May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood.

The whole idea was pretty easy for anyone with a little background in geology to dismiss. Evidence cited included the author’s kid’s science fair project. The author was listed as having a Ph.D., but nowhere did it say in what field.

This might not seem too surprising given the times we live in, the times of “alternative facts.” But this was actually 15 years ago. As science teachers, we know that there have ALWAYS been alternative facts. They were sometimes just annoying but sometimes caused real conflict and the interruption of learning. It’s starting to feel different now, it feels like people are asserting that there are no actual facts, everyone has the right to choose the facts that support their perspective. It could be about climate change, vaccination, evolution, or the safety of GMOs.

Without getting too philosophical, science depends on the idea that there is a real world that is knowable through experiment and analysis of data and doesn’t depend on perspective (I expect some comments on this). The great advances we have made in understanding and improving our world depend on there being a real world to understand. As science teachers, it is our job to teach students how to look at the evidence to see what is really there, and also to learn what knowledge scientists have gained from their studies.

We know that new ideas do not come easily, especially when they conflict with what we think we know about the world. Anyone who has worked hard to convince kids that objects fall at the same rate, only to see the test answers a few weeks later, knows how challenging it is to change people’s ideas. This can be much harder depending on the topic.

There are topics in science that students might feel are attacks on their identity. A student might feel that learning about Evolution threatens their religious identity. A student who has grown up in a household where keeping everything “natural” is an important value might resist learning about GMOs or vaccines. Students are part of cultural groups and being part of a group means sharing values and beliefs that might disagree with scientific findings.

Dr. Dan Kahan from Yale University had extensively studied what he calls “Motivated Reasoning.” It is a common assumption that people will change their minds if they are presented with more facts. Dr. Kahan’s research shows that when people face ideas that challenge their group identity, more facts just harden their positions. For example, a person who is deeply committed to free enterprise and opposed to government regulation can be presented with facts about climate change and will become more strongly confident in their position that climate change is not real (or not caused by humans). It is more important for people to maintain group identity than to have a “correct” scientific viewpoint. You can link to Dr. Kahan’s Cultural Cognition Project here: http://www.culturalcognition.net/.

So learning is always hard, and learning that threatens our identity is almost impossible. What is a teacher to do?

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For one thing, don’t make learning about changing students beliefs. A student who thinks you are trying to change their beliefs will shut out the learning. An approach that worked well for me was to tell students up front, “I know this goes against what some of you believe. I’m not asking or expecting you to change your beliefs. I do need to you to understand what scientists think and what evidence led them to those conclusions.” This stance broke down lots of barriers. Many students who otherwise would not have listened became more open and curious.

This actually fits in with the approach that NGSS takes on learning science. The old California standards all began with “students know..” They were about science as facts to be internalized. Except that hard learning doesn’t work this way. If you want someone to change their thinking it takes the hard work at looking at evidence. This is what the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices are all about. How do ask questions about the world and how do we answer them?

Starting with phenomenon instead of starting with an abstract idea is a good way to approach a subject without automatically triggering resistance. A lesson that starts with some interesting bones found in the ground (especially if they are from around here) is less abstract and more approachable than a lesson that starts with “The Theory of Evolution.” This is in keeping with the NGSS approach of starting with real world phenomenon instead of starting with scientific concepts.

According to Dr. Kahan’s work, science knowledge doesn’t matter much in changing people’s minds. What is important is curiosity- people who are scientifically curious are able to accept new ideas. You have students who are curious about the world and love science but might be committed to ideas that are unscientific. Don’t shut them out.

The NGSS approach is all about curiosity. Start with the real world, ask good questions, and then learn how to use the intellectual tools of science to answer them. This is likely the only way to immunize our students against “alternative facts.”

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or zi@cascience.org.)

New Information Now Available On-line:

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 2017)

Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.