Towards an Integrated Science Curriculum (1)
The 20th century has seen enormous advances in science and technology. General science literacy, however, lags far behind the progress made by highly trained specialists in diverse disciplines. For instance, in the United States, arguably the most scientifically advanced country in the world, there is remarkable ignorance of basic scientific concepts, in spite of enormous public and private expenditures and educational reform efforts over the last five decades. (2) To this we must add, religiously-based rejection of fundamental scientific discoveries in contemporary cosmology and evolution. Some fifty-three percent of the United States population rejects evolution, (3) placing the United States ahead of Turkey, but behind Iran in the acceptance of evolutionary theory. (4)
When it comes to religious and philosophical interpretations of science, it is vital that people know the science. Good science is the precondition to any responsible religious interpretation of that science. (5) We grieve over this problem in our field, because of the religiously based anti-science movements in our countries and increasing also in other countries. The remarkable ignorance about science displayed by many otherwise intelligent and decent people is also disturbing. How do we address these problems in general science literacy, social acceptance and integration of basic scientific insights into our cultural systems and religious traditions?
Metanexus and others (6) are promoting a new paradigm for teaching science, addressing the vast explosion of scientific information and technological capability in recent decades, as well as, a sense of urgency in applying this knowledge in the context of growing global challenges at the crossroads of scientific knowledge, cultural clashes, and dire portents.
It is always helpful to formulate an argument as a proposition that might actually be voted on by a university committee or school board. Indeed, we would not be talking about Intelligent Design Theory (ID) as an alternative to Darwinian Evolution in the United States, unless ID had first been formulated as public policy questions advanced on the grassroots level in local school districts and then battled out in the press and the courts. The paragraph below is meant to succinctly state the intent of the proposed curriculum reform in a way that can be placed before all constituents, including but not limited to educators, parents, donors, elected officials and policymakers, academicians, and lay persons. The fundamental intent is to develop a new and effective format for science education that will readily facilitate the acquisition and retention of science knowledge, even as the curriculum reforms seeks to engender a lifelong engagement with issues crucial to humankind at the intersections of science, ethics, culture, and public policy. The proposed resolution reads:
Resolved that this school/institution shall adopt/promote an integrated science curriculum that incorporates the history of nature as an organizing principle in teaching. Such an integrated science curriculum will cover in chronological orderand emergent context the origins of the universe, the laws of physics, the formation of subatomic particles and simple atoms, the formation of galaxies and stars, the complex chemistry originating in stars, the origin of the solar system including our planet, the origin and evolution of life, including the cognitive, cultural, and technological evolution of humans. This integrated science curriculum shall be periodically evaluated, assessed, adapted, and improved with the goal of improving general science literacy, as well as preparing students for careers in advanced sciences and global citizenship at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species.
Certainly, the modern scientific account of physical, biological, and cultural evolution is an extraordinary discovery of our times. Many different scientists in diverse disciplines have pieced together the “Epic of Evolution” over the last few decades, but it really represents a cultural achievement spanning the millennia of human existence.
In brief outline, this omnicentric universe began some 13 billion years ago as infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. The universe expanded and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures – forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements, complex chemistry, planetary systems. Some 3.5 billion years ago, in a small second or third generation solar system, the intricate processes called “life” began on at least one small planet. Animate matter-energy on Earth presented itself as a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Then some 2 million years ago, as if yesterday in the enormous timescales of the universe, early humans emerged on the savanna of Africa with their enormously heightened capacities for conscious self-reflection, language, and tool making. And this unfolding leads us all the way to today, to this collection of atoms in this particular room, all of us recycled stardust become conscious beings, engaged in this global conversation. Truly astonishing. That we do not teach this to our children and ourselves in all of its glorious grandeur and fascinating details is tragic.
While there is no universal scientific or cultural framework transcending our disciplinary differences, the threads of scientific facts are nevertheless woven on the warp of time and the woof of scale like a magical Persian tapestry. Science has given us a chronological narrative of an evolving universe of emergent complexity, ordered in the scale of entities from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. This narrative is the mnemonic that can help students and adults alike put the pieces of the puzzle together, remember the details, and reflect productively about meaning and purpose, virtues and values in the context of the 21st century at the end of the Cenozoic Period. (7)
By incorporating the chronological narrative of the universe and hierarchical complexity of nature as the framework through which to most effectively teach the sciences, the hypothesis is that we will produce students who are scientifically literate – for life. Beyond mere science literacy, these students would also be able to understand different philosophical and religious interpretations of science. The goals of such a curriculum would be:
- First and foremost: to facilitate the scientific education of our children and society through teaching the history of nature, increasing excellence and enthusiasm for science studies;
- To educate them about relevant philosophical and religious issues involved in interpreting this natural history;
- To promote the discussion of ethical values and norms as pertaining to how humans are impacting their destiny, including changing evolution, through our decisions regarding the application and adaptation of new sciences and technologies;
- To train students in the skills of informed debate, moral judgment, and civic engagement, including the uses of scientific evidence in those debates; and
- To alleviate the conflict between some people of faith and public education and to mobilize a religious constituency that supports general science education and publicly supported scientific research first in the U.S., and potentially on an international scale.
These are ambitious goals, easier to state here as a vision than to realize in the complex educational bureaucracies in the world or the dynamics of any given classroom. The vision is nonetheless worthy of our careful consideration. What are the contexts, the needs, and the rationale for such an overhaul of the science curriculum? Remember that human institutions often resist change more than even individual humans resist change. In this paper, I will refer primarily to the situation in the United States and leave it up to my foreign readers to decide if and how these issues and insights apply in their own countries. Take what you like and leave the rest. Continuous experimentation and adaptation after all is part of the take home message and will be on the final exam.
General science education in the United States
H.G. Wells once said, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” (8) His comment takes on particular resonance when considering the dismal state of American general education in science and technology and the generally non-existent state of American general education in philosophy and religion.
There can be no question that science and technology are and will remain the driving forces of the 21st century, powering the social and economic realms. Economists estimate that advances in science and technology have been responsible for at least 50 percent of our nation’s economic growth over the last century. (9) As this trend continues, the demand for workers trained in science and technology is expected to grow almost four times faster than the economy as a whole. (10)
Moreover, science and technology are not only engines of economic growth for the U.S. economy, but they are critical to increased health, wellbeing, and ecological sustainability. The problem, however, looms larger still. Many believe with Wells that humankind now stands at the brink of catastrophe. Overpopulation, pollution, depleted natural resources, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and global climate change all represent threats not just to our nation but to the well-being of all humanity.
The challenge is greater than simply meeting the world’s need for scientists and engineers of the future. George D. Nelson, formerly of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Project 2061, agrees:
As the world becomes increasingly scientific and technological, our future grows more dependent on how wisely humans use science and technology… With the exploding impact of science and technology on every aspect of our lives, especially on personal and political decisions that sustain our economy and democracy, we cannot afford an [scientifically/technologically] illiterate society. (11)
It was science, along with a new understanding of religion, that figured so prominently in the European Enlightenment, which in turn contributed to a new theory of democratic government. It is impossible to imagine a healthy democracy that is founded in opposition to reason, critical thinking, and science (even as it is hard to imagine a healthy democracy that is founded in opposition to the religious convictions of the vast majority of its citizens). (12) Policy formation in a democratic society requires that its citizens possess the skill to engage in the public discussion of contentious technical and moral issues that may underlie a particular policy.
Failures in the United States
There are troubling signs that America is failing badly in preparing its citizens to meet these needs. Americans are inadequately prepared to meet the scientific, technological, philosophical, religious, and moral challenges of the 21st Century.
The conflicts over Intelligent Design are but the tip of the iceberg. As suggested by Stephen Carter, while the United States is among the “most envied nation[s] on the face of the planet, surveys tell us that four out of five Americans believe that something has gone terribly wrong with our society, that we have somehow jumped the track [with respect to] morality.” (13) Most Americans have not had an in-depth conversation about religion with another person of faith in recent years. A significant number of Americans also admitted that they are not familiar with the tenets of religions different from their own. (14) Even so-called intellectual leaders in ethics and policy in their comments on religion reveal an inadequate understanding.
Experts both in the fields of science and religion agree that the problem rests with our educational system. With respect to scientific and technological literacy, the Hart-Rudman Commission report concluded that “the reason for the growing deficit in high quality human capital [in science, mathematics and engineering] is that the American Kindergarten-12 education system is not performing as well as it should.” (15)
Despite long-standing efforts to improve scientific education (beginning with the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (16)), in the most recent report card on science education issued by the National Center for Education Statistics (a service within the U.S. Department of Education) shows that problems continue. While the scores for fourth and eighth grade students have remained essentially flat over the 33-year reporting period, within the last four years scores for twelfth graders have actually declined. (17) This decline takes on even more embarrassing dimensions, at least for the United States, when placed into its international context. According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995, American twelfth graders scored below the international average and among the lowest scoring of the 21 countries participating in the study on math and general scientific knowledge (outperforming only two countries while being outperformed by 14 countries in math and 11 countries in science.) (18)
What is often missed in studies on scientific literacy, however, are signs of a malaise that goes deeper than simple ignorance of scientific principles or facts. While a majority of Americans may express faith in scientific and technological progress, Americans increasingly demonstrate a profound distrust of science that verges on skepticism. Witness the emergence of the field of complementary and alternative medicine where Americans now make more visits to alternative medicine healers than to conventional medical practitioners. (19)
Americans also demonstrate a profound feeling that science and technology has become unmoored from morality and social values. From the debates over the development of the atomic bomb up through the controversy over cloning, many find themselves horrified by what scientists have done in the name of progress. A feeling emerges that science proceeds according to the code of possibility – the technological imperative – if it is possible to do something, it will be done. (20)
For instance, environmentalism, for some Americans, has become the equivalent of a religious worldview. Often framed in terms of romanticism, many environmental advocates talk explicitly about changing fundamental societal beliefs and behaviors. Science and technology are framed in opposition to environmental concerns and the ideal of returning to “Neolithic Villages” is promoted as an alternative. (21) This view is expressed in spite of the fact that the environmental movement would be baseless without the significant work of scientists. In the words of science writer Timothy Ferris, “Some people will do anything to save the environment, except take a science course.”
Current Efforts at Education Reform
The problems in scientific and technological education and, to a lesser extent, education in philosophy, religion, and values have drawn the attention of many educational leaders, and serious reform efforts have been undertaken. However, these efforts have proceeded largely in isolation from each other. The efforts have been directed separately either towards science, math, and technology or towards religion and values.
Most reform efforts in science education have focused upon didactic and demographic educational criteria. For example, one popular form of educational reform stresses the development of standards and testing to see if those standards are being met. One such effort is the 30-plus year old National Center for Educational Standards (NCES). In assessing science educational performance, the NCES measures performance by grades (4th, 8th and 12th) according to general standards (i.e. mean scores) and over time (i.e. comparing one year’s performance with prior years of assessment.) The NCES also highlights the achievement differences among regional, racial, ethnic, and gender demographic subgroups (which may help identify where problems exist but offers little guidance in the type of reform that might be needed). The NCES also highlights a limited number of educational environmental criteria that correlate with achievement. However, this merely serves to demonstrate the narrowness of the study’s focus. These criteria include teacher undergraduate education, the use of computers in the classroom, the types of science course taken, and the effect of the number of courses taken on performance.
AAAS Project 2061
Project 2061, started in 1984 and lead by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) is arguably the most comprehensive long-term, sustained reform effort to date. Like the NCES, Project 2061 has focused primarily upon curriculum and assessment. Working groups have identified many failures in the method of teaching science as a series of disconnected facts. They have developed new models of scientific literacy and the standards and means by which to assess student learning. (22)
However, while Project 2061 acknowledges the importance of community and the family in education, the program has not adequately addressed the larger social conflicts over science. As accepted by the project, if family members and the communities in which the students reside are not supportive of scientific education, students will not learn. Nonetheless, the project largely ignores the values conflicts between the public and science. Instead, it assumes that family members appreciate the value of science and that they merely need assistance in translating that appreciation into effective support for their children. (23)
Moreover, Project 2061 fails to address the possibility that religion can be a motivational force in scientific learning. It demonstrates no awareness of the spiritual dimension of science and the metaphysical relationship between science and religion. (24) At best, it appears that Project 2061 views religion as something to be avoided. At worst, it appears that Project 2061 sees religion as the enemy of science. (25) In fact, research suggests that religion can be a positive influence on school behavior and learning, including scientific learning. (26)
Science, Technology and Society
The science, technology and society movement recognizes that “[o]ne aspect of [scientific] literacy includes an understanding of the roles of science in society… [in]community…matters that evoke diverse viewpoints, present competing interpretations of data, and offer choices among possible actions.” (27) An important report on science education in 1981 stressed that science education reforms must take “into account the fact that students today will soon be operating as adults in a society which is even more technologically-oriented than at present: they will be participating as citizens in important science-related societal decisions.” (28)
The 3Rs Movement
Reform efforts have also been directed more broadly to the place of religion in public education. For example, in a series of projects co-led by the First Amendment Center, public educators have been challenged to find ways to reintroduce religion into a system in which religion has been almost totally removed during the course of the twentieth century. Often known as the 3Rs Movement, these reformers stress: 1) that religious freedom and freedom of conscience is a right; 2) that it is the responsibility of all citizens and institutions to protect this right; and 3) that all citizens have a duty of respect to every other citizen – even those with whom they most strongly disagree. (29)
This reform effort of the 3Rs Movement, however, has focused primarily upon religion in the social and political realm. (30) It promotes understanding of religion as an issue of freedom and diversity. The new challenge is to bring those findings into the realm of scientific education and to prepare students on how to use and understand religious issues in exploring the implications of contemporary science and in discussing actual conflicts of values that arise in a global technological civilization.
Teaching the History of Nature
While there is much valuable content and research that can be harnessed from these various reform efforts, the History of Nature curriculum takes a fundamentally different approach and posits profoundly greater societal success. The proposed integrated science curriculum seeks, among many other constituents, to turn religious persons, sentiments, and institutions into a major source of advocacy support for general science education and publicly funded scientific research. While the curriculum itself will be 80 to 90 percent focused on scientific content, the 10 to 20 percent spent on philosophical and religious questions will help engage religiously motivated constituents in the U.S. and abroad in support of this initiative. These meta-scientific questions will be raised in reference to the science and not in reference to any particular religious tradition. The initiative might well support teaching about the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, and other religious material, but we believe this should be handled outside of the science classroom and in a manner consistent with the U.S. Constitution or the specific legal and religious context of other societies.
The Strategy for Integrated Science
1. The first major hypothesis of the project is that general science education should be organized around the teaching of the history of nature as understood by contemporary science from the Big Bang to Human Consciousness. Awareness of the story of our very old universe is quite new (i.e., our knowledge of plate tectonics and the inflationary universe were only widely accepted in the 1970s), so it is little wonder that few teach science as history with a chronological and hierarchical unfolding of increasing complexity. Certainly no living scientist learned their basic science through such a curriculum, although many younger scientists today were profoundly influenced as adolescents by watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series in the 1980s. (31)
It is proposed that this history of nature approach, with its narrative and hierarchical structure, provides a pedagogically sound and potentially far more effective approach to promoting general science literacy. Rather than teaching disconnected facts (most schools still treat science as an amalgam of disconnected facts—biology one year, chemistry the next, and physics last when students have better math skills and can keep up with the problems), we propose to create an integrated, interdisciplinary science curriculum. Teaching the history of nature will then provide a structure and a mnemonic for comprehending the many details of science, and in a way that conveys the relevance to an individual and to society. (32) (Rigorous standards and testing methodologies would still be required. Students will continue to learn physics, chemistry, astronomy—on through to the human sciences.)
Note: The term “integrated science curriculum” is widely used among educators today, but it generally refers to curriculum that holistically explores multifaceted dimensions of a topic, for instance a course on bridges or boat building that includes physics, math, and chemistry, earth sciences, along with history, literature, economics, design and archeology. The curriculum proposed here is truly integrative in so far as the history of nature necessarily includes all scientific disciplines and introduces them in the order of their chronology anddevelopmental significance to the entire epic of evolution. Cosmology, astronomy, and physics come first every year in this curriculum. The human sciences come last every year.
2. Secondly, we believe that the History of Nature has the potential to engage students, inspiring excellence and enthusiasm for science learning in ways that traditional pedagogy has fallen short. The grandeur of the epic of evolution, including the evolution of human consciousness, culture, and technology, cannot help but excite students’ passions for learning.
Note: The history of discovery could be a separate curriculum and should not be equated with a history of nature course. Teaching the history of discovery would be beneficial as an add-on to teaching the history of nature. (33)
3. A third important hypothesis is that there are legally valid and pedagogically sound ways to engage students in the philosophical and religious interpretations of this natural history and the profound role humans are now playing in writing the future natural history of the planet. Teaching the history of nature provides a natural context for incorporating existential, moral, philosophical and religious reflections, interpretations, and debates in the science curriculum. Indeed, inclusion of such content and questions should enliven the science curriculum. In fact, science provides a particularly useful forum in which to conduct education about philosophy and religion. Science necessarily involves many different philosophical claims; religion necessarily involves many different ontological claims. The teaching of the history of nature invites students to think critically about the limitations of science and the limitations of religion.
Note: In this curriculum the philosophical and religious questions are raised in reference to the interpretation of the science itself and not in reference to any sacred scriptures. The teaching of the history of religion, the philosophy of religion, comparative religions, and sacred texts as literature is a separate issue and should be handled by other curricular reforms and not as part of the science classroom.
4. This reform has the potential to remove science curriculum debates from issues of public policy. The primary reason we are discussing Intelligent Design theory in the U.S. today is because it has been repeatedly formulated as a public policy issue and placed before legislators, school boards, the media, and the courts. The terms “intelligent design” and “evolution” do, in fact, encompass a wide range of meaning, as well as obfuscations and ignorance, both intentional and unintentional. The history of nature curriculum becomes a counter “wedge” strategy that will separate science from such concepts as Intelligent Design Theory and Young Earth Creationism. That would be progress. Public science may be winning the legal battles, but we are losing the culture wars.
5. The Integrated Science Curriculum is a long-term strategy that, once validated, has the potential to take root and disseminate quickly via traditional as well as new institutional channels. Transforming the vast and entrenched educational industry will not be easy. In 2001-2002, approximately $429 billion dollars was spent in the United States on elementary and secondary education representing about 4.4 percent of the GDP. There are over 53.9 million primary and secondary school students in the United States (6.2 million of these attend private schools). Primary and secondary schools employ over 3.4 million teachers (0.4 million of these work in private schools), who are then supported by an industry of teacher colleges, teacher unions, textbook publishers, school boards, legislators, interest groups, parents and volunteers.
6. It is further hypothesized that the teaching of the history of nature provides a vehicle for mobilizing religious institutions and networks in support of general science literacy. It is possible to create a vehicle for civic engagement that will enhance education – including scientific education. The project will seek to identify and test how philosophical and religious issues and constituents can be harnessed in support of public education in general and science education in particular.
Since surveys reveal that a majority of Americans draw upon their personal religious belief in formulating policy (e.g. over 90 percent of all of the members of Congress (34) and over 80 percent of all others (35)), this means that all Americans must understand the religion and religious grounding of values held by their neighbors. Religious faith is a powerful social fact in the United States. Over 90 percent of Americans express a belief in God (36) with approximately 67 percent identifying themselves as Christian or Jewish. (37) Yet, it is not enough to be familiar with the Judeo-Christian traditions alone. Americans live in a society of ever-increasing religious pluralism that is more and more international in scope. (38) This requires knowledge of a variety of religions and openness to engaging with diverse people of faith. The interpretation of science and the impact of technologies need to be part of a new vision of an integrated education. In a world of increasing religious diversity, US society needs citizens who are knowledgeable about religion and how to live with religious differences. While this proposal does not specifically address these larger issues about general religious and philosophical literacy, it is a step in the direction of also addressing these issues through parallel curriculum reforms.
A Strategy for Implementation
To make changes, one needs to start small, but in a manner that leverages the potential to grow rapidly among a growing network of educators, students, and institutions. How to advance a History of Nature curricular reform—programmatically, pedagogically, institutionally, and politically—is necessarily multifaceted and complicated. It is easy to state the proposal as a resolution for adoption by a school board, but the curricula need to be developed, textbooks and resources created, teachers trained, student assessed, and studies conducted before, during, and after the running of some pilot projects. The plan must incorporate the infrastructure and expertise that will readily facilitate the expansion and adoption of the program. Anyone who has done battle on educational reform knows how impossibly difficult all of this is.
It would be particularly strategic to begin not in primary or secondary schools, but at the undergraduate level in colleges and universities, where the bureaucratic obstacles are not as high. University faculties are not as regulated as primary and secondary school faculties. Most universities and colleges already have general science distribution requirements into which the proposed curriculum would nicely fit. The major obstacle at the university level is to facilitate team-teaching, because no one person has the necessary expertise. Incentives will need to be offered by administrators and funders to germinate, foster, cross-pollinate, cultivate, and harvest numerous curriculum experiments from team-taught courses on the history of nature at undergraduate institutions. The faculty that teach these courses in different undergraduate institutions should also be encouraged to share syllabi and resources, set up a networking to support, meet periodically to discuss, test and improve the curricula over a period of a few years. (39)
All of this work in undergraduate education would naturally give rise to the creation of appropriate textbooks and tools for teaching. All of this would also need to happen in advance of any meaningful effort to adapt the History of Nature curriculum in primary and secondary schools. I look forward to a time when by sixth or eight grade, schools and teachers might simply take it for granted that the students already understood the basic outline of the grand evolutionary narrative and more advanced studies might be pursued, but this is not the case today, not for our students, not for our fellow citizens, and not even for many highly trained specialists.
Moral, Believing, Creative Animals
The History of Nature curriculum includes humanity as part of science. This is a family story of our own origins in the evolutionary epic and our rather remarkable cognitive and cultural capacities, which of course include science, as well as every other academic discipline and human creative pursuit. There is more at stake here, than simply the future of science and science education. Humans are profoundly storied animals. Our deepest beliefs and values and actions in the world are constructed through a narrative thought processes. (40) The great challenge of the 21st century will be whether and how we succeed in incorporating the new stories of science into our normative cultural stories and our civilizations’ doings.
Without this history of nature, we cannot truly appreciate or understand the present and quite extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species. The exponential growth in human population and consumption patterns, empowered in part by science and technology, is significantly altering atomic, chemical, genetic, ecological, and geological processes on Earth. Humans are a Lamarckian wild card in the Epic of Evolution. Our desires and abilities, our intentions and unintentions will significantly alter the future evolutionary trajectory of our species and the planet as a whole. The present moment and future challenges hold many known and unknown dangers and opportunities. And this is where the History of Nature curriculum would end with a question mark. What will the future bring? What will we decide? What can we know? What can we not know? The solution is surely evolution. Adapt! Teaching science as a grand story of mythic proportions is both a promising strategy for more effective science education, but also an important contribution to building a healthier and safer world