Appreciating Science in School – What to include?

By Michael Edmonds 15/11/2013

In my previous post, I discussed teaching science in schools in terms of science and society, an idea that has previously been promoted by Sir Peter Gluckman.

So what content would be appropriate to include in such science and society/appreciating science curriculum?

I think you would have to include critical thinking/the scientific method at the core (something I believe has already been included in the latest redesign of the NZ science curriculum).

From my perspective, as a chemist, you would need to include:

atomic structure, a simplified description of the Periodic Table and chemical properties, contextualised perhaps by looking a a range of important elements, basic carbon chemistry perhaps related to plastics/proteins

In biology – basic cell structure, evolution …..perhaps some of our resident biologists could add to this, and perhaps physicists could do a similar list for physics?

Though it strikes me, that I have almost from the onset, instinctively separated science into the three historical disciplines. Is this the best way to go or should we teach science as a whole, and also pull in some history as well. I know it was the history of science, as shown on the TV show Connections, which got me hooked into science.

And are some schools doing this already?




0 Responses to “Appreciating Science in School – What to include?”

  • You’ve got to include something about photosynthesis and plant growth. So many folks don’t realise that green plants are the basis for their life. S’pose you also have to provide some basics about human reproduction, human nutrition, and keeping healthy.
    I’m astonished at the number of people who spout nonsense about proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates and essential minerals and have no idea how to eat well and cheaply.

    As a pupil I enjoyed my Science teachers going off topic/syllabus to talk about some aspect of science that had just hit the news. As a science teacher, I resented the fact that I was bound by a restricted syllabus.

    • Absolutely photosynthesis, and as Alison has pointed out, making sure it is delivered clearly. That would perhaps be an opportunity to link to chemistry with sugars, carbon dioxide and oxygen.
      And I hear you regarding, vitamins, proteins etc … The way I hear some people describing them, it is obvious they have no clue what they are talking about… I get the impression that they equate vitamins more with vitalism than chemistry or biology. Would have to incorporate into the curriculum something that made students understand that vitalism is not science.

  • Physics: conservation of energy, implications of the second law of thermodynamics, resonance, waves, sound, light, electromagnetic spectrum (I recently tried to explain the physical basis of climate change to some non-scientists. A number of them commented to me afterwards that they had never heard of infra-red light before.), why quantum mechanics was invented (photoelectric effect, Rutherford back-scattering, Bohr atom), how our lives have been impacted, and may be impacted in the future, by quantum mechanics – solid-state electronics, quantum-computing. (No equations!)

    I wouldn’t do this by subject discipline. I’d do it by contexts, e.g. Climate-change and energy, earthquakes, imaging, computing, great ideas. Also, I’d mix lots of experiments, demonstrations and simulations/animations with a historical approach.

    Underpinning theme: errors and uncertainty.

    • Esther,
      I must admit I struggled with anything involving “quantum” at university – but the photoelectric effect does provide an opportunity for students to understand how models work in science, and that we don’t currently have all the answers, and that that is just fine.

  • “I think you would have to include critical thinking/the scientific method at the core (something I believe has already been included in the latest redesign of the NZ science curriculum).”
    Yes, it has – but I think (from talking to secondary school colleagues) that the more resources they have to help with this, the better.

    Photosynthesis – yes. And please please please in a way that doesn’t leave kids with the idea that plants produce O2 but don’t require it?

  • If we’re talking about science and society as a topic for school students, then I assume most of the students have no intention of becoming scientists…. so I think it is critical that we don’t pigeonhole content topics. (Don’t be too prescriptive). Perhaps a broad brush without detail will suffice to get students starting to understand a topic.
    When I talk about photosynthesis to non-scientists (kiddies, gardeners, folks wandering thro’ the bush) I don’t really get into the C6H1206 story… neither do I discuss electron capture and light and dark pathways…. I focus on what folks can see …. green leaves…..animals eating leaves… sun/shade……
    So chemists go for the Carbon dioxide, water, Sugar & oxygen story….. Physicists can discuss pigments and light wavelengths,..
    Biologists can hunt for chloroplasts… but I’d rather just start with a leaf..and see where the questions/discussions lead.

  • Numbers and big they can get and how long it takes to count to a million. Spotlight, earth globe, tennis balls, ping pong ball. Show how night and day and the seasons occur. Why the poles dont get none. Follow the planets. Telescope. Ice freeze. Water boil. 4 degree water sinks. Prism. Ohms law. F=ma.

    Life is cruel. How lucky you are here at all. How lucky you are antibiotics exist.

    Make gunpowder. Soap bubbles. Electrolysing water. Volumes of gases produced.

    How to measure. Why do you measure. How good are you at it? How good is your measure. Accuracy and precision.

    Learning to gather data first. Hypothesise second.


  • Ross,

    This may be outside of the school-age setting but re,

    “Learning to gather data first. Hypothesise second.”

    While possibly good for a school age (?), isn’t there also a place for the opposite? As an example outside my own area, my understanding is that physics has often started with a hypothesis that was then tested. From what I gather (many/most/all? of) the major ‘discoveries’ in physics over the past ~200 years have been preceded by theoretical work suggesting them first. Theory can suggest some otherwise unexpected thing should be true, that can then be presented as a hypothesis to test, etc.

    Following that, I’d prefer that it be taught that there is a place for both data first and hypothesis first. The common bottom line is the testing, after all.

    (This is a bit of a pet grumble of mine, partly as I sense some researching pooh-poohing the idea that computational biology, or more widely theoretical biology, can raise useful hypotheses. I’ll spare you the full spiel on that!)

    • Grant,

      Good point, I would prefer students viewed data gathering and hypothesis forming as a cyclic, iterative process, with each activity helping to redefine the other
      e.g. more data helps decide whether to reform/reject/or continue with a hypothesis, while the reconsideration or modification of a hypothesis helps one reconsider what type of data/experiment would to appropriate to either disprove or provide additional evidence for a hypothesis.

      If all students could grasp this concept alone I think we would be doing well.

  • The classic case in point is Rutherford shooting 18 inch shells at tissue paper and having Geiger( or was it Marsden?) have a gink at the full 360 degrees to see where they bounced to. Now that is classic data gathering. But yes, someone had the idea that there was something deep deep in there but to find that space practically empty was, well, shocking.

    Kepler using that equisite star data of Tyco’s who was doing nothing but measuring and figure his laws out. Beautiful.

  • I think Esther has hit the nail on the head with “…I’d do it by contexts, e.g. Climate-change and energy, earthquakes, imaging, computing, great ideas…” Science is all around us, and by looking into any of these examples you can grasp a lot of the scientific ‘concepts’ in the science curriculum, and it is topical and obviously relevant. Trying to teach science with boxes such as physics, chemistry etc. is difficult, robotic and often boring.

    I did a teaching diploma in ~2007 (we were still using the old curriculum documents) and going into it I was most excited about science teaching (and even did an extra level 2 uni paper to be able to do it) out of my subject areas of science (physics), maths (calculus) and social studies (geography). But when I left I was least interested in teaching science, because the curriculum was overwhelming in volume of topics to cover, which left you with very little room to move. I also felt there was a lack of support for teaching science in a modern, exciting and engaging way.

    Disclaimer: It should be said that I didn’t enjoy my teaching diploma as a whole and didn’t go on to do teaching in any form! But if I did I think it would have been in mathematics – more room to move in the curriculum, and the urgent need to increase numeracy skills resulted in more support for engaging learning. Now what we need is the same for science…

  • Practical science topics are a way to engage students. Covering weather, photosynthesis and environmental concerns is a way to get students interested in science and how it applies to the world around them. Since students today are deeply involved with technology at a young age, they would also be fascinated to explore the connection between science and the development of new technologies.