This issue of The Science Teacher focuses on technological innovations in the science classroom. Modelling software, data analysis, and virtual scientific tours are just a few of the technological innovations that can enhance our science teaching.
Technology can now offer hope to restore the populations of endangered species—see the recent cloning of a 30-year-old black-footed ferret, Willa. Willa’s tissue was frozen and kept with other endangered species’ tissue by the San Diego Zoo Global project. Elizabeth Ann, Willa’s clone, is the United States’ first successful clone of an endangered species.
Another technological feat recently occurred with the NASA Perseverance rover landing on Mars. The rover will collect rock samples and enhance our overall knowledge of the “Red Planet” in ways we never envisioned.
Given these major technological events, I wondered what some of the innovators who were involved thought about their contributions. Ben Cichy, an engineer, tweeted the following: “Got a 2.4 GPA my first semester in college. Thought maybe I wasn’t cut out for engineering. Today I’ve landed two spacecraft on Mars, and designing one for the moon. STEM is hard for everyone. Grades ultimately aren’t what matters. Curiosity and persistence matter.”
Curiosity and persistence matter. STEM careers depend on these two ways of thinking. Technology companies look to hire individuals who provide evidence they are curious, engage in problem solving, and are persistent. A Google interviewer asked an interviewee “How many dimples are in a golf ball?” The interviewer was looking for how the interviewee would use problem solving skills to answer the question. The interviewee said nothing and broke into tears. Needless to say, the interviewer was disappointed in the lack of creative thinking with a question where the “right” answer was not being looked for but the approach to the question was of the utmost importance.
What emphasis do we place on the two habits of mind, curiosity and perseverance, in our science teaching? Do creativity and innovation play a prominent role in our everyday teaching? If not, we are missing many opportunities for joy, surprise, and wonder on a regular basis. If we are too busy covering the content instead of providing a place for uncovering the science content with the students, then many chances for curiosity and wonder are lost.
Now, for a reality check. Yes, I know many states base their teacher evaluations on student test scores. I know science teachers are forced to march through the state or national curriculum at break-neck speed, although by doing this, the overall mission of science is often overlooked. I see science classes where only the teacher is talking. I see students’ heads on the desks. Remember, whoever is doing the talking is the one learning. If students are not doing the majority of talking about the science being uncovered, then the teacher is the only one learning. Tell me, if that’s the case, then how does “teacher talk” help improve test scores and evaluation ratings? It does not.
Our role as science teachers is to help students like Ben Cichy learn the skills of persistence and perseverance. We need to provide them with the opportunity to go to the far reaches of their curiosity and to explore areas they are inherently interested in within the realm of our subject matter.
How is this exploration done? Project-based learning. Problem-based learning. Genius hours. Focus on student interest and foster intrinsic motivation (Pink, 2011). Examples of students’ innovations include designing and creating a new formula for a perfume, developing hypothetical soles for shoes that can be regenerated using chemical reactions and UV lighting (thus enabling the homeless to never go without shoes and addressing a critical social justice issue), and creating a specialized, small paint container to keep paint fresh (showcased on “Shark Tank” and funded).
Just imagine the joy on students’ faces when their innovation comes to life and compare that to those who finish some sort of mindless worksheet designed to supposedly enhance standardized test scores. No comparison.
The world is moving forward with technological advances. Is our science teaching keeping up by preparing our students to be curious, persistent, and overflowing with perseverance?
Pink, D. 2011. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York City, NY: Riverhead Books.
Yirka, B. 2021. Black-footed ferret cloned to help preserve endangered species. https://phys.org/news/2021-02-black-footed-ferret-cloned-endangered-species.html