"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What can a scientist do?

As our department recognizes our recent PhD graduates, one of my colleagues describes the doctoral degree as being able to address and solve a difficult problem.  As a result, PhDs are later called on to consult on problems that may not be directly related to one's specific area of training.  The mere exercise and experience in tackling a challenging question of significance should prepare a PhD to face other challenges. Though it may sound ideal, it is true as long as the PhD remains faithful not only to the knowledge content that he or she has gained from the program, but more importantly, to the discipline and process he or she has gone through.  Within this context, one may now ask the question of how a scientist can help in addressing problems in basic education.  Similar to the time a graduate student first enters a laboratory, a review of literature is necessary.  It is a reflection of what we already know, what we have, and perhaps, what could possibly be done.

The National Academies of the United States list four possible roles for scientists and engineers in basic education: (http://www.nas.edu/rise/roles.html)
By clicking on each link above, one is given a brief introduction on what each of these roles may be.  Each one is provided with examples and advice from the field.  Worth noting is the advice given for the last role, helping develop instructional materials:

"Unlike the other roles for scientists discussed in this site, a role in developing instructional materials for K-12 science education is suitable only for a few individuals. Many of those involved in improving science education advise scientists who are interested in developing materials, "DON'T DO IT!!""

One thing I think is very important to consider in the above described roles is that these apply to the United States where local school districts are quite independent.  The administrative structure of US K-12 schools is very different from that of the Philippines.  Therefore, to make the descriptions of the above roles relevant, one must keep in mind this major difference and with this, some ideas may not apply. 

The next question, what we have?, involves even a deeper reflection.  It is also a question of where we are.  In this exercise, I think we first have to realize our limitations.  Without doubt, there is a dramatic difference in depth and level between research in the frontier and what students need to learn in primary and secondary education.  Furthermore, mastery of content is indeed helpful, but clearly not a sufficient ingredient for a successful basic education.  Scientists who have chosen to work in either national laboratories or industry have likewise reduced their exposure to formal instructional activities that are found in an academic environment.  Scientists who have opted to stay in universities are also limited to an undergraduate and graduate setting, which may carry characteristics that are not directly transferable to an elementary or high school. 

Nonetheless, if a scientist can indeed contribute to solving problems in education, the third question must be addressed, what could possibly be done?  With this question, it becomes evident that we may have been time transported back to the time when all of us are just starting our graduate studies.  Amazingly, this perspective may actually just match the fact that research in education is an emerging field.  Basic education also involves a myriad of factors, a truly multivariate situation. A scientist addressing basic education really starts at looking hard at oneself in the mirror.  It begins with a passion, the one that moves someone into action and reflection, but not the one that drives or defines what the desired outcomes should be. No doubt, it will take a lot of preparation and reading.  There will be exploration, and, of course, missteps.  But there is a reason for optimism.  As James Bower pointed out: (http://www.nas.edu/rise/backg2a.htm)

"After ten years of involvement with precollege science, I have become profoundly aware of the negative effect the poor teaching of science in colleges and universities has on the rest of the educational system. In many ways, colleges and universities set the standards for the entire educational system. So, while I wish to encourage scientists to contribute to the public schools, the most significant consequence for students of this involvement may very well be fundamental reform in the way we educate our own students. After all, the curriculum we ourselves control should be the easiest to change."

It is not expected that what the National Academies of the United States suggest would directly apply to solving problems in Philippine Basic Education.  But I do think that the above quote does apply.

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