Author: Jean Flanagan

Welcoming back The Student Blog!

The team here at Sci-Ed is pleased to announce the re-launch of The Student Blog on the PLOS blogs network. The Student Blog provides a forum for the next generation of scientists and science writers, showcasing the experiences and perspectives of those who will shape the future of scientific discovery and science communication. While we at Sci-Ed focus on news, research, and commentary on the state of science education from the point of view of science educators, The Student Blog will provide the student point of view. The following post is guest written by Katie Fleeman, the PLOS Marketing Intern and a recent graduate who will be coordinating The Student Blog this fall.


The Science Student: How Society Sees Me -

The Science Student: How Society Sees Me –

The above image first graced Facebook on February 7, 2012. Entitled the “Science Student,” the graphic spawned a frenzy of “How Society Sees Me” and “What People Think I Do” memes that clogged Facebook newsfeeds before heading quickly to the graveyard of overused internet tropes. But as I began working on the re-launch of The Student Blog, I realized that the meme hints at something deeper: the conflicting perceptions of the Student Scientist. A science student could be a wise individual in a lab coat, a mysterious madman with a Bunsen burner or a tired kid slumped over a stack of books. Or none of the above.

This reflects the purpose of the PLOS Student Blog. Re-launching on July 26th with a brand new team, the PLOS Student Blog addresses the idea of divergent perspectives by featuring blog posts written by students from diverse scientific disciplines and different institutions. They are at varying stages of their education, ranging from high school to doctorate programs in the sciences. About a dozen of these student bloggers will contribute regularly throughout the Fall 2013 semester, supplemented by guest posts from their peers. The Student Blog will offer a glimpse into the state of science education today while providing science students with a platform for communicating about their research and the process of scientific discovery with which they are newly engaged.

The meme is also similar to The Student Blog in that it allowed for individual creativity and personality to shine through. The variety of images associated with the Student Scientist – both polished in their lab and weary over a stack of books – transforms him or her into a multifaceted individual. Atif Kukaswadia recently posted here on Sci-Ed describing the need for scientists to put forth celebrity spokespersons. He said,

One problem facing scientists is the lack of communication between science and the public: we’re perceived as living in the ivory tower of academia and are totally out of touch, or worse, we’re in the pocket of Big Pharma/Food/The Umbrella Corporation/Evil Faceless Corporate Interest.

This we hope to address with the revived PLOS Student Blog. By showcasing the experiences of student scientists, The Student Blog contextualizes how an expert becomes an expert, and therefore presents a human face to the broader scientific community. Scientists may conduct experiments in petri dishes, but they certainly are not created in them.

Just as a research article presents the formation of a researcher’s experiment, The Student Blog documents the formation of a researcher. This, we hope, will provide a way to better understand the next generation of scientific discovery.

Category: Higher Ed | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Open data for science education

Open data is the idea that scientific data should be freely available to all, without restrictions, in searchable online repositories. The open data movement is gaining momentum in the scientific community because of its promise to enable more frequent replication of studies and to accelerate the pace of research. But the advantages for science education are just as compelling.

Science students can benefit greatly from educational materials that expose them to real-world phenomena and data. Unlike learning from broad generalizations and pre-fabricated “cookbook” labs, examining and working with real data can increase interest and better prepare students for careers in science. As states begin to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize practices such as analyzing and interpreting data, and mathematical and computational thinking, developers of K–12 science curriculum materials are increasingly looking for ways to incorporate scientific data into their lessons and assessments.

However, barriers exist that prevent educators from effectively using much of the data that scientists produce. As a reader of PLOS blogs, you are likely familiar with the open access movement in scholarly publishing. But even access to journal articles, though valuable, is often not sufficient for educators’ purposes. Data in journal articles are usually in the form of a few graphs. These graphs are typically frozen in PDFs as part of a paper that conveys the authors’ interpretation of the results in the context of their particular study. And the data presentation choices were made with one audience in mind: experts in the field.

Open Data by Colleen Simon for (CC-BY-SA)

Open Data by Colleen Simon for (CC-BY-SA)

Using data as it is presented in papers is almost never pedagogically sound at the middle or high school level; much must be changed about the presentation. Jargon and acronyms might have to be removed from axis titles, individual data sets might need to be separated if they are layered into a single figure, or perhaps a section of the graph that describes phenomena outside the scope of the lesson and would have to be removed. Making these kinds of educationally necessary modifications—while maintaining scientific accuracy—often requires access to full original datasets.

Unfortunately, most scientific data is not archived and readily available online. Educators have to contact the study authors and see if they are willing and able to pass it along. Just as with journal articles, this “write to the author” stop-gap is wildly inefficient. Study authors often can’t or won’t respond to requests for original data for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are simply out of town and not checking email. Sometimes they want to publish more papers and are afraid of getting scooped. And sometimes, especially with older studies, they actually can’t find their data.

In a 2002 survey of geneticists, of those who admitted to denying at least one request from a colleague for published data, the most commonly given reason was the “effort required to actually produce the information” (80 percent of respondents). As Todd Vision, a biologist at UNC and contributor to the Data Dryad open data repository, explained in BioScience:

Unarchived data files are often misplaced, corrupted, or the software in which they were produced becomes obsolete. Memories fade.

Science education materials developers need full access to the data in order to determine its pedagogical strengths and weaknesses. This process often involves investigating many different data sets until settling on the ones that will best address the learning goals for their particular project. Following up on hundreds of individual papers—with a dismal rate of return—isn’t feasible for a small education nonprofit or a lone teacher trying to innovate at a struggling school. This leaves vast amounts of potentially more educationally useful data untapped.

I talked to Sandra Porter, who I met at the last Science Online conference, about her experience with obtaining data for curriculum materials development. Sandra is the president of Digital World Biology, and one of her collaborative projects, Bio-ITEST, involved the development of bioinformatics curriculum materials for secondary students. In genetics and bioinformatics, which are inherently data-focused, data archiving requirements are more common and Sandra and her colleagues were able to take advantage of open data resources such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and the Barcode of Life Data (BOLD) Systems. Yet even in these fields, access to raw data—the kind that practicing scientists would encounter in their careers—can be tricky to obtain. Sandra commented:

The raw data was useful for us because we needed to know what raw data looks like so we could work out analysis problems in advance. These types of data files are not likely to be available from many places since these raw data are usually processed and analyzed through many pipeline steps before they get submitted to a database.

There are many worthy reasons to support the open science movement, but the argument for science education holds its own among them. It has never been easier to bring real scientific data into classrooms, and the benefits to young scientists-in-training are clear. It would be a shame for all of that educational potential to languish on old hard drives.

Category: Open science | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Living science: the importance of science experiences in Brazil

This week we’re welcoming Roberta Manaa as a guest poster. Roberta has worked to connect the Brazilian public to cultural projects combining theater, cinema, and art with science since 2001. She is also a science fiction fan and has loved astronomy since childhood.

On a cold night in the pampas south of Brazil, I was outdoors, huddled in a blanket with a group of strangers and a shared passion: the universe and its secrets. We were waiting for space debris that would enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn, emitting light. The phenomenon is quite simple, but it creates a splendid spectacle. While we waited for the ignition of the cosmic dust we could also see moons, planets and clusters on the astronomer’s telescopes. That was two years ago. Back then, my passion for astronomy and science was reignited by that meteor shower, while I was experiencing it. Which raises a question: how important is it to live science?

Living science – programs that offer science as an experience

A number of Brazilian institutions offer science experiences for the public. The Federal University’s physics department in South Brazil offers stargazing activities, such as the one I described above, so people can have a hands-on opportunity to experience science. In these events, professors and students are available to offer explanation on subjects such as how stars are born. I even witnessed a heated discussion between two students about the destiny of our sun when it runs out of fuel. They ended up taking the case to the referee: their professor.

In Brazil, I recently moved to the nation’s Carnival headquarters, Rio de Janeiro, a city that houses two institutions dedicated to space: the Museum of Astronomy and Sciences and the Planetarium Foundation. The former focuses on promoting academic studies, lectures, courses, seminars, and publications, and welcomes schools for visits. It offers sky observation programs on Saturday evenings, when the public may see the sky with a centennial lunette (a historical instrument used to look to the stars) as well as with modern equipment. In addition, the institution promotes “cooking with chemistry” and “museum goes to the beach“, activities to explain the science in our everyday lives.

The Planetarium offers movie sessions for students, as well as science experiments for the public. The visitors can perform experiments that demonstrate how sunlight hits earth, explain the seasons, or show the composition of galaxies. On occasion, the telescopes are brought to low income communities.

The community uses Planetarium telescopes for stargazing. Photo kindly provided by the Planetarium Foundation.

The community uses Planetarium telescopes for stargazing. Photo kindly provided by the Planetarium Foundation.

Using cultural events to promote science

I’ve followed my mother’s footsteps to become a cultural producer: someone who is at the backstage of cultural projects and makes them possible. In this context, I work to create opportunities to expose people to art and science, as well as make them moved by what they have experienced.

In her book Not For Profit – Why Democracy Needs Humanities, Martha Nussbaum states that even scientific minds benefit from exerting creativity. Theater can do that: it boosts confidence and creates a sense of collectivity. Developing a character’s background exercises creativity, and adapting a story for the stage brings in a fresh perspective.

In one of my cultural projects, I collaborate with  Rio de Janeiro’s  Jedi Council, a gathering of Star Wars fans. We plan activities inside the Planetarium to hook sci-fi fans into the world of science by offering movies, debates with scientists, storytelling activities using puppets and costumes, and administering theater and costuming workshops. We also collaborate with Nova Chance, a volunteer-based Institute that serves the low-income neighborhood of Mangueira.

Roberta Manaa at a Jedi Council cinema club event. Photo by Carlos Voltor.

Roberta Manaa at a Jedi Council cinema club event. Photo by Carlos Voltor.

Exposing kids and teens to new adventures might ignite the same curiosity I experienced as a child listening to my father’s star stories. As Sci-Ed contributor Cristina Russo wrote earlier, “museum visitors don’t always visit the museum with the intention to learn, but mostly with the intention of leisure or entertainment. Learning is seen as secondary, an added perk.”  To create opportunities for the public to stumble upon knowledge through informal education is our purpose, considering “there’s less pressure to learn in these informal environments, so they can actually be fun.“

How about showing kids that being a scientist might be much cooler than being a soccer player or a funk singer? has been doing that with his foundation, as well as helping with scholarships students who want to go to college. A similar approach is being taken by Dr. Emdin, a professor of science at NYC, and the rapper GZA. Both met at a radio program hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. To tackle the problem that only 4% of African-American high school seniors are proficient in science in comparison to 27% of white seniors, they use hip-hop rhymes to teach the principles of physicsNeil deGrasse Tyson tells us in Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier:

“whenever we hold an event at the Hayden Planetarium that includes an astronaut… there’s a significant uptick in attendance. […] The one-on-one encounter makes a difference in the hearts and minds of Earth’s armchair space travelers […]. My reading of history and culture tells me that people need their heroes.”

Cristina Russo discussed this “astronaut effect” in a recent post on space education.

Limitations of funding

The Perseid meteor shower was an impressive astronomical event that was visible in the southern hemisphere, from Saturday the 11th to Monday the 13th in August of 2012. It was another opportunity to expose the public to the beauties of the universe: stargazing during the phenomenal passage of  that beautiful stream of debris. However, that incredible spectacle of nature was unable to change an institution’s pre-determined schedule: observations at the Planetarium take place only on Wednesdays. Given limitations such as this, can we keep the interest in science alive?

Unfortunately, a lack of funds for science, culture, and education is commonplace in public Brazilian institutions. A widespread problem we face in Brazil is a lack of interest from the government in science and culture that results in an unqualified workforce; some parallels can be made to the US, especially in times of sequestration. This is the consequence of decades of deficient investment in education and the lack of a long-term project for scientific development. To illustrate the point, in 2011 Brazil’s president removed the country’s support for the European Extremely Large Telescope, stopping its construction and therefore ending Brazilian scientists’ chances to participate in the observations. Fortunately Brazilian Congress has reopened the discussion on this issue.

I am lucky to have had a father who made me curious about the world I live in and about the other worlds. Growing up, he taught me about the rain, sky, thunder, moon and stars. He told me that the deeper we look into the sky, the farther we look into the universe’s past. He told me a star that we see now may have already turned into a supernova. Other children are not so lucky to have that deep scientific curiosity in their families.

How can we, as a society, help fill that role? By working alongside the Planetarium Foundation and the Jedi Council, I try to fill that gap by promoting culture and education. If kids do not have a background that inspires and enables them to build scientific knowledge, then it is our job to offer them the tools to grow that interest.


Category: Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Learning to read the tree of life

Evolution education is entering an exciting time: scientists are working on the Open Tree of Life — the first comprehensive tree charting the evolutionary relationships of all named species — and many U.S. classrooms are preparing for state adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), in which evolution and common ancestry are central. However, in order to capitalize on these developments, students will need to become competent in the surprisingly tricky skill of “tree thinking.”

Lone tree. Photo by Daveybot on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Lone tree. Photo by Daveybot on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Trees are one of the most powerful metaphors in art and science. For biologists, the “tree of life” stands for both the unity and diversity of life. But are students and non-scientists accurately interpreting its branches? As I’ve discussed here before, misconceptions about the mechanism of natural selection — often referred to as microevolution — are rampant. However, understanding macroevolution — the big picture of biological evolution, including the common ancestry of life and the relationships among groups of living things — may be even more difficult.

Troubles with trees

Science education researchers have been documenting students’ troubles with trees for many years. Textbooks, museum exhibits, and other learning resources are filled with a variety of tree-inspired diagrams that often represent different types of information from each other. Different diagrams may show different levels of taxa (for example, species, genera, or orders). Some may be oriented horizontally and others vertically. And they may or may not include shared traits, shared ancestors, or time. Some researchers have argued that diagrams that are not cladograms — which use a simple branching system to depict clades, or groups that share a common ancestor — are less useful and only serve to confuse. Yet even cladograms themselves are notoriously easy to misinterpret.

Image by Alexei Kouprianov (CC-BY-SA).

Two styles of cladogram depicting identical relationships. Branches can rotate around nodes without altering the meaning of the diagram. Image by Alexei Kouprianov (CC-BY-SA).

Common misinterpretations of cladograms result from reading from top to bottom (horizontally oriented cladograms) or from left to right (vertically oriented ones) and inferring either an increase in “complexity” (likely reinforced by highly problematic “march of progress” diagrams) or passage of time. Similarly, instead of following the nodes back to a most recent common ancestor, many students focus on the tips (the parts marked with taxa names) and infer that spatial closeness implies a closer evolutionary relationship.

When describing what is represented in cladograms, students focus on perceived “similarities” rather than ancestry. For the most part, the more recently two taxa shared a common ancestor, the more similarities they will have. But because of confounding factors like convergent evolution (when distantly related taxa evolve similar traits in response to similar environmental pressures) perceived similarity can be highly inaccurate, and is not what is represented in a cladogram. For a full summary of the pitfalls with an abundance of clarifying diagram examples, see evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory’s review article (pdf).

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) recently held a meeting to address some of the challenges in evolution communication. In response to scientists outlining the misinterpretations of trees, paleontology writer Brian Switek tweeted:

If reading across the tips of a cladogram/phylogeny is misleading, we need new imagery for #evocomm to the public.

This suggestion dovetails well with the expectations for science practices set forward in the NRC’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education (from which the NGSS were developed):

By grade 12, students should be able to:
Represent and explain phenomena with multiple types of models—for example, represent molecules with 3-D models or with bond diagrams—and move flexibly between model types when different ones are most useful for different purposes.

Perhaps if students were given a totally different kind of visual model for common ancestry to use alongside the traditional tree metaphor, they could overcome some of the difficulties and learn something about the nature of scientific modeling in the process.

A change of perspective

I met Sonia Stephens a little over a year ago at the NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) annual meeting and was immediately excited by her work. As part of her dissertation in science communication, she had responded to all the conceptual difficulties that trees seem to cause by creating a digital dynamic evolutionary map (DEM).

In her paper in Evolution: Education & Outreach, Sonia explains that the map is essentially a top-down cross-section of a phylogenetic tree. Multiple cross-sections, which animate in sequence, represent different points in time. Taxa appear as dots whose relative spatial distances are determined by phylogenetic relatedness. When reading a cladogram, the intuitive impulse to infer relatedness from spatial distance between branch tips inevitably leads to error. The DEM works with this intuition, rather than against it.

Visualization by Sonia Stephens (CC-BY-NC-SA).

The Dynamic Evolutionary Map showing the present day. Visualization by Sonia Stephens (CC-BY-NC-SA).

When I asked her about what people would need to understand in order to use the map, she said:

I assumed a basic knowledge of biology, having seen (though not necessarily knowing all the nuances of) phylogenetic trees, and familiarity with at least some terminology, e.g. evolution, genes, species, etc. In order to integrate the DEM into a classroom setting, you’d want to provide more context for these concepts.

The DEM is free to use (under creative commons license CC-BY-NC-SA) and Sonia is always interested to hear from possible collaborators.

Another digital innovation on evolutionary tree diagrams, the amazing OneZoom Tree of Life Explorer, will be visualizing the Open Tree of Life. As detailed in an article on the PLOS community pages, OneZoom’s tree breaks the static, paper-bound mold — and it includes three different fractal shape options, which may prevent some types of misinterpretation. However, unlike the DEM all versions retain the branching metaphor.

Rosindell & Harmon 2012

Users can toggle between three different tree shapes in the OneZoom Tree of Life Explorer. (Rosindell & Harmon 2012).

The flexibility of digital visualization has the potential to overcome many of the obstacles to “tree thinking.” I’m looking forward to seeing research evaluating the affordances of these new tools and the development of appropriate educational supports.


Gregory, T. R. (2008). Understanding evolutionary trees. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 1(2), 121-137.

Stephens, S. (2012). From Tree to Map: Using Cognitive Learning Theory to Suggest Alternative Ways to Visualize Macroevolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 5(4), 603-618.

Category: Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science education research | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hobbies: idle pastimes or keys to science engagement?

Collecting and polishing rocks and minerals, hunting for shells and fossils, gardening, birding, keeping freshwater and marine aquariums – this was how I spent my childhood: hopping from one hobby to the next, all centered around the natural (or semi-natural) world. My interest in science and nature started before I can remember – it just always seemed to be there. I’m sure my parents had something to do with it, my dad being an aerospace engineer, and my mom a student of botany and horticulture and a sort of unofficial lifelong naturalist. But while they supported my hobbies (often with a great deal of time, effort, and patience), these activities were all primarily driven by my own interests and inclinations. They weren’t things I was pushed to do. Over the years I cycled through paleontologist, veterinarian, science teacher, ecologist and marine biologist as my career goal of choice, but it was always a given in my mind that I would go to college, study biology, and end up in some sort of science-related career. The career I was set on pursuing in any given year usually matched whichever hobby I was currently most engaged with.

A few representatives from my childhood rock and mineral collection. Photo by Jean Flanagan

A few representatives from my childhood rock and mineral collection. Photo by Jean Flanagan.

My own story is just one anecdote, and unstructured science activities that occur in individual homes are difficult for education researchers to study. However a few retrospective studies have pointed to the importance of hobbies for interest and persistence in science. In 1993 Gilbert Nazier reported on the results from an open-response survey of 96 science and engineering professors (in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering). The survey simply asked: “What factors in your life led you to choose science/technology as the career you would enter? (Give a brief description and indicate the approximate time of this factor.)” Responses were categorized into nine major categories: science/math hobbies, family influence, natural curiosity, reading, field trips, competitions, career awareness, and science/math ability. The top category was science/math hobbies, with a quarter of the professors including this factor in their response. Furthermore, 70% of those who included hobbies as an influence reported partaking in them prior to age 12. More recently, Adam Maltese and Robert Tai published results from interviews with 116 scientists and science graduate students (in physics and chemistry) about their first engagement with science. The authors found that 45% of the interviewees described their interest as intrinsic or self-directed, (as opposed to stemming from school or family influence) with many mentioning tinkering and hobbies, and 65% of the interviewees reported that their interest in science began before middle school.

Of course other factors strongly influence persistence in science education and careers, including gender and socioeconomic status. And interest alone is not understanding – it isn’t enough to succeed in science classes or careers. However, it could act as a powerful motivator that could help students push past obstacles in education that would turn others away. While I certainly picked up some science facts, concepts, and practices through my hobbies, they couldn’t have taken the place of my school science classes. However, I did bring added enthusiasm for science to the classroom. I was proud to contribute outside knowledge to the class, and eager to apply what I learned in class to my hobbies. My passion, fueled by hobbies, helped me make the most of school science classes when other students may have disengaged due to sub-optimal curriculum, teaching, or assessments.

The possibility that hobbies can influence future involvement in science raises the issue of privilege. Individual, home-based hobbies require money, time, and parental engagement. I was fortunate to have a family that was able and eager to fund and support my science pastimes – many other bright young students are not so lucky. These students must rely on what schools and science centers can provide, and depending on their location, sometimes only school. While schools and science centers can provide similar types of engagement for students, these activities are usually much more structured and less self-directed than personal hobbies. They also tend to have limited time frames, whereas personal hobbies can be pursued at will across many years.

In “Look, Don’t Touch,” an essay published last year in Orion Magazine, environmental educator David Sobel bemoaned the state of informal environmental education “programs.” For young elementary-age children, he argued, most programs aren’t actually informal enough – they typically come with long lists of rules. Supporting his case, he summarized a review of surveys of adults in environmental careers:

…environmentalists talk about free play and exploration in nature, and family members who focused their attention on plants or animal behavior. They don’t talk much about formal education and informal nature education. Only in late childhood and adolescence do summer camp, teachers, and environmental clubs start to show up as being contributors to the individual’s environmental values and behaviors. It seems that allowing children to be “untutored savages” early on can lead to environmental knowledge in due time.

Schools or school-museum partnerships could facilitate more loosely structured hobby time in after-school or other non-class-time programs. Unlike class time, or even structured field trips, there wouldn’t have to be instruction, or any explicit focus on learning – the overarching goal would be nothing more than enjoyment. Learning would occur naturally as hobby-related questions arise, or in the classroom when connections to hobbies become apparent. But perhaps more importantly, students without the resources to pursue hobbies at home would have the chance to gain the benefits of associating science with fun, self-selecting science activities they most identify with, and accumulating some practical expertise that could spawn feelings of competence in science.

Category: Equity in science education, Informal Science Education, Science education research | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Science fairs: rewarding talent or privilege?


This week we’re welcoming Erin Salter to Sci-Ed as a guest poster. Erin Salter is a biomedical engineer turned science writer. She left the academic environment where she used to grind bones and investigate osteonecrosis to follow her passion for outreach and communication. Erin currently works as part of the content team for Owen Software, where she sits at the desk next to Sci-Ed contributor Cristina Russo. In her spare time, she volunteers at the National Aquarium, writes the science blog Hypertonic, and swing dances. Find her on twitter @McSalter.

A typical science fair scene. Photo by Flickr user RichardBowen | CC BY 2.0

A typical science fair scene. Photo by Flickr user RichardBowen | CC BY 2.0

The room is crowded with row after row of trifold poster boards and judges squinting and taking notes. Among the posters illustrating the effects of soil character on worm health, or the effectiveness of hand sanitizer, I see a project on amino acid substitution due to missense mutations. I’m judging the middle school division, but this project is at the level of a high school or even college student. When it comes time to decide the winners, I battle the other judges who favor complex project topics over soundness of experimental design. The owner of the missense mutation project had access to resources and connections not shared by the students testing soil and hand-sanitizer. There are clearly two project tiers within the competition, and they aren’t separated by scientific understanding, but by access to the professional scientific world. If the mutation project wins over soil character, does it mean we are punishing students who don’t have pre-existing science connections?

A two tiered system: dividing students by access

This spring, science fairs like this one will take place across the country, culminating in the Intel International Science Fair, where students will compete for $3 million in prestigious cash prizes and scholarships. The fair I am volunteering at is a local event, far humbler in status, but still a chance for students to showcase their research skills. As the division I’m judging is middle school biology, I expected to see a lot of “kitchen cabinet” science: kids exploring the world around them through tools they can find at school or at home (e.g. comparing mold growth on different types of bread or testing methods to prevent cutting onions from making you cry).

What I didn’t expect was such a vast divide among the projects. On the one side are students equipped with minimal supplies and the basic science knowledge of 5th through 8th graders (10 to 14 years old). Their projects are simpler: factors that affect food spoilage or seed germination, household chemicals that can be used as insect repellant. On the other end, you have the students who have access to professional laboratory equipment — spectrophotometers, sterile culture hoods — and mentors who are professional scientists. Their projects are more ambitious and, from a sheer subject matter standpoint, far more impressive. These were middle schoolers dealing with RNA, bacteriophage, computer modeling, and proper statistics (something that is sometimes hard to find even in published scientific papers). It’s true that students show an impressive amount of knowledge of complicated subject matters and methods, but they also have the advantage of access to equipment and help the other students don’t.

Are we rewarding privilege as well as sound science?

The nominal purpose of science fairs is to promote student-led inquiry and give kids hands-on experience with the scientific method. Much of our science education centers on the “product” of science – established laws, facts, and theories. When we do classroom experiments, the outcome is almost always a given; these experiments are illustrations, not investigations. Student-led projects (like those done for the science fair) are one way to incorporate open-ended inquiry into education. In fact, the National Science Education Standards recommend that students be given opportunity to understand and practice the scientific process (hypothesis, testing, and conclusions). The newly released Next Generation Science Standards go further to recommend the integration scientific concepts and practices in the classroom, as scientific inquiry requires the coordination of scientific ideas with experimental skills. Science fair projects allow students to ask their own questions, design their own research methods, and analyze their own data, thus giving them the experience of the full arc of scientific inquiry. And, perhaps most importantly, science fairs are supposed to demystify science and take it from a just-so story to an accessible (and fun) activity.

Unintentionally weeding out students without access

However, the rewards system of the science fair is flawed. There is no equity of access to lab facilities and equipment or access to scientific mentors, meaning some students are disadvantaged from the start. Projects done in the lab or with the help of a scientist mentor are inherently more impressive. While a kid who investigates pollution in a local watershed and a kid who looks at the effects of a chemotherapeutic drug on different cancer cells may be equals in the rigor of their scientific method, the kid with the lab-based project simply stands out more. So, unfortunately, the students who win these science fairs will often be the ones with the best access.

A 2009 study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair found that found that fair participants were elite not just in their understanding of science, but in their finances and social network. The study looked at participants and winners from the 2002-2008 Fairs, and found that the students were more likely to come from advantaged middle to upper class families and had access to equipment in universities or laboratories through their social connections. Their posters were professionally printed or designed. They had parents or family friends who were scientists or engineers. While this isn’t to say that the parents did their children’s projects — the authors noted that the students displayed a high level of understanding of their project topic and procedures – students with a personal connection to a scientist who can help them with their project are at a significant advantage. In fact, most of the students used entirely non-school based resources, an option that is not available to many of their less well connected peers. Previous studies (Czerniak, 1996 and Gifford & Wiygul, 1992) also found that access to professional science facilities and mentorship were good predictors for science fair success.

It seems classic science fair competitions inadvertently weed out students who come from less advantaged backgrounds, and the kids who end up with the most positive outcomes are the ones who already have a strong connection to STEM at home. Furthermore, the competition aspect of the fairs may leave the non-winning students with the feeling that they’re not good enough for science. This can be especially discouraging for younger students just becoming interested in science. Having winners that primarily come from privileged backgrounds underlines the elitist idea that science is the lofty pursuit of few instead of a source of wonder that all can enjoy.

Can we fix the broken science fair system?

So how can we promote and reward student-led inquiry without creating a system that devalues the contributions of less privileged students? One quick solution would be to create two categories of competition: one for experiments done in a professional research lab setting and one for experiments done at home or schools. Awards would have to be given out equally to both categories. However, establishing an official two-tiered system would simply codify the unofficial two-tiered system already in place.

Another option is the “standards-based” science fair, where students compete against a set of standards rather than each other. Like the classic science fair, students are awarded points for meeting criteria like clear communication and quantitative data to support their hypothesis. Unlike the classic science fair, though, the winners are not the students with the highest scores. Instead, all students who reach a score benchmark are rewarded. The scoring guide and benchmarks should be rigorous and well established to avoid an “everyone wins” type of situation – you want to reward students for genuine effort and understanding rather than participation.

An added advantage of changing the system: diminishing the fear of “failure”

Taking project topic and sophistication out of the equation also allows students more room to explore, have fun with their projects, and (most importantly) – fail. Failure is simply part of the scientific process, as many of us who have torn our hair out over experimental non-results are aware. “Failure” of scientific experiments is valuable, however. It tells us that we need to change our approach and try something new. Screw-ups can lead us in directions we might never have explored, and in some cases, can lead to useful discoveries (post-it notes or penicillin are oft-quoted examples). However, negative results are practically unpublishable in scientific journals. Similarly, winning science fair projects are often those with positive results (the predicted outcome is correct or students build a working model of their design). The pressure to publish positive results is part of the reason for a sharp rise in paper retractions. Judging science fair projects on the rigor the scientific investigation rather than the flashiness of the topic or affirmation of the students’ original hypothesis may help instill the value of process over product early on in science education.

The sight that stuck in my mind as I left my science fair experience was not the beautiful posters of the “top-tier” projects or the confident smiles of the accomplished presenters. It was the transformation of a 6th grade girl with a “kitchen cabinet”-science project flanked by the posters of lab-science peers. It was the resignation that filled her mien as day went on, the way she went from smiling and joking with her friends to slumping in her chair, defeated. Traditional science fairs may reward excellence in science, but they also reward privilege. Students like that little girl are left behind, sorted out and discouraged early on by their lack of access. And that is, in a word, unfair.


Bencze, J. L., & Bowen, G. M. (2009). A national science fair: Exhibiting support for the knowledge economy. International Journal of Science Education, 31(18), 2459-2483.

Gifford, V. D., & Wiygul, S. M. (1992) The Effect of the Use of Outside Facilities and Resources on Success in Secondary School Science Fairs. School Science and Mathematics, 92(3), 116-119.

Czerniak, C.M. (1996). Predictors of Success in a District Science Fair Competition: An Exploratory Study. School Science and Mathematics, 96(1), 21-27.

Rillero, P. (2011). A Standards-Based Science Fair. Science and Children, 48(8), 32-36.

Further Reading on science fairs:

The science fair a new look at an old tradition

Rethinking the Science Fair


Category: Equity in science education, Science education research | Tagged , , , , , | 22 Comments

Communicating about evolution: the danger of shortcuts

When we talk about evolution and education, our first thoughts usually race to evangelical churches, school boards, and states like Kansas and Tennessee. While cultural battles over “belief” in evolution and its place in public schools are certainly important, a lesser-known issue is that acceptance and understanding are not the same thing, and  many people who enthusiastically “believe” in evolution don’t actually understand the basics of how it works. This may not be a problem if our only concern is that the public votes to keep non-science out of the public science classroom. But an understanding of evolution impacts more than just one hot-button issue at a time. It is necessary to understand issues surrounding antibiotic and pesticide resistance, overfishing, potential effects of climate change, the relevance of animal models in medical research, and it is the conceptual framework through which all other biological fields can be best understood.

A wide variety of evolution misconceptions have been documented in the science education research literature at all levels from elementary students through college students, museum visitors, and the general public.  The recently open-access [1] journal Evolution: Education and Outreach is an excellent resource for those looking for insights into communicating with non-experts about evolution. Evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory contributed a review article (pdf) in 2009 that nicely summarizes the most prevalent misconceptions about natural selection. Others have documented learning difficulties associated with macroevolution, the relatedness of species, and interpreting tree diagrams. U.C. Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution website has a good starting list of common misconceptions related to all aspects of evolution.

Experts who do understand evolution by natural selection often use shortcuts and metaphors that are mostly harmless among those in the know. However, these same shortcuts can reinforce and even cause many misconceptions among students and members of the public without strong evolution backgrounds. Increased awareness of the science education research on evolution among teachers, informal educators, exhibit designers, documentary filmmakers, and journalists could go a long way toward preventing further entrenchment of these misconceptions.

I’ll attempt to outline some of the major misconceptions and learning difficulties related to the mechanism of natural selection and discuss some common ways of talking about evolutionary processes that can reinforce these misconceptions.

Darwin's Finches

Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches. Charles Darwin, 1845. U.S. public domain.

Fitness and “survival of the fittest”

To evolutionary biologists, fitness has a very specific meaning: the number of offspring left by individuals of a species having a certain genetic makeup compared to other individuals with different genetic makeups. A recent “daily explainer” on i09, “Why ‘survival of the fittest’ is wrong,” tackled some of the issues wrapped up in this word. The colloquial usage of “fit” as “big, strong and healthy” [2] makes the phrase misleading. And evolution isn’t really about survival at all. It’s entirely about reproduction. Often living longer can mean more chances to mate, but survival only contributes to evolutionary fitness inasmuch as it enables an increase in successful reproduction events. An organism that lives to the upper limit of its lifespan — but never successfully reproduces — contributes exactly nothing to the next generation.

Populations and generations

The mechanism of natural selection is based in population thinking. To an expert, a population is a group of organisms of the same species that interbreed and that live in the same geographic area. Importantly, it is not an equivalent term to species. However, most non-experts do not think in terms of populations. They think in terms of individuals, species, or ecosystems. This translates to mistaken assumptions about what evolution acts on. Many people think that evolution happens to one individual during its lifetime, or that entire species (including all the individuals) gradually change into new species. Again, shortcuts such as “over time, the finches gained bigger beaks” can reinforce the idea that all members of the species grew bigger beaks. A better statement would have been “over many generations, finches with large beaks had more offspring than finches with smaller beaks, until nearly the whole population had large beaks.”


Adaptation is nearly ubiquitous as a “vocab” word for elementary-age students, before they understand anything about genetics. Students are expected to learn that an adaptation is something along the lines of “a trait of an organism that helps it survive in its environment.” This often devolves into “just-so story” explanations about how beavers have big teeth because they chew on trees all the time, or giraffes have long necks because they are always reaching high into the trees for food. It doesn’t help that journalists, teachers, and lecturers often use colorful metaphorical shortcuts to talk about adaptation. While their intention may be to create a lively article or talk, an expert’s metaphor is often a non-expert’s reality.

In his review article, Gregory highlights some of the problematic language used to describe adaptation:

Thus, adaptations in any taxon may be described as “innovations,” “inventions,” or “solutions” (sometimes “ingenious” ones, no less). Even the evolution of antibiotic resistance is characterized as a process whereby bacteria “learn” to “outsmart” antibiotics with frustrating regularity.

Human tendency to anthropomorphize everything from animals to inanimate objects and natural processes is well known, and tough to combat. (See Heider and Simmel’s 1944 experiment in which people assign intentions, emotions and even genders to moving geometric shapes.) In the context of evolution anthropomorphic descriptions can lead to the misconception that individual organisms try to modify themselves to better fit the environment, and then pass down those acquired traits to their offspring. A shaky understanding of genetics also underpins this idea, but sloppy communications can reinforce it.

A focus on adaptation from the early grades forward can also lead to the idea that each organism is perfectly adapted for its particular environment and niche, and that every feature of an organism has an adaptive purpose. Evolutionary biologists know this simply isn’t the case. Most traits that we call adaptations are simply “good enough.” They were a little more useful in a given circumstance than other traits — they weren’t designed from the ground up for the current situation. Learning about adaptation — and developing misconceptions about it — before grasping the genetic, generational mechanism of natural selection can put students at a disadvantage when they get to middle and high school biology classes.

Unity and diversity: a two-step process

As Gregory emphasized in his review article, evolution by natural selection is a two-step process: (1) new variation arises by random mutation and recombination, and (2) individuals with certain variants have more offspring than other individuals with different variants. Focusing on either mutation alone or selection alone can lead to the following misconceptions, respectively: that evolution is completely random, and that evolution results in perfectly optimized organisms. When communicating about evolution with non-experts, it is important never to refer to one without referencing the importance of the other.

Evolution is tricky. For those of us who understand it, its power to make everything else in biology crystal clear is deceptive. Most of us had naive ideas about evolution as children or students. As we progressed in our studies of science these were replaced with more accurate mental models. But we are the exceptions — most people don’t go on to major in science or think about it for a living. Yet as citizens they are often called upon to make decisions that require an understanding of evolution. And as humans, an understanding of evolution can contribute to a deeper appreciation of nature. Shortcuts are catchy — droning on about populations and generations can get tedious and wordy. It takes talent to communicate about evolution both accurately and compellingly, but experts and science writers and educators have a responsibility to get it right.

[1] Evolution: Education and Outreach used to be open-access, then it was toll-access, and now everything from January 2013 onward is open-access, but you’ll still have trouble getting the older issues.
[2] Amusingly, the British meaning of “attractive” for “fit” is actually a little more accurate in cases of sexual selection — though we’d still have to change it to “Reproduction of the Fittest.”

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Science education at Science Online 2013

This was my first Science Online conference, and it was a refreshingly collaborative experience. Research scientists, high school teachers, museum educators, education researchers, science writers, psychologists, and social scientists all came together with no pretensions for a shared purpose: to share ideas on how to better educate and communicate with the public about science.

Science Online 2013 name badge. (PLOS sponsored the lanyards for everyone.)

Science Online 2013 name badge. (PLOS sponsored the lanyards for everyone.)

The design of the name badges nicely captures the feel of the “unconference” format. The badges emphasize first names and are intentionally devoid of institutional affiliations, creating an open, egalitarian atmosphere. The style of this conference is a perfect example of one way to combat the problems of elitism and distrust that I outlined in my earlier post on the research-practice divide in science education.

There were a few sessions directly focused on science education, and I’ve attempted to capture a few of the highlights from those here. However, many sessions that were more focused on science communication and journalism had implications for education as well, and may serve as inspiration for future posts.

Why won’t the science deficit model die?

Liz Neeley, assistant director of science outreach at COMPASS, and John Bruno, a marine ecologist and science communicator, took the lead for this session. The deficit model is the notion that when the general public fails to understand science or support science-based policy recommendations it is because it simply lacks the information. In other words, if only the public knew what the experts know, all our science communication problems would be solved.

Current research and thinking in science communication has shown the deficit model to be ineffective and overly simplistic. But many scientists, educators, and journalists still default to it, perhaps because it’s so easy: throw some data on a website and your duty to science communication is done. Engaging with specific audiences in culturally sensitive ways takes time and effort. Another reason for the continued prevalence of the deficit model might be that scientists have traditionally been dismissive of social science, and therefore aren’t likely to read science communication and education journals. Compounding this effect, many in higher education were trained to teach through TA positions and observation of their professors with little or no exposure to the findings of education and communication research. Additionally, although most science research grants require dissemination and broader impacts statements, perhaps agencies haven’t taken a strong enough stance on requiring them to be effective and meaningful.

What will it take to kill deficit model thinking? Changes in science training and grants might take time, but more communication between social scientists and scientists could spark the transition. Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition research, which I wrote about here earlier, got mentioned here and throughout the conference. Perhaps at Science Online 2014 scientists could be paired with social scientists (based on an interests and expertise survey) and start work on a small sci-comm project.

Formal science education, informal science education, and science writing.

I was excited for this session as soon as I saw the preliminary conference schedule, as it ties together three threads that are all of great personal interest to me. Marie Claire Shanahan, a science education researcher, and Emily Finke, a museum educator, co-led the session. Differences in training and careers can keep people working in school-based education, museum education, and journalism apart. But these fields have significant overlap and could almost certainly benefit from more collaboration. Many people at the session had projects that they knew could benefit from the perspective of a partner in one of the other two areas. Interestingly, they didn’t seem to know how to find each other until arriving at the session.

Perhaps there’s a need for an online hub for projects in need of interdisciplinary collaborators. Of course, the Science Online community lives on year-round through Twitter, blog networks and other online communication.

Readers of Sci-Ed: maybe you are a teacher looking for a museum collaboration, or a writer wanting to know more about research in how people learn science? Reach out to each other in the comments (or on social media).

How can the science of science education inform communication about science?

Andrea Novicki, an academic technology consultant, and Sandra Porter, a science education materials developer, headed up this session. Their aim was to raise awareness of science education research among science writers and to brainstorm some ways its findings could improve science communication. Conceptual change theory tells us that learners receiving new information about science are attempting to integrate this information into what they already know, and that they can harbor a host of naive intuitive ideas or misconceptions. In a classroom setting, educators can actively find out the ideas their students hold and strategically select readings or activities that target the misconceptions.

But what about science writers, who lack captive audiences? How can bloggers and journalists measure the effectiveness of what they are writing? In many cases, deep interaction with readers can be minimal. Blog comments can be useful, but only a very small percentage of readers take the time to comment. And even then, it often takes the form of a simple “great post!” Just because someone thought what you wrote was great doesn’t mean they understood it, or understood it the way you intended. Similarly, Google Analytics and re-tweets can tell you about how many people read your piece, but nothing about how much your readers may (or may not) have learned.

One idea that was tossed around was adding polls (even rough pre/post surveys) to blog posts to collect a little data on whether knowledge increased or minds were changed. Obviously this is only appropriate for education- and explanation-oriented blogs and only useful if you have a highly engaged audience. This session left me with more questions than answers, but I think it’s crucial that writers (especially those who see themselves as science communicators) start thinking more about what’s really going on in the minds of their readers. Much in journalism and blogging is untested — I’m looking forward to revisiting this topic in 2014.

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Facing the research-practice divide in science education

Science education researchers and science teachers have much to offer each other. In an ideal world, knowledge would flow freely between researchers and educators. Unfortunately, research and practice tend to exist in parallel universes. As long as this divide persists, classrooms will rarely benefit from research findings, and research studies will rarely be rooted in the realities of the classroom. If we care about science education, we have to face the research-practice divide.

How did it get this way?

When we talk about research and practice, we’re talking about academics and teachers. In the most typical case, we’re talking about professors of education working at universities, and teachers working at K-12 schools. The divide has its roots in historical and current differences between researchers and teachers in their training, methods, work environment, and career goals that have led to misunderstanding and mistrust. In a 2004 paper titled “Re-Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community” Jennifer Gore and Andrew Gitlin describe the state of the research-practice divide through the lens of the two groups of people involved, and the imbalance of power between them. Historically, they argue, the framework of science education research has been that researchers generate knowledge and materials that teachers need, but rarely recognize the need for teacher contributions. This assumed one-way flow of knowledge has certainly sparked animosity between the groups, deepened by cultural differences associated with differing career paths.

Of course, some people have been both K-12 teachers and academics in their careers. To get this perspective on the issue I reached out to a colleague, Assistant Professor of Science Education Ron Gray (Northern Arizona University). Ron has been a middle school science teacher, a teacher of science teachers, and is now a science education academic. When I asked him about the experience of transitioning from teacher to academic, he recalled:

“I don’t believe I had seen a single primary research document in education before earning my doctorate.”

Most K-12 science teachers are fairly disconnected from the research world once they leave universities and enter schools. They lack university library access, yet currently many of the best journals in the field, such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, and the International Journal of Science Education are not open access, and require a per-article fee to read. So how does research reach most teachers? I talked to a few science teachers about where they encounter science education research studies — many used science and education pages on Facebook, one got papers sent from an administrator, and some read practitioner journals. Many science teachers are members of the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), which publishes practitioner journals and holds national and area conferences where teachers can hear about research findings. NSTA plays an invaluable role in working to connect research and practice. However, for perspective, NSTA has about 55,000 members, most but not all of which are practicing science teachers, but there are currently about two million practicing science teachers in the U.S.

The disconnect also stems from unfortunate misperceptions of professors by teachers and teachers by professors. Both groups often discount each other’s knowledge bases and workloads. Professors can harbor elitist attitudes about teachers, discounting the value of practical classroom experience in determining what works in education. Teachers frequently claim that professors suffer from “Ivory Tower Syndrome” — the assumption here is that professors live cushy lives, sheltered from the realities of schools, and therefore can’t produce knowledge that is useful in today’s classrooms. A high school teacher quoted by Gore and Gitlin explained:

“A lot of what [researchers] think is based on the past and they are out of touch. And so we call it the Ivory Tower. Welcome to our world.”

When I asked high school science teacher Laurie Almeida how she perceived the credibility of science education research, she responded:

“Somewhat credible. I work at a difficult school, so I feel that some of the research is way too out of touch with the reality of my school.”

An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.

An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.

There is sometimes truth to the ivory tower criticisms; Gore and Gitlin noted that in some academic circles, the more closely research is associated with practice, the more devalued it is. Furthermore, science education research is far from perfect. Small-scale studies with limited applicability are published more frequently in science education than they are the natural sciences. This trend hasn’t escaped notice from teachers either. When I asked about the perceived credibility of science education research among teachers, science teacher Toni Taylor told me:

“Too often I see ‘research’ that includes only a small sample population which makes me question the validity of the research,” and “Sometimes I feel like science education simply tries to reinvent the wheel.”

However, a lot of the mistrust between the two groups is based on their misunderstanding of each other’s professions. Teachers do not always appreciate that many researchers are often in the classroom regularly, conducting classroom-based studies and collecting data. This “back of the class” view can be highly illuminating, and is a valid way to know classrooms. Some researchers got their start as K-12 teachers. And higher education is certainly not immune from classroom management issues or over-filled schedules. Professors have stress — just ask the #realForbesProfessors (this hashtag exploded on Twitter following the publication of a Forbes article claiming that professors have one of the least stressful jobs). Similarly, researchers can forget that experienced teachers have a wealth of knowledge about the specific interactions of classroom context, pedagogy, and subject matter.


What can be done?

My conversation with Professor Ron Gray about what academics can do to better connect with teachers aligned well with calls in the literature for more researcher-teacher partnerships. He said:

“The best way would be to get back in the classroom but the tenure process just doesn’t let that happen.”

His response highlights the rigidity of teacher and researcher career paths. Even a former teacher who switched to the researcher path can’t switch back again without ultimately losing “traction” in both careers. Perhaps we should question the wisdom of entrenching people interested in science education in one narrowly-defined career trajectory or another. Instead, career advancement could reward the accumulation of diverse but synergistic experiences. Science education is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving science, social science, and communication skills — why shouldn’t our career options reflect this?

Similarly, certain aspects of teacher training might be due for a change. Teacher education could be a crucial time to break the mold  that has placed researchers as producers and teachers as consumers of research. Gore and Gitlin suggest that student-teachers at the undergraduate or master’s levels could be attached to ongoing education research projects as research assistants. They would become intimately familiar with the purpose and methods of educational research and could become significant contributors to it. This would take some restructuring, as many programs focus on more “immediate” concerns such as classroom management, but the benefit could be the production of teachers who recognize the value of research and feel capable of making contributions to it.

The open access movement in scholarly publishing could also have a crucial role in breaking down barriers. Toll-access journals can function as practically impenetrable “ivory fortresses” where valuable knowledge is locked away from practitioners. However, open access will likely prove necessary, but not sufficient in closing the research-practice gap. Teachers I’ve spoken to are very positive about open access but guarded about how much more time they’ll spend reading research articles. Time is a huge issue for teachers. But the alternative — locking up research findings in places where both time and money can be barrier for teachers — is certainly not helping to connect research with practice.

For the short-term, most education research articles are still in toll-access journals. For those without easy access to the primary literature in science, research blogs have become an incredible resource. However, the science education research blogging community pales in comparison to the science research blogging community. While teachers can find the latest science news and engaging resources to share with their students by following the science blogging community, they are not as likely to find quick-and-easy write-ups of science education research findings that are relevant to their pedagogy, curriculum development, assessment practices. As the Sci-Ed blog establishes itself, I hope that my fellow writers and I can attempt to partially fill this role. And I hope that many others in science education continue to follow the research blogging model.


Jennifer M. Gore & Andrew D. Gitlin (2004): [RE]Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 10:1, 35-58. 

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Science literacy and the polarized politics of climate change

One of the major goals of science education is for all citizens to have some basic level of science literacy. The rationale is that a basic understanding of science is necessary in order to participate in a modern democratic society, where we must often grapple with policy decisions that deal with socioscientific issues, and where scientific evidence can be a major deciding factor in policy.

paper published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year challenged a long-standing assumption in both science education and science communication: that increasing science literacy will increase public “acceptance” of the scientific consensus on the risks posed by climate change. The authors surveyed a representative sample of about 1,500 U.S. adults and found that people with an egalitarian-communitarian worldview (roughly liberal) were more likely to perceive climate change to be higher risk with higher levels of science literacy, while for people with a hierarchical-individualist worldview (roughly conservative), higher science literacy scores meant they were more likely to underestimate the risks associated with climate change. If the assumption that science literacy is the solution had held, both groups would have moved toward rating climate change as higher risk as they increased in science knowledge, to line up with current scientific consensus. Instead, increasing science knowledge correlated with increasingly polarized views.

The paper comes out of Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition project at Yale. Cultural cognition posits that individuals tend to form opinions that cohere with the values and ways of life of the cultural groups they identify with. In other words, people process information in ways that reinforce a sense of belonging to certain cultural groups and identifiers. The central idea is related to confirmation bias, but goes further to define the root causes of the beliefs people seek to confirm: cultural worldviews. Unlike confirmation bias, cultural cognition can predict how people will react to totally new issues, for which they had no prior opinions, based on their worldviews. (For more on distinguishing cultural cognition and confirmation bias, see Kahan’s blog.) In some ways the findings are not all that surprising. Knowing that humans are always striving to confirm their own hunches, opinions, and beliefs, it follows that the addition of more knowledge and argumentation skills just builds the arsenal for developing a stronger defense of one’s preferred view. Janet Raloff at ScienceNews paraphrases Kahan:

“In fact, some of the most science-literate critics [of climate science] will listen to experts only to generate compelling counter-arguments.”

This isn’t just about conservatives denying science. Both liberals and conservatives have been found to diverge from scientific consensus on issues that have the potential to either reinforce or threaten their identities, values, and worldviews (for example, on the issue of the right to carry concealed handguns – see Kahan et al. 2010). Furthermore, it isn’t about denying or mistrusting science as an institution; instead, people are developing different perceptions about what the science actually says. Both sides try to “claim” science for their side.

Lone polar bear on sea ice. Photo by fruchtwerg’s world.

But what does this mean for science education? The findings pose more questions than answers. It would be a mistake to think that science literacy is useless — or even dangerous — because it might act as a polarizing force. Without it, citizens would have little basis or inclination to engage with socioscientific issues at all — hardly the recipe for a functioning democracy. So it is necessary, but not sufficient. However, the findings strongly suggest that a simplistic “deficit” model, in which students/citizens are blank slates that just need to be filled up with science facts and information, clearly won’t work.

It’s worth noting how the authors were measuring science literacy. They employed a combined science literacy/numeracy scale. Eight science literacy items, which were taken from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, probed relatively simple factual knowledge about biology and physics with true/false statements (for example, “electrons are smaller than atoms”). No items testing understanding of the scientific method were used, though previous research using the items has shown decent correlation between the facts and methods dimensions. Mathematical word problems were used to measure numeracy; these were included because more numerate people tend to be disposed to more accurate, methodical modes of thinking, especially with regard to decision making and risk assessment (system 2, according to Daniel Kahneman). However, the measure is limited by not being able to discern a high level of competence in science. It can distinguish those who know little science from those who know a bit more, but even a person who was able to correctly answer all eight items could not necessarily be said to be “science literate.” We can say the items measured some science knowledge plus tendency to think more slowly and analytically, but not “science literacy.” An unanswered question is how to accurately measure the multi-dimensional concept of science literacy — but the initial indications from this study are certainly noteworthy and concerning.

The results of this paper should prompt us to reexamine what is most important in science literacy, and therefore in science education. While most of the discussions of these results have been couched in science communication issues (how scientists and the media reach out to adult non-scientist citizens), K-12 science educators potentially have a huge opportunity to educate a new generation of citizens in a way that could reduce the risks of polarization. What strategies might accomplish this goal? My ponderings that follow below are just conjecture, but can hopefully generate some conversation from the science education perspective.

One possibility is that by emphasizing the nature and process of science more than the “consensus” textbook facts, students will understand what to look for in good science and develop structured, rational habits of mind. A crucial aspect of science is that it’s OK to be wrong. A hypothesis doesn’t have to be right in order to learn something important from the evidence collected. Scientists throw out their old theories if new ones are a better fit for the data. It’s about having an open mind and even challenging the established consensus when the evidence is strong. When people use their knowledge exclusively for the purposes of proving their opinion is right, and see data that contradicts their opinions as simply the next challenge to rebut, they aren’t thinking like scientists. Perhaps examples and experiences of surprising or negative results might serve to get students thinking like scientists, even in the face of cultural predispositions or prior beliefs.

A strong emphasis on critical response skills might also limit the polarizing effects of knowledge. Part of the reason climate change deniers are able to use their knowledge to entrench themselves further in their chosen viewpoint is that they are focussing on — and finding — less scientifically credible data sources. Through biased search, they are discovering the few dissenting scientists, or pundits who mix facts with opinion. Sharper critical response skills would make the flaws and weaknesses in their favored data sources stand out. If all students are exposed to in science class is their textbooks and lab manuals (which are always “right”), how will they learn to evaluate sources of scientific data?

Just as we can’t assume adult citizens are blank slates, neither can we assume young students are blank slates. Even when dealing with non-polarized naive ideas about science, prior knowledge and conceptions must be taken into account in helping students move to a more scientific understanding. Science educators should be aware of the cultural allegiances their students may have, and should attempt to frame discussions of polarizing concepts in ways that are not immediately and totally opposed to those allegiances. Students could be exposed to cases in which many different socio-political groups have been known to twist or misrepresent science to serve their purposes (see GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left) and learn to recognize these ulterior motives.

Young students are dealing with issues of identity, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity. There is an opportunity for scientific thinking (as a useful, impartial, non-partisan intellectual tool) to become part of students’ cultural identities. By fostering a collegial environment where controversial issues can be discussed openly and civilly, science educators could help reduce the fear and antagonism individuals can face when supporting an idea that is perceived as discordant with the prevailing worldview. Of course, science educators often face their own sources of conflict from parents, students, and even themselves when it comes to controversial topics like climate change and evolution.

The problem of polarization is a puzzling one, but the stakes are high, and science educators will play a pivotal role in preparing future policymakers.

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