Science bridges many barriers

An update from Dr. Christine Royce, a member of the NSTA team at the Sino–US Science and Education Forum in Shanghai.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Today in one sense was a long day—this was heard stated by many of the participants here. It wasn’t that we were uninterested in what was said; it wasn’t that we started any earlier or finished any later. It might have felt like a long day since as one person stated –the adrenaline rush of being in a foreign country on such a journey is starting to wear off and jet lag may be setting in just a bit. The reason I think it felt long to others and specifically the reason it felt long to me was simple—with the exception of tea breaks (which by the way is customary everywhere you go) we sat. To clarify—we sat on our butts all day and listened to speakers—eight in all. Now please don’t get me wrong—the topics the speakers presented on were wonderful—informal science education, preparation of teachers, curriculum design, and research relating to improving the field. There will be more on these later, however to get back to why the day felt long—it’s because the consensus among an informal survey of participants was—we rarely ever sit that long. One person even went as far as to comment that we now know what our students may feel like at the end of a day.
Today’s presentations from both sides presented interesting and informative perspectives to consider. One of the main points that jumped out towards the end of the day as Elizabeth Mulkerrin was speaking was when she said something like science is the bridge to helping students learn in reference to a particular program she was highlighting. That phrase summed up the entire day for me. Science truly bridges many barriers.

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One of the feature presenters from the Chinese delegation spoke about two priorities that the Chinese government has set for education in the next ten years—equity and quality. Equity in China means exactly what it means in the United States—addressing the situation of students in poverty, ethnic minority areas (an interesting fact that we learned today was that the Hun group was the most prevalent in China), bringing equity to all schools and eliminating key schools, as well as allocating more resources for schools. Dr. Wang Dinghua discussed the need to address dropout rates, support special education and migrant workers (not something I ever really considered, to be honest) as well as their equivalent of “latch-key kids.” Point by point he could have been talking about issues and concerns in the United States. Quality again was repetitive of what we hear regularly—improving all schools, laying a solid foundation for future development and education. However—there was one that we as Americans are just starting to see on the horizon (fingers crossed that the direction of travel continues) and that is having all students complete their studies with science literacy. He pointed out that the 3Rs are important in helping people communicate, however science literacy was important in helping the country move forward as a nation. He connected it to energy, the environment, sustainability and what he referred to as a “higher R requirement”—that of responsibility. Responsibility to each as an individual, society as a whole, and the future of the country.
As I understood his presentation, science is the key connector between all aspects of the future as the Chinese see it—it bridges the past with the future. Dr. Dinghua continued to discuss the components that go into making their national curriculum (which does have a certain percentage determined by the local provincial offices) better and future- looking—teacher efficiency, a reduced workload for student homework, the need to foster creativity and continuing to strengthen hands-on experiences of the students. His point was further reflected by a statement in Dr. Liu Enshan’s presentation on biology curriculum later in the day. He stated that part of the national agenda was in order to “maximize human capital to build a creative country; science education should play a critical role in general education.” He further discussed that science is taught in grades 3–11 with integrated content being covered up through grade 9 followed by discipline specific topics for high school. Dr. Enshan focused on a change that has been implemented into the biology curriculum in recent years—that of inquiry.
Which led nicely into the session presented by Dr. Alan McCormack and Dr. Karen Ostlund. Alan and Karen focused on how to engage students, including preservice educators, in inquiry based experiences. Discrepant events were presented which resulted in an equal reaction between the Americans and Chinese—a look of wonder as well as a brief bit of confusion as the water should have come right through the glass that had a hole poked in it. What followed was another example of science serving as a bridge.  Even though we were still SITTING, they had us do the “fish inquiry”—you know the one—where a red fish cut out of cellophane like put on the palm of your hand and you observe what happens to it … does it curl up, have its head move or its tail. Next they distributed simple materials and asked us to design an experiment to test our hypothesis as to why the fish moves. If you can picture Chinese educators who speak little English, and American educators who speak almost NO Chinese, sitting side by side in an auditorium, communicating with each other through pictures and hand gestures designing and conducting an experiment—to observe the event was unbelievable but to participate in the opportunity was amazing. The act of “doing science” crossed barriers of language and allowed us to engage in a meaningful way with each other thus making additional connections between individuals.
In considering Elizabeth’s statement and the events of the day—science truly does bridge many barriers that often divide individuals and countries. Classroom science bridges the achievement gap according to information presented by Dr. Janet Carlson and Dr. Arthur Eisenkraft today during their presentations. Science information brings nations together for summits on global warming, nuclear energy, and natural disasters. I am not saying that everyone reaches the table with the same goals or agrees on the desired outcomes—but that too is part of science—presenting your side and evidence in a persuasive argument and then should it come to it– agreeing to disagree—but continuing the conversation and pursuit of scientific knowledge. Science education has brought together all of the people attending this forum who will now have connections to maintain in the future. Some may be intermittent, while others may be regular. The important point that I learned from today is that there are many ways to cross a divide or conquer a barrier—and science education and the experiences at this forum will help us all to build many bridges and connections well into the future.

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