Limiting Science Education: Limiting Ourselves

Limiting Science Education: Limiting Ourselves

This essay, by James Chan, age 17, is one of the Top 12 winners of our Sixth Annual Student Editorial Contest, for which we received 10,509 entries.

We are publishing the work of all the winners and runners-up this week, and you can find them here as they post. Excerpts from some will also be in the special Learning print section on Sunday, June 9.


Limiting Science Education: Limiting Ourselves

We’ve landed men on the moon, mapped out our genomes, and split atoms, but for the past 20 years, nobody knew why two grapes produced plasma in a microwave. Energy is conserved. Carbon’s atomic number is six. The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell … Throughout my entire high school career, I’ve heard all of these facts presented to me, but never once have I felt as intrigued as I have from this bizarre phenomenon. Welcome to the world of high school science education.

Sadly, my experience mirrors that of others my age. In a New York Times article, when asked to name a change they would make to science classes, high school students across the nation replied, “I’d rather understand than just memorize formulas” and “I’d like more hands-on projects where I would learn something about what I’m doing instead of just memorizing things from a textbook.”

For certain, memorization has its uses; repetition can help students master fundamental skills and retain key pieces of information. “Students cannot apply what they understand,” William R. Klemm, a professor at Texas A&M University, notes, “if they don’t remember it.” But too often does repetition end up replacing more meaningful forms of learning. In science education especially, it ends up stifling curiosity and creativity, deterring people from science careers and opportunities.

The truth is that most students in today’s schools are rarely exposed to the limits of our knowledge. As a result, many are led to see science as a source of clear, well-defined answers, that every possible question has been solved. They see the rigorous process of inquiry, experimentation, and analysis as two-sentence lines in a textbook. Rote memorization discourages skepticism while encouraging blind, unquestioning acceptance of facts.

Yet these qualities are the opposite of what science embodies. Science is not complete, but ever-evolving. Science is not linear and static, but sporadic and dynamic. Most importantly, science is a process that embodies tackling uncertainty head-on, asking questions that push the boundaries of knowledge. Each answer is never final, but instead provokes new questions that demand new answers. If we never present these aspects of science, how can we excite our students and inspire curiosity? How can we expect innovation and discovery from our students if all we teach them is how to cram?

The solution? Schools must embrace and teach not only what is known, but what is unknown. The role of science teachers is not just to rattle off facts like a broken cassette player, but to challenge students to search beyond what is taught in class. If we continue to teach just memorization, we misrepresent science and ultimately fail to inspire the next generation of innovators.

Works Cited

Dreifus, Claudia. “Ideas for Improving Science Education.” The New York Times, 2 Sept. 2013.