The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Science is an integral part of culture.  It's not this foreign thing, done by an arcane priesthood.  It's one of the glories of the human intellectual tradition."....  ...Stephen Jay Gould.

Commentary of the Day - June 13, 2002:  Wow Them With Wonder, but Keep Your Politics at Home!  Guest commentary by Pamela Matlack.

I am standing in the Gulf of Mexico, water lapping at my chin, holding on to one end of a 20-foot seine net, with two 4th graders clinging to my back and shoulders, urging me deeper to "catch more fish."  At the moment this is the very best place for me to be because, were I on dry land, I would be throttling the County Science Teacher.

My suburban Philadelphia elementary school was run by Quakers who believed that, in order to properly shape young minds, it was necessary to cram them as full as possible with interesting information.  This included daily doses of real science, everything from anthropology to zoology.  By the time I had finished the 6th grade I possessed a nodding acquaintance with Newton, Euclid, Einstein, Copernicus, Marsh and Cope, Darwin, Maya ruins, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.  I knew where to look for dinosaur fossils, knew what an arboretum was, and had an intimate knowledge of both the Franklin Institute and the Museum of Natural History.

Back then every teacher in our small school could adequately demonstrate a working knowledge of the scientific method.  Today, according to a recent National Science Foundation poll, 70% of American adults not only don't understand scientific method, they still believe in tarot cards, astrology, ESP, and communicating with the dead!  What is going on here and where have we failed in educating our children?

Let's go back to my recent immersion in the warm Gulf waters to get a glimpse of a "bad science" Science Field Trip.  I had been pressed into field-trip service by my mother, a teacher of special children at a southwest Florida public elementary school.  Her kids are "special" because of various and sundry behavioral problems, problems that make them difficult to handle in a regular classroom situation.  Almost to a child, they are bright, interested in learning, and highly motivated to please; they just get a little antsy at times and have somewhat reduced attention spans.

Due partly to a reluctance to endure several hours in a hot bus full of hyper kids but mostly to a desire to check out the field trip site ahead of time, I arrived at the beach well in advance of the students.  After examining the mangrove forest and dune access to the water, I wandered back to the ranger station to await the arrival of the nascent young scientists.

While waiting for the school bus I met up with a volunteer from the Nature Conservancy and the County Science Teacher.  In a few minutes of seemingly idle chat I discovered that this man who was entrusted with the scientific education of the entire complement of county 4th graders, was more interested in imprinting his political agenda on their tender minds than in instilling tidbits of knowledge that would allow them to reach their own conclusions.  I expected bias from the Nature Conservancy guide but he turned out to be more interested in being a pal to the kids, telling them repeatedly about all the "kewel" fish they were going to see!

The study of beaches and adjacent geomorphic features was my area of expertise when I did science for a living.  In the course of my research I repeatedly butted heads with planners, developers, and elected officials, when presenting them with organized data in order to facilitate wise decisions about land usage.  One need only stroll along a Florida beach today to see the effect of my efforts.  My collection of "I told you so's" grows larger with each passing year and hurricane season.   I am possessed of more than a casual acquaintance with the intricate series of problems associated with the busy crossroads of land/water/air/humans that we call the beach.

Imagine then, the shock and horror I experienced, standing on the boardwalk, surrounded by eager shining faces, listening to a molder of young minds calmly informing them that the only reason the well fields in south Florida are failing, the Everglades drying up, Florida Bay dying, and stone crabs disappearing is because "bad" developers have bulldozed the dunes.  This statement was followed up with an exhortation to go home and tell their parents about it.  The teacher then segued into a short discourse on the importance of sea oats.  (Only sea oats, mind you.  Obviously all that other green stuff growing in the sand is of no importance and can be trampled with impunity.)  Such simplicity, such elegance of method, such tripe!  I watched in dismay as ten pairs of shining eyes glazed over and the restless fidgets began.

Before I could start a fuss I was whisked away by Parent and Assistant to supervise the seine netting exercise.  In retrospect this was certainly the wisest course of action possible.  Nothing would have been accomplished by me engaging the County Science Teacher in heated debate.  It was not, after all, our goal to teach them how to argue but to introduce them to the wonders of beach and benthos.

Which brings us back, yet again, to how I happened to be neck deep in the Gulf.  I can say, with pride, that the ten children under my tutelage went home wiser and somewhat savvy in the ways of conducting a biological field survey.  They discovered there was a whole lot more to the beach than sun, sand, and water.  Hopefully some of them were bitten by the "bug" and will want to learn more about the wonders around them.

It is my fervent hope that my encounter with the County Science Teacher was anomalous and not indicative of a national trend.  However, I suspect that he is probably closer to the norm than the exception, based on how poorly American students are doing in science, generally.

I believe that all of us with scientific training, whether it be formal schooling or self-taught avocation, have a responsibility to try to inspire future generations of scientists.   We need to bequeath the gift of wonder to the youngsters we encounter and to keep any political agendas we harbor out of the teaching environment.  If each of us can inspire a single student to pursue a scientific career or just to cast a skeptical eye at Miss Cleo, perhaps we can somewhat mitigate the sorry state of science education in our schools.  If things are left as they are, the next NSF survey will surely find an even higher percentage of our citizens giving credence to alien abduction and nightly chats with their late Aunt Alice.

© 2002 Pamela Matlack
Pamela Matlack formerly was a geomorphologist specializing in tropical and sub-tropical coastlines.  She now devotes her energy to writing humor, gardening, sculpting, and teaching heritage crafts to adults.  Her humor and instructional articles have appeared in various e-zines and local publications.  Her professional writings have graced the glossy pages of Geology and other  journals.

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