I read with sympathy and understanding the letter from Ann-Marie Bossong, “Teaching Science Literacy” (C&EN, July 4, page 4). In April 2011, I met with a new chemistry major advisee (entering junior year) at the University of New Hampshire. She is an outstanding student (A− average), from a New Hampshire family of modest means, works part time, and involves herself in community and campus activities of benefit to others. Although she is fully capable of pursuing a Ph.D. or an M.D. degree, her goal is to teach chemistry in a public high school.
I wish I could have been enthusiastic in encouraging her to pursue this career path. Sadly, as Bossong noted: “In my state and many others, teachers are under attack.”
I had this very much in mind at the time I spoke with my advisee. In Bossong’s state of New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie continues to give new meaning to the term “bully pulpit.” At a Boys & Girls Club, this is how the governor addressed the issue of teachers’ conventions: “They got to get two days off from school because, you know, they don’t get enough time off now, right? They get two weeks off at Christmas, they get all the different holidays, then they get the summer off, and now they need two more days. Why do you think that is? Do you think if they cared about learning where would they be today?” (The Trentonian, Nov. 6, 2010). The governor has called the New Jersey Education Association a “political thuggery operation” and “fat, rich, and entitled,” the leaders “bullies and thugs.”
Many in the public have enjoyed and cheered this spectacle. So, with strong regret, I made no attempt to either encourage or discourage my excellent young advisee to pursue a profession so demanding and publicly disrespected.
By Arthur Greenberg
Professor, Department of Chemistry
University of New Hampshire
Because I am a high school chemistry teacher, I read the letters about scientific literacy with interest (C&EN, June 6, page 4, and July 4, page 4). I am currently taking two years off for maternity leave, but I plan to return to the classroom after that.
In answer to Rudy Baum’s question, “What is it that we’re all doing wrong?” I believe that there is insufficient support for science teachers and that much of the material we are required to teach is impractical and irrelevant to our students. Furthermore, I think the main things that stand in the way of effective science teaching are these: standardized curricula and testing, excessive litigiousness, and large classes.
First, Oliver Axtel has an idealized view of the world if he believes that science teachers can choose to “go through their current courses, delete the stuff that only scientists need to know, and demand that the students learn well the stuff that an educated person ought to know.” We do not have that freedom. Many, many times, I have looked at our chemistry curriculum and wondered what learning about empirical formulas, orbitals, or reaction equilibria has to do with our students’ daily lives. I have been teaching the “regular” level chemistry course, which means that most of my students intend to go to college, but most of them do not intend to major in a scientific field. It is an uphill battle to convince them that chemistry is at all relevant to their day-to-day existence.
We are instructed in what order we must teach and what detail we must go into. What ends up happening is that we have a curriculum that is a mile wide but an inch thick. I cannot spend time on the interesting ins and outs of acids and bases (one of the most practical subjects taught) at the beginning of the year when it might catch the attention of students, because it is to be taught at the end of the year. Do I insert real-world examples? Of course! Do I try to connect the structure of the periodic table to the properties of substances that the students are familiar with? Yes! However, with quarterly assessments breathing down our necks, I always feel the strain of not having enough time and having no freedom to change the order of subjects to make them more appealing.
My second and third points are connected by a basic concept: safety. We all know that safety is paramount in any lab, especially one populated by teenagers. However, our excessively lawsuit-happy culture has made science teachers very tentative about labs. When I took chemistry, I could have easily been burned or cut, but now science teachers, especially chemistry teachers, are wrapping their students in wool rather than let them get hurt, because the teachers know that they will be sued if a student does get hurt.
Class size is a major factor in this safety-nervousness, as well. For years, my classes have averaged around 30 students, and we are doing labs in a room that is designed for a maximum of 28. There have been some years when I’ve had 35 students. This overcrowding of lab stations makes it extremely difficult to be sure that students are doing the labs correctly and safely. Therefore, the easiest thing to do is to simplify the lab.
I agree that there should be a committee on professional training of science teachers, but keep in mind that most science teachers did take a science methods class as part of their master’s degree program. The main problem is this: Science teachers have very good ideas but are limited by the strictures of their curricula, standardized testing schedules, class sizes, and safety concerns. We are doing the best we can, within those strictures, to promote scientific literacy.
By Cathy Bloedorn