Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Teaching Real Science

By Alex Reisner

Are we teaching difficult concepts too early in the science curriculum?

Bruce Alberts is Editor in Chief of the journal Science, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco and was President of the US National Academy of Sciences from 1993 - 2005.

In his editorial of January 20, 2012, "Trivializing Science Education" he writes of a: "serious battle over the California State Science Education Standards that I and many others lost in 1998. As a result, for my grandchildren, “science” includes being able to regurgitate the names of parts of the cell in 7th grade, after memorizing terms such as Golgi apparatus and endoplasmic reticulum." He then continues: "Those of us who are passionate about science have thus far failed to get real science taught in most of our schools. Is it time to regroup with a different strategy?"

To continue, what Professor Alberts is on about is the persistence of teaching difficult concepts too early in the science curriculum, and they are taught with an overly strict attention to rules, procedure, and rote memorization. He then recalls his testimony of some 14-years ago, while serving as president of the National Academy of Sciences, when he unsuccessfully opposed such ideas as teaching the periodic table of the elements in 5th grade, and he cites several more examples of the rote teaching of "factoids":

When we teach children about aspects of science that the vast majority of them cannot yet grasp... we take all the enjoyment out of science... Tragically, we have managed to simultaneously trivialize and complicate science education. As a result, for far too many, science seems a game of recalling boring, incomprehensible facts.

Professor Alberts followed up with a second editorial on January 28, 2012 "Teaching Real Science". He notes that throughout 2012 Science will publish [including extensive material online] the "15 winning entries for the 2011 Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction... The winning modules were selected by a jury of more than 70 scientists and science teachers, and the subjects include physics, math, chemistry, geology, molecular biology, plant science, and evolution. Our goal is to make it much easier for teachers everywhere to provide their students with laboratory experiences that mirror the open-ended explorations of scientists, instead of the traditional “cookbook” labs where students follow instructions to a predetermined result."

Science's Editor in Chief then announces "a second year of the contest, now broadened to include engineering in addition to science, as well as courses at the advanced high-school level (see and while the material is "focused on college science teaching" comparable material can be developed even for preschool children. He cites the following example:

[A]n article published by the U.S. National Science Teachers Association, Growing Seeds and Scientists, which describes a science lesson for kindergarten students (age 5).† The students are presented with seeds of very different sizes and shapes—an avocado seed, a corn kernel, a marigold seed, and so on—mixed with objects such as pebbles and shells. For three times a week over the course of 6 weeks, the students explore the question, “How do we know if something is a seed?”, forming a “scientists' conference” to share ideas respectfully and learn from each other as real scientists might in a laboratory. Thus, after the students discover that they disagree about what makes an object a seed, the class is asked to come up with ways in which they might test their ideas, again modeling the behavior of scientists. Through experiments that they suggest and perform on their own, the class discovers which objects are seeds. Finally, the students dissect some of the seeds and examine them with a magnifying glass, finding the tiny embryo inside and its source of food. Compare this exercise with a more traditional approach, which would at best give the students a seed and step-by-step instructions on how to grow it, bypassing the scientific process of facing a question, proposing solutions, and testing one's theories.

And Professor Alberts' overreaching solution: "We should begin by teaching science to young children with a curriculum like that described in Growing Seeds and Scientists, which might require a total of only 20 hours of the school year. And we should aim for an education system in which every child is exposed to at least this many hours of high-quality science inquiry in each year of elementary and middle school, supported by carefully prepared science specialists. In this way, “science education” would be redefined, with a laser-sharp focus on gaining the scientific habits of mind that will be needed by everyone to successfully negotiate his or her way through our increasingly complex, crowded, and confusing societies."

Is it feasible in Australia with current K-12 teaching staffs?

Would it be possible to make it near universal were federal and state programs instituted and sufficiently resourced over the next decade to bring it to fruition? Without a doubt.

Will it happen?

The following is taken from the President of the Australian Academy of Science Suzanne Cory's address to the National Press Club on September 28, 2011:

School Education Minister Peter Garrett wrote to me to explain that he hoped Science by Doing and Primary Connections would continue to help advance science teaching and learning in Australian schools. But, he said, he had no discretionary funding available to make it possible. Mr Garrett urged the Academy to liaise with "other agencies".

Alex Reisner edits