Two Scientific American Guest Blog posts: Science conversations and Ankylosaur Attack

Enjoying Ankylosaur Attack

Enjoying Ankylosaur Attack at Transcend Garneau. Photo by Justina Smith

One of my favourite things about being a science education professor is having the perfect excuse to enjoy science books for kids. Daniel Loxton’s terrific picture book Ankylosaur Attack is no exception. Today on the Scientific American Guest Blog, I’ve written about how books like it can be a wonderful resource for having a great science conversation with a kid. I also interviewed Daniel about the book and, in particular, how he created the stunning images. Enjoy!

My summer project: A science education perspective on changing people’s minds

Even though I usually teach in the summer I still find this to be a time of reflection, a time for thinking about how to approach the coming academic year. The other day, my thoughts wandered towards what it means to be a science education researcher and what I might have to offer the wider scientific community.

In some way or another, I’ve been a science educator as long as I can remember. According to my mom my first words were “What’s that?” Always a curious kid, she often asked me to explain things to her, from science in the news to issues brought up by her doctors. I’ve been a science camp instructor, a school volunteer, a science teacher and a university science teacher educator. Sometimes the education is formal, where I have to work with a required curriculum and assess student understanding, others times it’s informal, taking friends, family and kids on a journey through the wonder of science (whoa, hold on there cheeseball…).

When I thought about what all of these experience have in common though it’s funny that I came up with something that isn’t explicitly about science: Science education in all of these varied forms is really about challenging people to change their minds.  Sometimes the change is relatively minor, adding a new dimension to something already understood. Other times, the change is radical and I’m asking someone to completely rethink their understanding of reality. Teaching middle school students about the particulate nature of matter isn’t simply about learning some rules about solids, liquids and gases. It asks them to defy the understanding of the world that they have developed through their own experience for the past twelve or so years. Whether we recognize it or not, science educators are mind changing experts. It is what we do every day.

Science educators though aren’t the only ones with an interest in how to shift conceptions towards more scientifically accepted views. Advocates for evolution education, the organized sceptical movement, climate scientists, “Bad Science” followers and writers, for just a few examples, are all interested in what it takes to challenge others to rethink their views of the world and over the past year (and of course before that too) there have been frequent discussions about the best way to do it. What does it take to convince someone? Phil Plait’s “Don’t be Dick” talk at The Amazing Meeting 8 last year (an annual meeting for the community of scientific scepticism) addressed some of the issues head on, commenting on the tone of sceptical arguments and that shouting and calling someone an idiot (or worse brain damaged) might not be the best approach. The talk has been discussed widely since last summer (for example at Almost Diamonds and Pharyngula).

In the spring, I sat on a panel at LogiCon called “How to convince your friends and family that science is awesome” (a title which I still dearly love). During the panel, the chair, Desiree Schell, asked us if we think of ourselves as evangelists for science and how we approach the task of convincing friends and families to think scientifically. I need to confess something though: I didn’t think that deeply about the question (sorry Desiree). In my answer, I said that I try to be a stealth evangelist, taking an inclusive and non-confrontational approach. Maybe it’s from my days as a camp counsellor and from teaching little kids but I almost always start from a position of trying to be nice and to understand what the other person might be thinking or feeling (except of course when the phone company is driving me crazy, but that’s another story all together). The answer was genuine and seemed to be well received but the part I feel I need to apologize for is not actually answering it like a researcher.

Science education as a research area is relatively young but one of its core elements is conceptual change theory. Sharing a common history with parts of cognitive psychology, conceptual changes theories take a science education view of the problem of challenging people’s preconceptions. Conceptual change theorists have focus less on mechanisms of change and more on teaching and learning strategies aimed at changing students’ conceptions of scientific ideas and on the eventual long term impact of the strategies on students’ broad understanding of scientific concepts.

This summer, having been mostly a spectator in these discussions over the past year, I’d like to revisit the question that Desiree asked me and answer it from a different perspective: What does science education research (especially conceptual change research) tell us about the best way to change someone’s mind. Each week, I’ll be blogging a study related to this question, highlighting findings and evidence and making connections beyond the science classroom. It’s my small contribution to these ongoing debates and a way for me to challenge myself a little bit – is being a stealth evangelist supported by the research? There’s nothing like a little critical self-reflection to help a summer’s day go by.

Note: I made some minor wording edits to the first paragraph after posting this. They were made for clarity and flow only.

New Scientific American Guest Blog Post: “Arsenic bacteria have changed science…science education that is”

I am pleased to announced my guest post on the Scientific American Guest Blog today entitled “Arsenic bacteria have changed science…science education that is.” After writing a post about the language of the online critiques of NASA’s paper, I was excited to be invited, along with microbiologist and blogger Rosie Redfield, to discuss the new Technical Comments and replies published in Science. Rosie has written a great and detailed explanation of the arsenic study, the criticisms that have been levelled against it and her future research plans as a result. It also has a terrific title: From the shadows to the spotlight to the dustbin – the rise and fall of GFAJ-1. Go check it out!

At the beginning of my post, I talk a bit about my own experiences as a Grade 9 science student interested in the Cold Fusion media spectacle that happened that year. If you’re a visual person, I thought you might enjoy knowing exactly what Grade 9 me looked like. Here it is. I hope that allows you to recreate the moment in 1989 all the better.

Escaping the rhetoric of “the past” in science education

“Science students are rarely exhorted to question the present state of scientific knowledge. Somehow, it appears that boys and girls learn to accept the dogmatic assertions of teachers and textbooks. In the sense that all scientific data and conclusions are tentative, such acceptance is truly antiscientific. Every high-school science student should have an opportunity to explore at least one conceptual scheme so intensively that he begins to sense the limitations of what we know and observe about natural phenomena. He should understand that it is always proper to ask within what limits of error science data or concepts are accepted as correct.”[i]

In my office I have a small collection of historical science and science education textbooks. I haven’t spend much time trying to build a collection or anything but I like old books so I’ve been picking them up from retiring professors and used book sales since I was in grad school. Until recently, I wasn’t doing much with them (other than flipping through them over lunch occasionally) but I started posting some quotes from them on Tumblr, usually with a short comment.

This morning I went to do the same thing with the quote above. It’s from an old teacher education textbook called Quality Science for Secondary Schools published in 1960. In the midst of typing though, I paused, starting to feel like my comments were the same for almost all of the quotes: Arguments about good science education don’t seem to change, regardless of the year they were written.

Educators, critics, and scientists often argue for improving science education by teaching the processes of science, emphasizing critical thinking, and actively engaging students in doing science. Almost always, this is argued to be a great improvement over “traditional” approaches to science teaching that prioritize the rote learning of facts–an approach that is said to have dominated in the past. The problem is, it’s always a different past that we’re talking about – for us, it’s maybe the 80s, for those involved in writing the book, maybe the 40s.

In December, I made a similar argument in response to an article in Newsweek by Sharon Begley. She made a passionate plea for science education to emphasize scientific processes and critical thought. I agree with many of things that she said but she framed this as a new and, in her words, heretical argument. Archival material from the local provincial science teachers’ association says something different:

Alberta Teachers Association Science Council Conference 1961

Thursday Afternoon Presentation and Discussion:
Consultant and Guest Speaker: Dr. Paul deHart Hurd,
Professor of Science Education, Stanford University, California USA
Topic: Recent Trends and Developments in Science Education
“Future emphasis will be on methods of science as opposed to verification of facts.”

These ideas were already the future of science education in the 1960s.

But what about before that? Were the authors of Quality Science for Secondary Schools justified in favourably comparing their new approaches to “traditional” approaches? Turns out they weren’t.

Modern science education – to go further, the inclusion of science in school curricula at all – owes a lot to Louis Agassiz and Nature Study education. Scientists, like Agassiz, educators and child psychologists (then a new area of research), were passionate about improving education, making it accessible and relevant for more students (for a variety of sometimes competing reasons, but I won’t go into detail about that here). One of Aggasiz’s most famous arguments was the students should “study nature not books”. They should engage in the processes of science (Agassiz emphasized the power of observation) and learn to analyze evidence and draw their own conclusions. One of Agassiz’s students was David Starr Jordan (later the president of Stanford University) who wrote in his summer field school notebook:

“There is no part of the country where in summer you cannot get a sufficient supply of the best specimens. Take your text from the brooks, not from the booksellers. It is better to have a few forms well known than to teach a little about many hundred species.”[ii]

Excellent idea! Encourage students to actively explore the natural environment instead of learning endless terminology from textbooks. Wait a second, when did Jordan write this?


At the turn of the 20th century, science was not a typical part of the school curriculum. Standardized curricula that flowed from elementary to high school were really just beginning to be created in North America in the 1890s. Including science in these plans was seen as modern choice, a way to prepare for the future but also to challenge the rote approaches of a classical education. Instead of memorizing Latin conjugations, students should be learning things that would help them live better and survive economically. Sound familiar?

So what happened? Greater efforts to standardize education and concerns about teacher education and training (among other things) created the same kind of push/pull that we see today. A flexible science education that emphasizes engaging in science in the local environment became a difficult thing to do when inspections, prescribed texts, and standardized exams became the norm.

The barrier that prevents active, critical and process oriented science teaching has never been the fact that it’s a new idea. It’s not. When you scratch the surface of these arguments it turns out to be a rabbit hole. There is no past where rote teaching of scientific content was thought to be the best approach. This past is a rhetorical one.

The challenge this presents is that arguments presented in this way can’t lead to change because the actual challenges are covered up.  When those challenges (e.g., (standardization pressures, assessment practices, changing curricula, to name just a few)) are invisible, they become a lot harder to address. A more fruitful approach might sound like this: “ We recognize that many teachers, scientists, and science educators have been asking for the same things for a long time. For many reasons it’s been difficult to realize this vision of science education. Let’s see what we can do to address the underlying issues.”

This can’t happen if the real reasons are constantly covered up by the rhetoric that this is new and non-traditional. So what do you say, can we leave that reason alone for a bit?

[i] National Science Teachers Association (1960). Quality Science for Secondary Schools. NSTA Press (p. X).

[ii] Kohlstedt, S.G. (2010). Teaching children science: Hands-on nature study in North America, 1890-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (p. 21)