Recorded: 22 Aug 2008
Well…it’s very simple to describe in San Francisco because we have all these science rich organizations. Not only my university, UCSF, which has a major partnership program with the San Francisco public schools. But the Exploratorium, a big science museum, ah San Francisco State, many other institutions that are really interested in helping the make young people aware of science and its values. Ah, it’s just been very difficult. We’ve all been trying for years, and we haven’t really changed the nature of the education system to reflect really what science could do for young people. Which is make them curious or maintain their curiosity if they come from a school with all their use of schooling. And make them inventive, and excited about exploration, and make them logical thinkers, and able to deal with all the questions that they have. Just to live in our modern society requires the skills of a scientist. So we’ve managed to let others define science education in ways that are totally counterproductive. Science education as memorizing everything that scientists have learned about you name it…parts of a flower, the parts of the cell, totally boring even to scientists. That’s not interesting. It’s the processes, it’s the nature of discovery, and the way the world works. Not the names of its parts. And somehow, it turns out to be much easier to think of science education for…as just memorizing things. Which makes science no different in fact, from learning…you know, learn science, learn the bible. I mean this is part of the reason why we have so much trouble in the United States with creationism.
No. I feel sorry for students fifty years from now trying to learn cell biology. What are they going to do? So, with each generation we need new ways of conceptualizing and getting rid of a lot of the facts and getting to the essence of it. And there’s only so much you could teach in a course. And so we’ve utterly failed with that. In our beginning biology courses at college have way too much to come to any understanding. I’ve been in a tirade about this for quite a while. We should aim in our teaching to get people to appreciate science and nature biology. And if you try to put all the facts of biology into the first year course then we make it meaningless. It doesn’t have anything that excites people. and it doesn’t give you any real sense of what science is. I’ve been trying to get our faculty members to recognize this but most faculty have no conception of what it’s like to be a student. It’s obvious to them that they just put all these facts and it’s meaningless. So that’s a big issue and unfortunately the college level course then is the model for all the lower level courses. So it’s translated down the advanced placement, down to high school biology. Then down to middle school biology. If you look at a middle school biology text it’s probably the hardest book you’re ever going to see. Because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s got most of the words of a college biology course - all the parts of the cell.
We need a revolution in how we teach science.
Bruce Alberts, currently Editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the University of California and United States Science Envoy. He received A.B. (1960) in Biochemical Science from Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ph.D. (1965) from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1966 he joined Department of Chemistry at the Princeton University and after 10 years he became professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the UCSF.
Alberts work is best known for his work on the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He is one of the authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, a major textbook in the field. He served two-six years terms as a president of National Academy of Science (1993-2005). During his administration at NAS, he was involved in developing the landmark of National Science Education standards.
Among many honors and awards (16 honorary degrees), he is Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council and a trustee of Gordon and Betty Moore Fundation.
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