EdFix Episode 27: Why Science Education is More Important than Most Scientists Think

BRUCE ALBERTS:
For every scientist who cares about the future of science and the future of society to rethink how they teach their, their science course.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Welcome to EdFix your source for insights about the promise and practice of education brought to you from the campus of the George Washington University. I'm Michael Feuer, the Dean of the Education School here, and it is a special treat and honor for me today to introduce a colleague, friend, mentor Dr. Bruce Alberts. Dr. Alberts is a biochemist by training and by profession, and is currently the Chancellor's Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, where he returned after serving two very successful and productive terms here in Washington, as the President of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Alberts is the author of probably the preeminent textbook in the field of cell biology and biochemistry. It's called The Molecular Biology of the Cell. Bruce Alberts, welcome to EdFix. It's wonderful to have you with us. I want to start with a question about current events. You have been involved at the hazardous intersection of science, science education, and science policy for a long time. Would you say that trust in science has eroded? And if so, do you have some sense of what's happening and why that might be?

BRUCE ALBERTS:
Thank you, Michael. I should start by saying I learned everything. I knew about education from Michael and the other staff at the National Academies for 12 years, where we published something like 150 reports on, on education. I had to read all of them and I appreciate the fact that you're trying to make the world aware of the importance of really improving education, as much as we can. I've been on the war path for the last year, because I think all scientists, but me especially have been shocked and surprised about what happened in the United States to truth. I mean, to the insistence that the real world of evidence and logic is the way we want to live our lives is against living in a mythical, magical world of make believe. And for any democracy, it's a disaster. If people don't value truth, and don't think like scientists do based on evidence and logic.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
And there's just so many ways in which our society has suffered in the last few years from the fact that they don't really understand science and where scientific judgment should come from. And I thought they did. And the vaccine situation is just such an obvious example of failure of science to make science education, failure of science education, I blame making people understand where scientific opinions and scientific judgements such as vaccines are safe. Where do these come from? And how do we distinguish that from, you know, the internet spread belief that horse medicine is better than vaccine for curing COVID. We know from science, all these important facts about the world that need the be taken in an account to make the world a humanity, a successful. I'm a science fan, but, but, but, you know, if you look back when science really began with the formation of the Royal Society in the 17th Century they set up certain rules for how scientists behave.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
You got to make all your methods available and published and so on and set up things like peer review to try to control the bad aspects of human behavior and people fooling themselves and who would've thought that system of science, the standards that we share knowledge and publish and have certain traditions and parts of the culture that are essential to make the community work, who would've thought that would've led to such striking advances in our knowledge and changed humanity so much for the better. I mean, our lives is so much improved by all the knowledge about the world that we be gained from scientific investigation. It's sort of a miracle that it turned out that way, and yet people don't appreciate. And, and I say, they don't appreciate, it's not their fault. It's because of the way we educate them, that the scientific endeavor is so important for humanity.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
You used the word failure in education, and I want to just press you on whether it's really a matter of not having done a good job teaching our young people, content knowledge about science or process knowledge about science, or whether there's something else that we have missed in the communication of science to the general public.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
So, you know, I think it's very hard to change adults. So just telling adults facts doesn't work, but children, we have to do it through an education system that starts in kindergarten and continues through college. And, and I look at it as inoculating humanity against, magic, adopting magical thinking that is so dangerous. And that means that they have to understand how science works. We can't run the world that way. It's just too dangerous. So we have to think about science education as a way of primarily of enabling adults to understand how scientific knowledge originates in what science is and how the community of scientists produces something that's so much more than any one scientist can produce. I think that's been totally, almost totally, overlooked in science, even in the latest standards, we talk about scientific practices and that's great.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
It's I think the new standards and the next generation science standards are big improvement over the ones that we did in 1996. But I think it, those standards, which were developed more than a decade ago, were developed at a time where we didn't realize this problem that we now realize. And so we need to think about not just teaching kids, how you do experiments and how scientists analyze data, but really the bigger thing about how the individual work of thousands of scientists is combined to create such consensus judgements that are much stronger than what any one scientist can discover in their lab. That is the community effort of science that produces reliable knowledge is not just about how you do experiments. It's how you do peer review, how you do right review articles and how the community deals with, uncertainty and why we can't ever be, honest, if we're going to be honest scientist, we cannot say we're a hundred percent sure of anything, because we know from the past that things change.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
And, and even say the consensus on climate change, we have to be open to new explanations, but, 99.9% of all scientists now agree, I think that humans are causing this problem. And there's always going to be some scientist who disagrees that's the way a scientist gets famous by challenging the convention. But most of those challenges turn out to be false. I remember when I was a young student, the Watson and Crick model of the DNA double helix was, just been discovered and validated by a series of different experiments. And then there was a scientist who claimed no DNA was four stranded. And, people had to pay attention to him. You know, DNA is actually two standard, but, the fact that somebody was challenging that made people work harder to think about whether they could possibly be wrong.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
And that's an important part of science. But doesn't mean that the people who say, DNA could be four stranded, deserve equal weight to the people who say it's two stranded. Just so anyway, we have to understand why it is that you could always find a scientist who will disagree with the consensus and why the consensus on the other hand is by far the most reliable way to base society action, societal actions on. And of course, that's what the Academy does, the best. We set up committees with a wide range of people who have different expertise and try to reach a consensus judgment on, you know, how much arson they can drink in water is okay. Or thousands of other issues like that. And so the academy reports, which are all of which are now available for free online as PDFs, something like 10,000 of them now, and all searchable, that's a great source of reliable knowledge about the scientific consensus.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
Yet, what fraction of the American public knows that? I mean, they, almost nobody. So, so we have to try to teach young students and college, every college science class, I would say, should teach people about how they could distinguish between misinformation and valid scientific information, because you know, the other big change is the social media and the internet, which is really demanding that people be much more sophisticated about how they think about what they hear and what they read. And so this whole issue of learning how to distinguish between misinformation, disinformation, and valid information is an important part of modern education, which I'm sure your school is involved in. And we know that actually, that should be a part of science education as well. So how are we going to cover all this new stuff when we have all these facts that we increasingly every year, want students to learn more about the, all the parts of a cell that's my field, or, the wonderful things we just discovered about DNA replication and things I worked on for 30 years?

BRUCE ALBERTS:
Well, I think that scientists have to give up on that stuff. I don't think myself, but a biology one course in college should have the, even, even that course should have the students know all the parts of a cell. I mean, that'd be nice if we had time for that. And we do it almost in every biology, one course that is taught, but, but I would argue that this other material is much more important and that we have to give up some of this content, what really should be in it. And we have to make room for these other aspects of science education, which is teaching every adult and preparing every adult to be able to distinguish between misinformation and real science.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
But what I want to ask you is from the days when you were teaching those Princeton undergraduates, and you now say, looking back that you were giving them too much, too much factual regurgitation kind of knowledge. I think over the years, the science of learning has actually changed also. And to some extent, I think the current science of learning has been influenced by your work in science learning. And to some extent, your work is influenced by what you know, from your study of the cognitive aspects of learning. Doesn't that sort of combine to lay out an agenda for the ways we might be reforming science education at all levels?

BRUCE ALBERTS:
The Academies have published wonderful reports. And one of them aim specifically at college professors, here's how you should try to change your teaching. And I would like every college professor to think about that deeply. And now really we're at a tipping point, I hope because the pandemic has taught us in the last two years has taught us the danger of irrational non-scientific thinking. So we have to try to inoculate students to understand how science reaches reliable knowledge and why they should care. We have realized partly because of the pandemic, but partly because of other events that we need to do a great deal better in teaching to diversify the profession. We've learned that the standard way of teaching has been, we knew this already weeding out so many people from science and that if you teach with some of these new methods, the people who we want to get into the profession will be much more attracted to science.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
So we could diversify the profession by changing to, modern pedagogies. There is this huge driving force now for every scientist who cares about the future of science and the future of society to rethink how they teach their, science course. I'm talking about really first year science courses in college, because those are all taught by scientists. So it's directly under our control. They also set the model for what sciences thought of as at lower levels. You know, if memorizing every part of a cell is critical for biology one, then it gets part of AP biology, part of high school biology, and even middle school biology, because in the state of California, 1998, or so they California made state standards that had all the parts of the cell in it for 12 year olds. And I was at the academy at the time protesting that, but unsuccessfully, but at any rate, what we do at college sets the definition of what science education is.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
So, instead of blaming everybody else, which is often what we do for the failure of American education at lower levels, we should start thinking about the importance of what we do in college to teach science for changing everything else. That's where the future teachers will take biology one, and they're going to teach biology like they were taught. It's where the parents will define for themselves what science is, if it's just memorization of facts, that's that are boring, why should they respect it? That's where they learn that science is a dogma scientist, and they could ignore it.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Some of our listeners may not actually be as familiar with the National Science Standards and what that whole process was all about in getting us to that, even to the point where we have books called The National Science Standards, which are intended as, and here, I want you to fill in the rest of the sentence. These are not actually curricula. These are guides to, and it would be great for you to unpack the meaning of standards when it applies to something like science education.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
Well, in 1989, the governors who were the governors of United States, the 50 governors were meeting in Clinton, was in charge and he was then governor of Arkansas, and they made a request that national guidelines be produced for education. And education of course, in the United States is a state prerogative, so it had to come from the governors. So these guidelines were designed to be voluntary guidelines that states could use if they wanted to, but they were crying out for help, basically the governors to improve education through guidelines of how we should think about science, education, history education, math education, and so on, and the academy got assigned and got funds from the federal government to produce the first ever national science education standards. And it was a huge effort, but, but basically we had to fight many things. We, we had to have bring together all these teachers and education researchers with scientists and these people hadn't interacted productively before, but it was a great exercise.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
And what we did was we laid out in various chapters, what was the essence of biology in the content and what was the essence of physics that every student should know at different grade levels, elementary, middle school in high school, but more importantly, we stress the importance of teaching scientific inquiry, active learning by students. And that part of the standards, those are, the guidelines. You know, the students should be actively learning, doing inquiry while they're learning these, this, this content. And we also had a chapter on assessment, all these things, they were just guidelines. Here's how you should think about content. Here's how you should think about assessment and so on. And I think it made a difference, and those have been succeeded now by what's called the next generation science standards, because of course you have to keep on revising those and they need to be updated again, of course, every 10 years they should probably be redone.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
The problem with them is I saw this in San Francisco cause I was working with the San Francisco schools. After I came back from the academy, the standards are, are taken like a bible. They're meant to be a help to teachers, not a straight jacket for teachers. And unfortunately, the testing systems and the administrators of states and districts too often have made this a straight jacket for teachers. And, my big issue, which we haven't discussed at all, is that after working for years on this problem: I had major programs at the San Francisco school district. I had a big NSF grant, to reform science teaching in elementary school. That was a five year grant before I went to the academy.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
But basically, I've had a lot of experience with school districts, with Suzanne Donovan SERP - the strategic education partnership. I've interacted a lot with many different districts. You know, I've concluded that education is so complicated. We can't do it top down. And that important/critical issue for improving education is setting up systems that give the best teachers a real voice in what happens in K-12 systems. And we really failed to do that. You know, it's not the way school districts are run, but you know, the school district is run top down. The, school board makes decisions based on almost nothing. They're all running from political office in San Francisco and the system needs the wisdom of the best teachers to be part of the mix. And I just don't understand why this does not become a major push for the teacher unions.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I want to get to this. So you use the word inquiry, how do you actually get the ideal of open inquiry into a curriculum?

BRUCE ALBERTS:
Well, what we were talking about was not open inquiry, but guided inquiry. Really outstanding curricula was prepared for elementary school and now for middle school as well, but they all require teachers who really are comfortable with science and understand science. And, this is a big failure of many teacher preparation schools. I'm sure not yours, but to really give teachers some real experience with science, so they're comfortable guiding students through these curricula that have been developed. The problem in the United States is we develop great curricula, but that's not designed to deal with the fact that we have teacher limitations. And so, so many of the teachers I can see, even in San Francisco are just uncomfortable teaching with these new, very well developed curricula that actually San Francisco has bought them all science kits. Many of the cases they're just sitting in boxes in the school room, science education in elementary school should be much larger part of the whole curriculum.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
The Academy studies suggested it is 20 hours a week or something like that on average in the United States. Crazy. I don't see why science and math education, shouldn't be a lot of the same amount of time, so much more time is a lot of the math education than science education. When you have a good teacher teaching science, it teaches everything: it teaches math, it teaches writing, it teaches reading and such a potential way of improving our education. But that requires teachers who've been prepared to who are not afraid of science, who understand that they don't have to have all the answers. Even the best science materials can be taught like cooking. When the teacher doesn't understand the science their self, just has them run through the exercise.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
So active science is not just mixing things and measuring things. It's letting the kids struggle with problems and some of the problems they're going to be unfamiliar to the teacher. The teacher has to be willing to say, I don't know, let's look it up on the internet. Let's try to figure out what the answer is. And unless the teacher has that, confidence and ability science education could be pretty deadly even with a science kit. So at any rate in inquiry means, guiding kids enough so that they not lost, but they encounter lots of problems that they have to solve that are within, just within their capabilities. Everybody wants to be challenged just at the right amount. You challenge somebody too much, they give up, you tell us them, not at all, like we do memorize, just everything. That's just so boring they just don't lose any interest in the subject and don't learn anything. Education, I don't have to tell you this, is a great art. It's, such a fascinating discipline. If I wasn't doing cell biology, I'd like to be doing education research.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Before we conclude Bruce. I wonder if you could just say a little bit about your own background.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
I went to college to be a medical doctor like everybody else, knowing that and being told, at least I could use science for medicine. And I only be learned about science really when I was so fed up with the afternoon laboratory courses at my university was Harvard University. And I was for three years, every afternoon, three or four afternoons a week in a three hour lab associated with some premed course or another chemistry, physics, or biology. And I decided I couldn't take these labs anymore. Could I get out of the lab and still take the physical chemistry course? Because the lab was so dreadfully horrible. And I've only learned then in my junior year that I could work in a research lab instead. And so I've been a big advocate for getting everybody a chance, every undergraduate in freshman year, the chance to be associated with the research lab. I've been a big critic of the standard labs, the cooking labs that are associated with so many of the introductory courses, which I don't think are doing anything with getting people bored and are great ways of resources, but that's something you could fix at GW yourself.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
We're going to get to work on it. And I just want to thank Dr. Bruce Alberts for being with me today. If you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe to the EdFix podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, iHeartRadio Player, FM and elsewhere. This work is made possible because of the superb leadership and production skill and directorial talent of Touran Waters, our executive producer and director. We have a website EdFixPodcast.com, Bruce Alberts.

BRUCE ALBERTS:
Well, thank you, Michael.