The Teaching and Re-Teaching of Science by Dr. Amy Albrecht (Assistant Professor of Biochemistry)

August 14, 2015

As another school year approaches, I wrestle with how my children’s science education will help them to think scientifically. I wonder quite often what I will need to re-teach them at home. While the home must be the first and primary source for teaching, many of us rely on the school system, so I need to understand the scientific ideas that the school system teaches through its curriculum. Teaching science to children, middle schoolers and high schoolers is never easy, but re-teaching can be even more challenging for committed parents.

Let’s define a few scientific terms to frame our discussion, beginning with the term “fact.” Facts are the truth of this world, such as: the sky is blue; rainbows can be seen when it rains; the grass is green; and nature is all around us. Hard, scientific facts like these are something that we can see and observe. Christians would categorize such facts, as a part of life’s common knowledge, or as a part of general revelation. We contend as Christians that everyone can see evidence of God in these facts in the world around us, if we understand such facts rightly. How do we do so rightly?

As curious creatures, humans look at nature and wonder, “Why?” Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Why can we see rainbows? This is where “science” comes into play. Science is a tool that we use to help us understand “Why?” Specifically, we use science to help us understand and explain the underlying Truth of this world through the “scientific method.” Scientists of all stripes employ the scientific method to explain particular observations of nature.

This method begins with an initial step of making an observation about the world, such as “The grass is green.” The second step turns from this baseline observation to our key question of “How?” We ask, “How is the grass green?” From these building blocks, the scientific method moves toward a third step. In it, we propose a possible answer, a “hypothesis.” At its core, a scientist crafts a hypothesis as an educated guess that might explain how the grass is green. Fortunately, the method tests this answer via a controlled experiment. A scientist experiments by collecting the best data possible so as to prove or disprove the hypothesis. This experimentation leads to the fifth step, data analysis. The data must be interpreted, understood, and used to help answer the how question. Data is always interpreted with some bias based on the scientist’s knowledge, view of the world and pre-existing assumptions of the answer. Unfortunately, no truly unbiased analysis exists. Any person in any field, even in a hard science, must struggle with how he has affected his own analysis.

After many experiments, a hypothesis may become a “theory.” Theories are the latest and greatest explanation for the observation. They explain most of the information and its most important parts. Theories cannot and do not explain everything. As such, theories stand as tentative answers and may change based on even newer data. Some of these theories will stand the test of time and will share the honor of becoming a “scientific law.” Scientific laws are proven over a lot of time, and very few theories become laws.

Here is the challenge for re-teaching my children. Most of what my children’s science classes teach are theories, the current best explanation for an observation of nature. However, our schools often present such possible answers, theories, as proven laws. Do you see the problem?

Today’s typical science curriculum magnifies this issue in the debate between evolution and creation. For clarity, please know that the word “evolution” essentially means change over time. Yes, there is evolution in the sense that everything changes to some degree over time. That is not debated. For example, you have changed over time in many ways. Your hair changes color; your body changes shape; and your cells respond to environmental changes. These small changes are sometimes called “micro-evolution.” However, the theory of evolution states that if given enough time, one species can (and did) change into another species. That’s a big change. The theory of evolution, therefore, emphasizes massive changes or “macro-evolution,” especially in regard to changes from one species into another.

Evolutionary theory stands, therefore, as one possible answer of how this world developed because it explains life’s massive diversity via these drastic changes. More specifically, the theory of evolution contends that humans evolved from different species over billions of years. Embedded in this idea is the added bonus that the world evolved from a single life source. Here is the heart of the challenge to evolutionary models, however: while changes over time occur every day, we have yet to see any present day species evolve into another species. Not once. There is no observable fact or evidence of such changes in today’s world.

What makes their analysis more difficult is that scientists cannot recreate life in a test tube. There is no experiment, which is a key part of the scientific method above, to test completely theories of past events. The past is gone. The variables may have changed, and in some cases must have changed. As such, a scientist who does an experiment concerning the past invokes many of his own assumptions that fit his current state in the now. But, how can he confirm that the uniformity of his assumptions stretch deep, deep into the past? He can’t. No one can. Such assumptions about the past cannot be confirmed with the hard evidence that leads one to scientific theories and laws. This means that each scientist shapes his data by the story he chooses based on his own assumptions.

Currently, high school students are only being taught one way to look at the world with only one way to analyze data. But what if that one way is framed by the wrong story about the past? What if the curriculum only considers one possible story of the past, without considering the others? Such framing of the past will lead to wrong answers and lead students to consider debatable issues as settled ones when they are not. That’s a problem.

Fortunately, there is another way to look at the world. The biblical narrative can frame the eyes of a scientist to see that God created the world and each species. Sure, each species changes over time to their present day form in “micro-evolution,” but the biblical story contends that God created humans unique, not evolved from other species. This is not a change in the data being analyzed or the desire to apply the scientific method. Instead, it is a change in assumptions.

When educators teach students, they present information to their students. A strong teacher expects students to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. While many teachers have good intentions, the framing of the issue as settled when it is not leaves students without an invitation into the scientific discussion. Learning is lost. How much better would it be if students’ creativity in the hard sciences allowed them to ask their own questions about the assumptions, the data and the conclusions? When students are only shown one side of the story and only taught one way to look at the world, they lose the ability to choose and think for themselves. That is, school systems often jettison the heart of the scientific method in this debate over origins. They unintentionally remove this issue from reasonable scientific debate.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a common misconception rules over the evolution debate. Many think that an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence exists for the theory of evolution with no scientific evidence for creationism. Most would contend that the scientific evidence points towards only teaching evolution in schools. However, creationists employ the same data. How scientists interpret such data and set their assumptions separate the two approaches.

Surprisingly, many high profile scientists in the fields of Biology, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Geology, and Genetics generate evidence for Creation. Indeed, the following website offers a great review and summary of evidence for both creation and the theory of evolution http://www.icr.org/article/summary-scientific-evidence-for-creation/. Currently, the modern school system dismisses such interpretation as “religious banter” so that they do not present it to their students. However, I argue in my college classrooms each day that we must teach both sides of the story so that my students will reason for themselves and draw their own conclusions. I want them to ask their own questions and to hypothesize their own answers. Why not do such at the high school levels?

My suggestion here would not add to the length of the school year, but it would in fact add to the knowledge base of the students, helping them in their future. We need to present both ideas to our children to help them become great thinkers and leaders. When the school systems, however, offer no debate between such opposing theories, we must ask as good scientists “What is the goal of such school systems?” Certain hypotheses come to mind.

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