Friday, July 25, 2008

Progressive Science Education

A number of factors propelled changes in science education when I first entered teaching. One important event was Russia’s launch of the satellite Sputnik 1. I vividly recall viewing Sputnik and its rocket launcher crawling across the pre-dawn sky on October 4, 1957--a Russian vehicle flying over the United States! I drove to my college classes that morning more thoughtful than usual. Tensions were high, our government’s embarrassment was palpable, and the fallout was immediate: we needed to beef up our science education to close the gap between our countries!

Other factors contributed to the push for curriculum improvement. After the discovery of the DNA molecule and its structure early in the 1950s, knowledge of genetics began to explode and important discoveries in cosmology were made. The advent of entertainment technology such as television increased public curiosity about events and accessible knowledge. Biology and physics curriculum innovations, such as BSCS biology and PSSC physics, captured the imagination of science educators. Both of these inquiry-based programs helped revolutionize science instruction. Students were led to think about science processes in addition to a compendium of facts.

Personally, I was impacted by a workshop in 1968 on a course entitled "Introductory Physical Science" (IPS). Our district began to offer this course to our 8th and 9th graders. A spin-off of PSSC physics, its many lab-based activities gradually led the students to discover, experimentally, the reality of "atomic theory." Those submicroscopic particles were not merely knowledge lifted from the pages of a textbook; they were real, as our experiments and logic demonstrated. Some parents objected that there were not enough "book facts" on which to base an exam. Perhaps that was true. However, deficiencies in any course offering in our schools were always supplemented by enthusiastic, creative teachers filling gaps in the subject matter.

Public school science instructors have abundant opportunities to encourage productive learning. Even in the realm of secular education, Christian teachers should promote the qualities of common grace--God’s gifts to all humanity. The Apostle Paul, in I Thessalonians 5:21, encouraged believers to “test,” “prove,” and “examine” their beliefs. Curiosity and skepticism lead us to discovery and knowledge of God’s plan for both the universe and our lives.