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WHAT DOES SCIENCE MATTER TO ME, AN ORDINARY PERSON IN 2015?

 Science is everywhere! Everybody needs science! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Science is everywhere!  Everyone uses science!  Everybody needs science!  (http://dr-monsrs.net) 

The general public is estranged from science and is afraid of scientific research (see: “On the Public Disregard for Science and Research” ).  This sad state is due to several interrelated causes: (1) very defective education of people about what science is and what research does, (2) a general decrease in the educational status, such that most adults feel they cannot possibly understand anything having to do with science or research, (3) the issuance of science news on TV and the internet as gee-whiz stories that are strictly for amusement, (4) scientists are viewed as some weird creatures wearing white coats in labs with lots of strange machines and computers, and, (5) almost nobody has ever met and talked to a real living research scientist.

Basic research, applied science, and engineering: what does each do?

The research work resulting in some new commercial product or an amazing new medical development typically arose through the work of quite a few different scientists and engineers.  Basic research starts this process by investigating the whys and wherefores of something; this seeks new knowledge for its own sake, irrespective of practical uses.   Applied research takes some basic findings and seeks to develop their practical usage by improving their qualities and capabilities; this seeks to expand knowledge so that some potential practical use (i.e., a product or process) can be derived.  Engineering development then pushes the progression of development further by making it economically feasible to produce, and commercially effective to sell, something that is new or better; this seeks to enable a new or improved commercial product to be manufactured and marketed.  The 3 phases of this process can take place within the laboratory setting of a university or an industrial research and development (R&D) center.  The entire process often takes years or decades to be completed. 

Why does scientific research matter to everyone? 

Ordinary people should feel emotionally attached to the progress of science and research, for several reasons.  First, the public pays taxes for the research enterprise, and therefore everyone has some interest in the success of these studies.  The basic research by scientists requires time, money, and good luck to be successful; the money from commercial profits or tax collections pays for all the salaries, supplies, and other essential research expenses.  Second, the applied research and engineering R&D efforts are entirely devoted to satisfying the expectation of some future usage by the public.  This anticipation is based upon the self-interest of numerous  people in the public concerning practical matters in their daily life (e.g., better communication, better treatments for medical ailments, cheaper transportation, cleaner environment, less work and time needed to do something, more widespread good nutrition, etc.). 

All people visit commercial stores, food markets, gasoline stations, sites for laundry and cleaning, etc.  During all these transactions, they are using the results of research and development by scientists and engineers, whether they realize this fact or not.  Naturally, devices and tools for daily life need to be modified, thus giving rise to development of improved commercial offerings; the wishes of the public, as well as the financial hopes of marketers, serve to encourage progress in technology.  When people realize that scientific research impacts literally everything in their daily life, then they will begin to understand what scientists do and to be more enthusiastic about science and research.  Modern science not only builds spaceships and manipulates atoms, but it also helps people to live and work in a more satisfying and healthy manner. 

Can better education solve the estrangement of people from science? 

Education must be remodelled so that all adults can comprehend the organization of the branches of science, what researchers and engineers actually do in their daily work, and, how  science is a vital part of life that has importance for everyone.  The divisions and subdivisions of science should be taught early, and should be explained with everyday examples.  If the public saw scientists as being fellow people, instead of as some bizarre creatures from another planet, they would be much better able to learn about real science rather than pseudoscience.   The stories about how some key discoveries actually were made by “famous scientists” should be taught in middle school.  Selected laboratory exercises in science classes should be given in middle schools and colleges, but with much more background so that students will see these as concrete examples of how science and research lead to some important practical event(s); this cannot be accomplished by meaningless exercises to memorize as quickly as possible before all is forgotten forever.  To see, touch, and hear scientific research in the real world, all students should have the opportunity in high (middle) school to visit a university or commercial research lab, along with the chance to ask questions and meet some actual doctoral scientists, graduate students, and research technicians working there.  

Instituting these changes could remove many of the problems the general public now has in  understanding and appreciating scientific research.  However, I do recognize that this approach is made difficult or even impossible because most teachers of science working today in high schools have themselves been maleducated.  If these teachers first will learn to be more fully knowledgeable and will develop the needed good understanding of their subject, then they will be able to show their students how science is involved with daily life and how interesting it is.  Some recent programs on the internet are aiming to improve the regard of the public for science, but because they are using an entertainment medium to present a serious subject they will continue to achieve only very limited success. 

Concluding remarks

Scientific research is everywhere in our daily life!  All that we consider to be facts originated through the activities of scientists and other research scholars.  It is not only prersent when a doctor prescribes a new medicine to alleviate some disease, but also is there when we eat a piece of dried pineapple or ride in a modern bus.  People must be better educated so they can recognize the giant role science and research have in our daily lives, and see the activities of scientists and engineers as contributing much to progress in all aspects of our activities as individuals.  

The main message is that science is for everyone, everybody uses science, and everyone needs science!  Science is both fascinating and mysterious, but it should not be feared.  It is time that ordinary people more easily recognize the very large roles scientific research and engineering developments play in their daily life! 

 

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A LARGE PROBLEM IN SCIENCE EDUCATION: MEMORIZATION IS NOT ENOUGH, AND IS NOT THE SAME AS UNDERSTANDING!

  Climbing the Path of Learning!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Climbing the Path of Learning!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Education about science is widely recognized as being quite deficient in the modern USA.  I have previously described some defects for science education aimed at levels from youngsters in grade school (see early article in the Education category on “What is Wrong with Science Education for Children?”), to graduate students in science (see earlier article in the Education category on “What is Missing in Today’s Education of Student Scientists?”), and to adults in the general public (see essay in the Education category on “Most of Today’s Public Education About Science is Worthless!”).  A very general educational problem in colleges and universities is how to teach a big chunk of knowledge to students who perceive no reason to study that subject beyond the requirement that a course be passed.  A recent article by Dawn C. Meredith and Edward F. Redish in the July, 2013 issue of Physics Today [1], along with subsequent comments submitted by other college teachers [2], deals with this problem for science education in Physics, and are highly recommended to science educators. 

            When college and university students take a required science course they quickly become hopelessly stuck in a learning rut where memorization constitutes their only skill for learning, and is used wrongly as a substitute for understanding.   I have seen this many times in my own classroom experiences as a faculty teacher; modern university students often excel at memorizing to such an enormous extent that they literally are majoring in this activity.  Both students and their teachers at all levels too frequently rely on memorization to learn and to teach!  Students end up deep in negative territory, by developing no understanding and a poor ability to use the memorized knowledge (e.g., to solve problems, discuss concepts,  ask questions, etc.); the hole gets even deeper when they later try to learn more advanced knowledge. 

Learning, Knowledge, Memorization, Understanding: What Exactly do These Key Educational Terms Mean? 

            Learning is internalizing knowledge into the brain, and occurs via schooling, observing, imitation, inspection, and experience.  Learning can occur at any time in the human lifespan; it can be regarded as pleasant or unpleasant by students, and sometimes is defective (e.g., 2 x 3 = 5) or incomplete (e.g., 2 x 3 = 3 x 2).  

            Knowledge is factual details about some subject (e.g., describing the parts of a flower), definitions of concepts and relationships, and, skills in some operation (e.g., speaking a new language, making a good weld, cooking a cheese omelet, etc.).  Knowledge might involve memorization, but more often it arises naturally from trial and error experiences, observation,  reading and thinking, and, figuring something out (i.e., problem solving). 

            Memorization is one type of learning.  It is a mental activity for adding material to the brain’s memory bank.  Memory commonly is produced by repetition, and can be subdivided into long-term or short-term storage.  Recall from the memory bank is rapid and typically requires little thought, calculation, debate, or understanding.  Memorization enables a quick response to frequently arising mechanical types of questions (e.g., What is 2 times 4?  What is the French word for “today”?  How many centimeters are in one inch?  How many strikes produce an out in baseball?).  Memorization provides all of us with many easy practical benefits for daily life, and also is very useful on the job. 

            Understanding follows from knowledge, and features the ability to interrelate different aspects of some subject, to use logic to extrapolate for new situations (i.e., it can produce a hypothetical explanation, either valid or invalid, for something not directly known), and, to derive generalizations and make predictions.  Understanding relies on learning how to think.  The ultimate widest understanding is termed “wisdom”. 

How do Memorization and Understanding Differ? 

            These 4 terms might be seen more clearly if we examine how people learn to speak a new (second) language.  Young children learn this mostly by imitating adult speakers and talking to their teacher.  For adults, the first task is to acquire some basic vocabulary; this initial learning most often is done by memorization (i.e., using flash cards, or a computer program).  Next, knowledge about basic rules for sentence structure and grammar are acquired; some of this learning is done by memorizing, but much also comes from imitation (e.g., listening to a recording of native speakers conversing).  Then, one puts that knowledge together and tries to speak and converse in the new language; the instructor teaches by providing correct examples and by identifying, correcting, and explaining mistakes.  Most speaking and listening skills are developed progressively by gaining experience with conversing in the classroom or talking with other speakers; this corresponds to increasing one’s understanding!  Understanding will be increased further by learning to read and write the same new language.  Upon finishing, one is said to have “learned” and to “know” the new language, and to “understand” how to use it; thus, memorization is seen here as a good tool for initial learning, but is not used so much at later times for acquiring increased understanding. 

            Knowledge and understanding are quite interactive.  In general, some basic knowledge exists before understanding begins and develops.  Knowledge frequently involves facts and definitions, but understanding involves concepts and reaches conclusions.  Memorization alone is not sufficient, because understanding also needs to be acquired.  Many students and teachers mistakenly feel that memorized knowledge can substitute for understanding, but this is almost never true.  If someone learns how to ice-skate and then memorizes all the official rules for ice hockey, that person still would not be able to play this sporting game very well because their understanding is much too limited.  They could gain the needed understanding by acquiring more experience with watching and playing in actual competition; that understanding will not directly involve any memorization, and can be acquired from individual efforts, other players, and a coach-teacher. 

Why is Memorization Now so very Popular with Science Students and their Teachers? 

            Unfortunately, memorization by students is emphasized, encouraged, and even worshipped by many teachers giving courses in science.  It also is enormously popular with university science students, who see memorization as being the only practical way to “learn” all the very numerous facts, figures, and concepts presented by textbooks and lectures; these intelligent students can see no other way to acquire all this large volume of materials that must be learned by the time of the next examination.  Clearly, these students only are building their short-term memory and do not realize the importance of either long-term memory or understanding. 

            The cardinal role of memorization in current science education is strengthened further in the minds of students because their teachers write examination questions that only are about facts and almost never necessitate making judgments, interpretations, reasoning, problem solving, and dealing with derived conclusions.  This mindless practice often is justified by teachers, using such explanations as, “It takes much too long to score written essay questions!”, “When we have a class size of 150 students, we are forced to use computerized scoring of multiple choice questions for our exams!”, and, “We have to use strictly factual questions from our textbook since many students unfortunately are not able to think, reason, write, or speak because of gross deficiencies in their previous education.” 

            In my opinion, all such reasons only are excuses for laziness by science teachers and their employers.  The misuse of memorization by students and instructors as being equivalent to understanding results in incomplete and inadequate education.  I know all of this is true because I myself have seen it, and have been forced to do it as a teacher.  In my classes I actually have seen modern science students not only memorize an entire big textbook, but also memorize all the diagrams and photographs.  When this task is finished, they then sincerely do believe that they “know everything”!  That assertion is contradicted by the fact that most cannot deal with new situations, derive relationships, provide examples for concepts, solve problems, conduct a discussion, or even answer simple questions involving a little thinking.  As soon as a course is completed, all of their memorizations disappear rapidly. Subsequent more advanced courses then must commence by first presenting review sessions on previous classroom subjects before they can start dealing with new topics.  The end result, which I consider to be very sad, is that these students are missing understanding and have been only very superficially educated. 

What is the Significance of Memorization for Science Education? 

            Most divisions and subdivisions of science feature numerous special terms, meaning that learning science is mostly equivalent to learning a new foreign language.  Thus, almost all science textbooks for any age level now provide a glossary and an extensive index section.  For learning science, memorization can give a basic vocabulary, a set of rules about relationships, definitions of some essential concepts, and some selected examples.  However, understanding demands much more extensive mental activity, and is usually accomplished by evaluating many more examples, some exceptions to general rules, problem solving, analyzing fundamental data, discussing alternative interpretations, and, evaluating predictions and extrapolations.  Science teachers provide guidance to expand students’ knowledge and to develop their understanding.  Without adding understanding, their ability to use knowledge remains very limited, and these students really have not learned much at all. 

            As one short example of memorization used validly in a biology science class for grade/grammar school, students might first memorize the main kinds of different forms of life.  That corresponds to memorizing a basic vocabulary.  For adding understanding to this initial knowledge, students can be shown videos of some living examples to learn a little about their habitat and distinctive attributes.  Quizzes will test memorization of essential terms and facts, but examinations only will test understanding by evaluating the ability of students to think and reason; exam questions will ask for correct placement of several previously undiscussed examples, identification of key differences between several selected life forms, and, explanation about why a dolphin is considered to be a mammal rather than a fish, etc.  A corresponding approach should be used for college and university science courses, but with a larger amount of material and more extensive scope. 

Concluding Remarks

            Memorization is good for education about science when it is used appropriately, but it can never be accepted as a substitute for understanding.  It should not be used as the only means for evaluating learning by students.  It is my hope that teachers, education specialists, school administrators, and other educators (e.g., parents!) will discuss this current problem and the possibilities for improving this aspect of science education.  I know that many teachers reading this piece will have their own viewpoints, concerns, and stories to add to those I have given here.  Trying to improve this problem in modern science education will require extensive efforts for discussions, planning, and actions.  Beyond pointing out the nature of this problem in science education, I can do no more here; it is up to all the teachers and educators working at the front line with students and administrators to actually initiate the needed changes.  I will be delighted if others will start the ball rolling (and, it must roll uphill!). 

            Questions, arguments, criticisms, and suggestions for Dr.M all will be welcomed via the Comments section below.  Please be sure to identify which level of education you are working with. 

 

[1]  Meredith, D.C., and Redish, E.F., 2013.  Reinventing physics for life-sciences majors.  Physics Today (July), 66:38-43.  (To purchase or rent this article on the internet, see:
http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/66/7/10.1063/PT.3.2046 ). 

[2]  Letters to the Readers’ Forum, 2014.  Notes on teaching physics to biologists.  Physics Today (April), 67:12-13.  (Click any of 4 individual titles on the internet at:
http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/67/4 ). 

 

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