Improving Scientific Literacy
The state of scientific literacy is an important factor in public support and understanding of public policy regarding technology and science. Science literacy not only fosters understanding, but is also critical in maintaining a healthy economic environment (Kennepohl, 2009). Kennepohl also pointed out “economists regard knowledge (particularly technical knowledge) as a factor of production. It is probably the most important factor in producing wealth…” (p. 3). This review seeks to uncover effective ways to not only increase this important economic factor, but also the general wisdom obviously inherent in the overall level of science knowledge. Educators are long past any arguments for an “inert knowledge” (Bella, Urhahne, Schanze, & Ploetzner, 2009, p. 350) rote or fact transmission-based approach to science education. It is clear to all that what is required is deeper understanding of the process by which science is advanced.
Teaching the Scientific Method (TSM)
Most classroom education in this process of scientific discovery has focused on teaching the discreet steps of the Scientific Method (TSM), these are: creation of hypotheses, design of experiments, collection of data, and formation of conclusions. This was epitomized by Kepler (1998) who described a science project undertaken in her classroom that grew spontaneously from her students’ observation that the glass of their classroom aquarium was developing a green tint that obscured the fish.
Poli (2011) described an experimental high school science curriculum using condoms to increase student engagement. Condoms, with their obvious sexual connotations, bought very well into the developmentally approrpriate and sexually fixated mindset of the adolescent students, resulting in very strong engagement. The students devised multiple experiments using condoms as the basic subject material, making comparative tests of the strength of various brands, and other quantitative measurements. These teachers demonstrated that the topic of the research is particularly important in the level of engagement of the pupils in the process.
Rosenthal (1981) pointed out how the work of Dewey stressed the creation of knowledge objects in the context of personal experience, and such experimental efforts in the classroom clearly met this criterion. Ludovic, Pol-Bernard, Carl-Philippe, and Safouana, (2005) described the use of a method known as APA for apprentissage par l’action, in French. They explained their decision not to translate this term thusly:
“‘Apprentissage par l’action’ would be ‘learning by doing’; but this translation could be ambiguous after the formalization in the early 20th century of ‘learning by doing’ by John Dewey as a key concept of his philosophy. The expression ‘learning by doing’ is still used by Dewey’s continuators.” (Ludovic, et al. 2005. p. 118)
They enumerate the important aspects of APA as: real simulation, managing failure, getting results, and the teacher’s role. Advantages described are: the greater integration of various scientific disciplines, increase in student freedom, and congruence with strongly supported techniques such as Dewey’s original learning by doing, problem-based learning, and student-centered learning (Ludovic, et al. 2005). All told, these works suggested that deepening the approach to science education would make it not only more consistent with modern pedagogy, but also make it more closely simulate the actual work and episteme of the scientific enterprise.
Many theorists argued that the simple teaching of these ordered steps of process of TSM could not really connect with the ultimate process of real scientific inquiry and have supported modifications of the TSM to become more inquiry-based. Bella et al. (2010) described the increasing focus in numerous pedagogies that are basically all inquiry-based. The authors described these varying definitions of inquiry-based learning and examined the differences among them as well as with similar methodologies such as project-based, problem-based, and discovery-based learning. All generally had a common approach that defied inert learning in favor of situate learning in which knowledge was constructed in the context of discovery, prior knowledge, and subsequent curiosity. They further explored the value of collaborative learning via a brief analysis of socio-constructivist theory as well as statutory and empiric evidence that favors collaborative methods. Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten (2008) argued that a model-based inquiry approach to scientific inquiry is a more epistemic and authentic approach, more closely matched to the process actually practiced by scientists, as opposed to the scientific method (TSM). They further argued that TSM might have persisted as the predominant pedagogic model of scientific inquiry partly due to its ease of integration into standardized curriculum. As constructivist-based paradigms proliferated, educators sought to integrate problem solving, discovery and project-based instruction into curricula via the use of TSM in the classroom. The authors’ primary objection to TSM instruction was that it failed to test ideas toward the development of meaning via deeper understanding of concepts, as opposed to the TSM process of just the testing of predictions.
Gyllenpalm, Wickman, and Holmgren (2010) explored teachers’ language in teaching science in the context of how the terms like experiment and hypothesis became conflated, thereby confusing the distinction between scientific inquiry and science teaching. Tang, Coffey, Elby, Elby, and Daniel (2010) supported the idea that the teaching of a rigid, ordered, step construction of the scientific method, diverts from the development of meaning, suggesting that authentic inquiry would result in better engagement.
However, these questions about teaching the scientific method had their roots in fundamental epistemological questions about the nature of knowledge. Johnson (2002) argued against a purely positivist reading of Dewey, while still upholding the empiricism in his philosophy. The key point was that scientific inquiry was a subset of inquiry in general, which Johnson interpreted Dewey as defining as a consummatory aesthetic experience. “One could conclude that, given Dewey’s insistence on the truly integral nature of an inquiry that is aesthetic, thinking in an aesthetic experience must be of the highest quality precisely because of its capacity for unification, for wholeness” (p. 9). Beyond the description of Dewey’s emphasis on immediate experience as described by Rosenthal (1981) Johnson further suggested that dividing knowledge into discreet components such as inference, causation, judgment, hypothesis formation, etc. defies the holistic nature of thought itself. “Experiential data” as he suggested Dewey might describe it, must be derived from experience, and the qualia of that experience cannot be apprehendable via scientific method (p. 9).
Science and the Aesthetic Experience
Expanding on these ideas, it was clear that teaching science not only transcended the learning of the inert knowledge of natural history, but even the more active processes of the typical scientific method. Lehrer (2008) analyzed the use and integration of art into scientific expression. Quoting Niels Bohr: “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry” (p. 8), Lehrer pointed out that Bohr believed that ordinary words couldn’t capture the data he was working with. Bohr was fascinated by cubist painters and argued that the receding certainty and unity predicted by neuroscientists and physicists in the height of the modern period, demonstrated the ineffable nature of some extremely complex scientific ideas. The author argued that art has always attacked the ineffable and struggled to make it tangible, and that this, as in Bohr’s revelation though cubism, may be the essence of approaching these most important theories.
Montenegro (2011) argued that reintegrating the artistic stance could add a more holistic and nuanced approach, which he hoped could lead to a renovation in scientific interest. Antonelli (2011) explored the historic use of design as a political tool from the pyramids to Beaubourg, summing up the outcome of a meeting organized by the World Economic Forum in Dubai in November 2009, in which 70 groups of experts from around the world were asked to contribute ideas to improve global institutions. That so-called Global Agenda Council on Design created a set of design principles suitable also for policymakers, based on the idea that “design is an agent of change that enables us to understand complex changes and problems, and to turn them into something useful” (para. 7). The author further described their conclusion in much broader and more universal terms, imagining art as a comprehensive stance that can naturally humanize our activities.
“What we advocate: design applied not as a mere aesthetic or functional tool but as a conceptual method, based on scenarios that keep human beings in focus, with the means consequently allotted in elegant, economic, and organic ways to achieve the imagined goals.” (Antonelli, 2011, ¶8)
Jones (2009) supported a similar concept of science infused with an artistic stance when used a surrealist party game called the Exquisite Corpse to ask a group of writers, scientists, school children, and others to make a drawing of what science meant to them. The Exquisite Corpse is a party game devised by surrealists in the early 20th century where a collaborative drawing is made with on a folded sheet of paper so that each addition by each subsequent artist is done in ignorance of the previous additions. Jones’ resulting images showed remarkable sophistication and insight into the process and products of science, despite the decidedly non-didactic and non-linear nature of the exercise. Montenegro (2011) argued that reintegrating an artistic stance into the exploration of science could add a more holistic and nuanced approach. This could lead to a renovation in scientific interest. All of these views of the connections between art and science offered a way to engage and stimulate not only the mind of the learners, but of the scientists themselves.
Science is one of the most essential of human endeavors, central in expanding a comprehensive understand of the natural world as well as in our economic development. However, the teaching of science has been superficial, even when done in keeping with a constructivst ideology. A fuller understanding of, and instruction in, the deeper ways that scientific inquiry helps make meaning of the world, especially when integrated with authentic aesthetic experience, becomes fundamental in the formation of our collective wisdom. Clearly then, science literacy must become a priority in any educational agenda, and it must be done fully integrated into this lofty process of enlightened understanding.
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