An Illusory Intertwingling of Reason and Response

Philosophy: I wax philosophical, and many times violently politico-philosophical. If you can stand the heat, here’s the kitchen: enjoy your stay . . .

Tafel :: philosophy :: education

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Science Fairs and Ostriches

Science education in the United States is in dire straits. Talk to the most vehement apologists for the government educational system, and all but the stubbornest ostriches will admit it's one of their most intractable problems. Japan, of course, leads us by a large margin. What's even more depressing is that the Czech Republic, Russia, Cyprus, Australia, Iceland, and Slovenia (among many others, and in no particular order) are long strides ahead of us as well.

In fact, look at the international science education statistics1. Among the twenty-three countries studied in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the United States finishes penultimate. In overall scoring (averaging our scores in Mathematics, Advanced Mathematics, Science, and Physics, we come in at a pitiful 451.5, leading only South Africa (352.5), a standard deviation below the international average, and a full two and a half standard deviations below the top contender (Netherlands, 559).

Anyone who says our government-sponsored educational system hasn't let our children down denies the overt truth.

All this to say that I've been put face-to-face with the utter abysmality of science "edumacation". Yes, I was a science fair judge. Twice, actually, at two middle schools in South Carolina.

It's not so much that nearly seventy percent of the students used projects given as examples and ideas in their science fair rulebooks their unmitigated lack of creativity is due more to television. It's that they've not been taught the basics of analytical thought that ought to be learnt beginning at the latest in second grade. The two most conspicuous lacks were control and repetition.

It's never enough to do something once. Anything can happen once. Observing an effect a single time isn't even evidence, much less data. The dictum that in repetition lies truth has apparently never sullied the doormats to these children's minds scores of projects built on an effect observed once.

Imprecations levied at brands of batteries because a single flashlight populated with one brand outlasted a single flashlight populated with the other, not a hint given of what might have happened had the procedure been repeated even once.

Makers of paper towels besmirched because a single wet paper towel of their manufacture held nineteen fewer pennies than a single wet paper towel of a competitor's make.

Physical constants stood on their heads in the face of a single demonstration that heavy objects fall faster than light objects.

So what's the big deal, you might ask? So the kids were too lazy to drop a ball twice, or send their specially-weighted pinewood derby car down the track a second time. Why is that such a condemnation on science education?

The problem is that, while of course some of the students were lazy, by and large they were not. They didn't neglect to repeat measurements and experiments out of indolence, but out of ignorance. No one told them that doing something once doesn't prove anything. Not that they need to understand the deep scientific reasons for it, but that there really aren't deep scientific reasons for it! This is basic critical thinking, which I believe is not only easily-graspable by, but critically-essential for children as young as six or seven. (Of course, if you want a nation of sycophantic automata, which one might in a cynical moment suggest is the intent . . .)

A concept a bit more difficult to grasp (as in, eight- or nine-year-old material, rather than six or seven) is control. These seventh-graders had no concept of the need to discern an effect of their experimental conditions from what naturally happens. (They had some understanding of controlling confounding variables, and many at least listed possible other causative factors, if not actually attempting to control them.)

However, I'll give an example: "Which Substance Melts Ice Faster". The experimental plan was to place three ice cubes in dishes on a countertop, sprinkling one with salt, one with sugar, and one with pepper, measuring the time it took for each to be reduced to liquid. The results showed something like a minute and a half for the salted ice, a bit over three minutes for the sugared ice, and around fourteen minutes for the peppered ice. Passing over the fact that there was only one trial performed for each substance, there was a conspicuous lack of a negative control. There was no bowl containing an unmolested ice cube.

Of course, knowing a bit of basic physical chemistry, one would expect the pepper (being essentially insoluble) to have no to minimal effect on melting time that is, for the hypothetical "plain old ice cube" to melt in about fourteen minutes, along with the peppered cube. In fact, this is so important, that without that control, they were unable to draw the most meaningful conclusion from their results.

Science instructors reading this, please take heed. Cumulus clouds are all well and good, but give your second-graders some credit! They are perfectly capable of understanding that if you wanted to measure how big two brands of cookies were, and you measured one of each a broken one of the "bigger" brand and a whole one of the "littler" brand, you would come to an obviously-incorrect conclusion.

Third-graders are eminently able to comprehend the difference between doing nothing and doing something, and that, say, salting a french fry doesn't make it golden brown, simply because all salted french fries are golden brown that it is necessary to look at unsalted fries as well before drawing a conclusion.

So, be my everlovin' guest. Here's a bucket of sand. Stick your head in it. Because that's the only way you'll be able to continue believing that nothing is rotten in the state of science education.

But if you prefer not to play the ostrich, then get out there and do something about it! Teach them about cumulus clouds tomorrow. Today, give them the tools for acquiring and analyzing information for themselves!

TIMSS Scores on Assessments of Mathematics and Science General Knowledge, Advanced Mathematics, and Physics
NationMathScienceAdv. MathPhysicsAvg.Std. Dev.
South Africa356349352.504.95
United States461480442423451.5024.53
Czech Republic466487469451468.2514.77
New Zealand522529525.504.95
Std. Dev.46.5847.2635.7145.3543.0413.30

Rotberg IC, Interpretation of International Test Score Comparisons, Science, 280:1030-1, 1998