Monday, October 16, 2006

Science Education

We’ve all heard in recent news that the United States is losing its edge with regard to science education. Part of the problem has been identified as a shortage of qualified science teachers which results in teachers without a scientific background being required to teach some science classes. Without sufficient exposure to science and mathematics, many students are not equipped to handle the challenges of a science major in college. I submit that there are two other educational issues that also are influencing the decline in science education.
One is the current focus on passing standardized tests, particularly those used to measure performance against the No Child Left Behind act. These tests currently only assess proficiency in mathematics and reading. Science is being left behind to spend extra time ‘teaching to the test’ to make sure that students show progress in the two test areas. Another problem is an insufficient emphasis on critical thinking skills throughout the school system. Too much time appears to be spent on memorizing facts to regurgitate on a test rather than having students use logic and reason to investigate why and how these facts came to be. I don’t blame the teachers in this process; I blame the system that has been established that encourages and perpetuates it.
Our gullibility to believe extraordinary claims without evidence is another problem. According to a recent Gallup poll, approximately one-third of Americans believe in such unsubstantiated ideas as ESP, psychics, ghosts, talking to the dead, and astrology. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars are spend annually on these pseudoscientific activities. Imagine what could be done if this money were channeled to education or some other worthwhile endeavor.
But where does this gullibility come from? I propose that a good portion comes from organized religion. When the vast majority of Americans are indoctrinated to believe in unseen, unverifiable deities and follow scriptures which reference ghosts, spirits, and demons for which no objective evidence exists, how much of stretch is it to extend this belief to other areas like those mentioned previously. Without a solid background in critical thinking and science, it becomes very easy for individuals to accept all kinds of unscientific claims without question. Fundamentalist sects continue to actively campaign to push unscientific, religious dogma like Intelligent Design into science classrooms even though their claims have been refuted repeatedly and the evidence for evolution, especially the molecular evidence, is scientifically sound. Similar issues can be found with stem cell research and end-of-life issues.
Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in the right to religious freedom. It is only when religion interferes with individual freedoms or in areas that are secular, like public education that I get concerned. And religion is only part of the problem. Until we structure our school systems to teach children not only what to learn, but how to learn through reason and critical thinking these issues will continue to be a problem even without the contribution of religion.

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