Science for consumers

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The Massachusetts department of education (DESE) is under way with a revision to the state’s science standards. Context here is that we have had strong science standards in place since 2006, which served as the basis for students preparing for 2010—the year in which the new MCAS Science test became a graduation requirement. There’s nothing wrong with a review—the state is supposed to update its standards every few years, and to improve them. I wish as it did, the state would also inch up the passing grade for the MCAS—deliberately but so that over a five-year window, the passing grade was more like 230 than 220. It would be more meaningful. And the kids can do it.

But it’s time to strap on your seat belts, or more like grab your popcorn, because here we go again: We are going to see the sequel to last year’s film about the importance of softer science-lite skills. As I noted yesterday, the DESE is revising the state’s science frameworks, which are among the best in the country, with an eye toward focusing more time on “science literacy.” I gave four reasons why that’s not a good idea.

But just what is a focus on “science literacy.” It just so happens—such coincidences—that one of the key documents that the DESE is using as a reference was released on July 19, almost to the day one year after Massachusetts dropped its nation-leading standards. Late last month, the National Research Council, issued its Science Frameworks, which it developed with—wait for it—Achieve Inc. The NRC/Achieve science framework is to “serve as the foundation for the creation of Next Generation Science Standards” and

will be used as the basis for a state-led effort to create new K-12 science standards. Achieve will manage the process for developing the new standards.

In the presser, Mike Cohen of Achieve, Inc. underscored how the framework prepares students for the economy:

In order to be scientifically literate and compete for the jobs of the future, our students must have a rigorous science education. This Framework is an important step in making sure all students have the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education and meaningful careers.

But will it? Or will it simply prepare Americans to be good little technology and science consumers? That’s the view of a source I trust—Ze’ev Wurman. Ze’ev is a Silicon Valley tech executive who has played a significant role in the math standards debates in California and around the country, and also served in 2010 on the California Academic Content Standards Commission that reviewed the adoption of Common Core for California. Importantly he scoured the entire 280-page framework document.

fewer and fewer American students are interested, or able, to enter demanding science and engineering programs. In 2006 the fraction of foreign undergraduate students in engineering reached 45%, in computer science 44%, and in physical sciences 40%. In 2007, the fraction of foreign students receiving doctorates in science and engineering was even larger: 62% in engineering overall, 73% in electrical engineering, and 57% in computer science. (NSF S&E Indicators, 2010)

Wurman “was excited when the National Research Council recently published its new Framework for K-12 Science Education,” the goal of which is to prepare students to

actively engage in science and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of each fields’ disciplinary core ideas. [p. ES-2]

But as Wurman looked for the framework to live up to its claim that it would “capture students’ interest and provide them with the necessary foundational knowledge in the field” and thereby increase the nation’s competitiveness in the sciences, he noticed “something odd” in the document’s 280 pages of lefty prose”:

The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science.

…After singing paeans to the importance of mathematics, it only expects students by grade 12 to be competent in “recognizing,” “expressing,” and “using simplemathematical expressionsto see if they make sense,” but not in actually solving science problems using mathematics…

One searches in vain for words like “algebra” in the text. Instead one finds only one (!) instance of something called algebraic symbolism, which allows taking “relationships [that] are expressed using equalities first in words” and changing them into “algebraic symbols—for example, shifting from distance traveled = velocity multiplied by time elapsed to s = vt.” Incidentally, this is the single equation in the whole 280 pages of the science framework. One should not even bother to search for mentions of calculus or trigonometry. Only statistics and computer applications seem to have a place in this strange document.

All of this made me think. Before Lavoisier’s quantitative approach there was no chemistry, only Alchemy. Before Newton’s invention of calculus, physics was more a craft than a science. Mathematics has been inseparable from science for the last 300 years, and has been largely responsible for the world we live in. Yet here we have a “21st century” science framework for our students that effectively ignores mathematics.

I went back and re-read the document to make sure I didn’t miss anything. And, indeed, I did not. Turns out it was staring at me right there on the first page:

“The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology. [p. ES-1, emphasis added]”

The framework, like our state DESE’s effort to underscore “science literacy” is not aimed at “doing science.” It’s aimed at, as Wurman puts it, “science appreciation” and creating “good consumers of science and technology” rather than scientific inquiry.

Massachusetts’ new science standards, which will be released in late 2012, are sure to reflect state Ed Commissioner’s emphasis on science literacy:

“We’re more and more focused on what the literacy demands of science are,” Chester said, adding the basic math and reading foundations of science are “often taken for granted.”

Benjamin Franklin was ever the optimist in comments such as

The rapid progress true science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon: it is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter.

When it comes to science, Poor Richard was right to note that “well done is better than well said.”

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.