The buzz about the science-culture gap can get pretty loud sometimes. What is the gap? Is there really a gap? How did it form and when?
Here’s a link to a pretty long but informative podcast (you’ll have to copy and paste the url below into your web browser):
Unfortunately, there’s a tendency to try to lay blame for this situation: blaming the scientists for not communicating with the public, for being arrogant and dismissive of the importance of communicating with the public.
On the other hand, blame is laid upon our education system, that science is not taught adequately, that the public do not want to learn the science, are not a receptive audience.
The podcast suggests that the gap may actually be a result of differences in social outlooks and affiliations. Our cultural outlook or worldview provides us with a filter that sometimes outweighs the facts and information and has the strongest influence on how we approach any problem or controversy in our society: climate change, stem cell research, evolution, nuclear power. That whether or not someone is receptive to the science has to do with one’s cultural, interpretive filter.
If that’s the case, how can scientific, particularly controversial topics, evidence and implications be provided to a public with closed ears and minds? Important too is that scientists have their own filters that influence their abilities to bridge the gap effectively. The science culture has its own biases and filters.
Being aware of the cultural filters that we all have and that we all use to interpret what’s going on around us can help us as biology teachers. Our students come into our classroom wearing their own filters. Our effectiveness as teachers depends on our ability to make it past them. A good way to get past filters is to teach material in a way that has meaning to the students, or to the audience you are addressing. In addition, it’s important to present material in a way that is not threatening to the different worldviews.
Let’s be specific here. A couple of years ago I visited my daughter’s fifth grade class, in fact, all five fifth grade classes in the school, and did a hands-on sheep brain dissection and brain model demonstration for the kids. I visit my kids’ classrooms at least once a year doing various science experiments and demos and am pretty well known by now for being the resident “scientist-mom.” I’ve brought different animal skeletons and bones in and talked with kids about “animals with and without backbones.” I’ve brought flashlights, string and patellar hammers and done a hands-on session on “why we need reflexes.” For my son’s fourth grade class, I brought in some tree leaves (it was fall!) and spinach and showed them how to extract chlorophyll and talked about what chlorophyll does. The kids LOVE the experiences. I always bring in the “recipes” for how to do these things to give to the teachers in the hope that they might do some of these things with their classes in the future.
Anyway, I decided to do a neuroscience thing the year my daughter was in fifth grade. I arrived, cardboard box filled with supplies and lab coat in hand (to look the part of the scientist better) and began setting up in the first classroom I visited. As soon as I pulled out a slice of human brain preserved in plastic and set it on the desk, there were gasps and exclamations from the kids. “Is that real?” “Oooooo. What’s that?” The teacher, standing behind me, put her hand on her mouth and made a kind of retching noise. “Oh my God! Is that real?” she choked out.
A little surprised by her reaction, I began my spiel about brains and what they do for us and told the class what I had in mind. “Today you’re going to get a chance to explore the brain, to see how the brain is organized and what the different parts do!” I told them that I had brought some sheep brains with me that a science company got from farm animals whose other parts were sent to grocery stores. The teacher behind me gasped and blurted, “I don’t think I can watch this!” Then, like an uncontained nuclear reaction, students began gagging and saying they were going to throw up. I said that anyone who felt uncomfortable didn’t have to participate. Most of the students were still eager and wanted to know more about the brain, but the negative reactions of the teacher definitely influenced a few of the students.
By the end of the several days of class visits, the news of my bringing brains into class had spread and the classrooms were more polarized in their excitement and resistance to see and participate. Only one of the five teachers had a positive reaction and that class was the one that took the experience in the spirit in which it was intended, to learn about the brain.
What did I learn from this? Well, trying to teach kids about biological concepts that have political or cultural controversy (like animal dissection or evolution) is very challenging, particularly if the teachers are not on board. [The next year, in my son’s fifth grade class, I showed the class how to extract DNA from strawberries. No controversy there!]
Perhaps a solution for my brain-day experience might have been for me to meet with the teachers in advance and to gauge their reactions. I could have better prepared them for the experience, or I could have revised what I did with the class. From my naive perspective looking at the world through my neuroscientist filters, I was unwittingly insensitive to the cultural filters of the teachers. I had the idea in my head that the science teachers would be open and comfortable with anything scientific. Boy, was I clueless!
I think these same issues are at play whenever a scientist’s work enters the public arena. In fact, these same issues underlie how effective our teaching in college classrooms and labs can be, particularly for introductory students.