, not by some false imitation of practice, but by reading about and seeing and talking with the researchers who work in these fields.
Rather than arming students with some rudimentary set of facts from each of the various disciplines to face the world’s challenges, we need to help them develop a deep understanding and appreciation of where science knowledge comes from, how it’s funded, who creates it, in which institutions, and why it can be relied on for making personal and public policy decisions.
Learning facts doesn’t do anything to help the public move toward a productive relationship with the scientific enterprise. We need a science education, in other words, focused on rebuilding public trust in science and one that, in turn, emphasizes the public role in setting research priorities and regulating the work that’s done for the benefit of everyone. Creating this new kind of science education might be just the NASA “moon-shot” project we desperately need if we hope to survive and flourish in the years ahead.
The United States is having some trust issues with science.
Two recent books, An Instinct for Truth by Robert Pennock and Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes, make the case for greater public recognition of the legitimacy of scientific knowledge. The fact that such books would even need to be written would have been inconceivable a generation ago.
After years of attacks on science from the left (during the so-called science wars of the 1990s) and more recently from the right (by the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers), it’s not surprising that some doubt about science has crept into the public consciousness.
While a recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows a small upswing in public confidence in scientists generally, those numbers are considerably lower when it comes to “research” scientists (as opposed to practitioners—doctors, dietitians, etc.). And only about a third of Americans say that environmental scientists can be relied on to provide fair and accurate information about their work, which is particularly troubling given the impending climate crisis.
Much of this skepticism stems from a misunderstanding of how science works to produce reliable knowledge. Can you "prove" that vaccines don’t cause autism? How can scientists be so sure that humans are responsible for climate change? many ask.
As I describe in my new book, How We Teach Science: What's Changed and Why It Matters, there was a time in the first half of the twentieth century when science was held in high esteem and teaching students about its process—the scientific method—was viewed as one of the primary goals of science education.
The five steps of that method were held up as the surest path to getting to the truth. The steps were straightforward enough: Identify a problem, form a hypothesis, gather evidence, analyze the data, and reach a conclusion. And they were easy to teach. Students had only to memorize and apply them sequentially.
Things changed following World War II. The massive influx of federal research funding brought worries over external control of scientific research, which led scientists in the 1950s to push back against “the scientific method.” It was all too simple. They objected to the idea of science as “a sort of intellectual machine, which, when one turns a crank called ‘the scientific method,’ inevitably grinds out ultimate truth,” as one scientist described it in 1958. This school view of method seemed to take the scientists out of the picture entirely. Anyone could arrive at the truth if they just followed the steps.
They offered in its place a new vision of how science worked—science as a process of “inquiry,” which appeared in curricular materials developed during the 1960s following the shock of Sputnik in 1957. The inquiry approach presented science as a nuanced endeavor that depended on the disciplinary knowledge and tacit expertise of scientific researchers. Science was, in other words, a complicated matter that wasn’t as easy as had previously been taught.
After science fell from public favor during the tumultuous years of the late 1960s and 70s, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and later the National Research Council sought to bolster public perceptions of science as the era of science education standards was launched. The inquiry approach was revived with added emphasis on teaching about the larger scientific enterprise. Answers to questions of “what sort of institutions did scientific research, who decides on funding priorities, and what exactly is peer review?” were put forward as important topics to cover in American classrooms. The goal was to help the public understand how the operations of science worked, that it emerged from a process of consensus formation and was subject to numerous checks and balances to ensure that the final product had integrity—that its claims, in other words, could be trusted.
Not surprisingly, American classrooms fell short of these goals. Teaching science as inquiry was difficult to get right, especially for teachers who had never engaged in that process themselves. And the new emphasis on the scientific enterprise was all too easily swept away by an increased focus on facts, concepts, and calculations as the country moved sharply toward testing and measuring student achievement. Who cares about process and the social context of research as long as students get the correct answer on the test?
The most recent prescription for what we should be doing in science classrooms comes from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) with its focus on the “practices of science.” Rather than try to teach the difficult process of science as inquiry, they divided scientific work into eight practices: Asking questions; developing and using models; planning a carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.
This new approach to learning about science seems to make sense, and many of the goals are laudable. The authors of this version of scientific process insist even that they’ve learned from the mistakes of the past. But have they really? History offers some hard lessons here. Detailing how science works in this manner will no doubt make it easier for teachers. The eight practices, though, will likely be covered much the same way that the five steps of the scientific method were taught in the first half of the twentieth century, sequentially and in isolation from the messiness of authentic research. This might even increase the number of students joining their more science-minded peers in the STEM career pipeline (which seems to be the goal of NGSS if the statements on its website are to be believed).
What NGSS has left out, though, is any discussion of those larger questions about how science works: How are research funding priorities determined? What about peer review? What does it mean to say that the scientific research community has reached a consensus on an issue? These are the questions that the majority of citizens need to understand if we are to have any hope of making intelligent choices in the difficult years that lay ahead.
Having a few more scientists and engineers among us isn’t likely to matter all that much if the rest of us are unwilling to trust what they have to say.
John Rudolph is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes about the history of science education and current science education policy in the United States.