Why We Teach Science
By Peter A'Hearn, CASE President
It’s Springtime, and the school year is getting to feel a bit long in the tooth. Testing might be zapping the life out of the year, and students and teachers are starting to count days. It’s been a very rough few year(s), and summer is calling loudly.
It’s a good time to remind yourself why you teach science anyway. What is it that inspires you and gives you energy? Ask yourself that question and go to that well.
I suspect there are almost as many answers as there are science teachers. I’ve tried to come up with as many great reasons to teach science as I could. Many overlap and are interrelated. Maybe these are your reasons or maybe you have others. Let me know in the comments what inspires you, if you disagree with any of these, and if you have other reasons.
Fostering Wonder and Curiosity
Science starts with questions about the natural world and gives students the tools to answer them. This ability to wonder and ask questions is central to science and to an interesting life. The most important moment in a science classroom is when a student asks a question about nature. Sparking students’ wonder and curiosity is a great reason to teach science.
Preparing Students for Jobs
We know that careers in STEM fields are high paying and growing and that science is the “S” in STEM. Moreover, if you are teaching NGSS, the Science and Engineering Practices are explicit about using math and technology to “do” science and engineering. The fact that many students don’t get taught elementary science or have the opportunity to take advanced science classes in high school means their exposure to opportunities in STEM may be limited. The fact that access to science education is often tied to race, ethnicity, and family income makes this an equity issue. Giving kids access to possible STEM careers is a great reason to teach science.
Science tells us that the world and the universe is far larger and more amazing than what we can directly perceive. From the tinyness of cells and molecules to the vastness of space and time, to the story of evolution, the scientific world view is mind-blowing. Some people find this terrifying or depressing, but many people find it thrilling and inspiring. A department chair in a high school I taught at posted a sign in the lounge that said, “Every day, teach the wonders of the universe.” It was a good reminder about what makes teaching science great.
Inspiring Love of the Natural World
Some people come to science from a love of nature, and some come to a love of nature through science. Either way, science deepens an appreciation of the natural world and helps us see the need to love and protect it. Learning about the intricacy and connectedness of natural systems makes us appreciate them so much more.
I’ve heard it said that science and art teach people to be close observers. Both scientists and artists see detail that others miss. Learning to pay attention to detail opens a larger and more beautiful world that gets missed in everyday life. Learn to stop and smell the roses, but also to look at their structure, try to understand their function, their life cycle, etc…
You Love Science and Want to Share It
Research shows that teachers who are passionate about their subject can inspire that excitement in their students and that it has a positive effect on student learning. Be careful, though! Just because you think rocks are cool doesn’t mean your students will. (I learned this the hard way!) You need to start with wonder and curiosity and connect it to their lives and experiences.
A Rigorous Way to Find the Truth
Science teaches the thinking tools to make sense of the world. Science gives us methodical ways to answer questions and to resolve disputes. In a world where people can’t even seem to agree on basic facts, science gives us some ways forward. This doesn’t mean that scientists always agree or that there isn’t room for debate in science. But public data and public sharing of methods, peer review, and reproducibility of results are all ways to ensure rigor and set the terms for reasoned argument. Helping people think with evidence and rigor is a great reason to teach science.
Health, Wealth and Prosperity
Science is the greatest engine of progress ever invented. Over the past few centuries, it has led to unimaginable advances in human health and longevity and enables the world to (almost) feed a staggering 8 billion people! Didn’t die of a childhood disease or famine? Thank science. Continuing progress and prosperity is a great reason to teach science, but there are unanticipated costs which lead us to…
Saving Humanity From Itself
The price of all of this progress includes destabilizing the world’s climate and the ecosystems on which the future of humans and nature depend. We need science to help us understand the problems and find the solutions. We also need citizens who can understand the issues and advocate for solutions. Saving humanity is a great reason to teach science.
Giving Students Agency
See all of the above. People who have options for careers, can pay close attention and argue with evidence and rigor, people who have a sense of curiosity and an awe and love of nature, people who understand the power and the downside of science all have much more agency over their lives than people who don’t. Empowering your students is a great reason to teach science!