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Connecting Science and Civic Obligation--By Karen Oates

15 Dec 2022 3:20 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Connecting  Science Education  to our Civic Obligation

By Karen Kashmanian Oates

From the time of conception, SENCER was designed to challenge the conventional inert, passive educational practices found in most institutions. The SENCER  approach has always been envisioned as more than the STEM content that catalyzed  it’s initial funding but  a dynamic, and ever-changing  concept.

SENCER is not about educating a generation that merely acquires content knowledge without understanding how to put knowledge into practice to benefit society. Like you, I feel very fortunate to have had a great education and clarity of mind to solve complex problems. This great fortune comes with an obligation.  When I use the word obligation, I refer to our obligation to act on what evidence tells us. This short essay focuses on this central SENCER obligation.

At the core, SENCER links content with the skills and values of society by creating  within our educational system  diverse opportunities to practice the hard work of being an engaged citizen.  As educators, parents, teachers we find ourselves  in all environments where we instruct, and  prepare the next generation of professionals to be educated capable citizens entrusted to advance our culture, technology, and society to the benefit of all. From the beginning, this was the obligation we were entrusted with for the sake of the generations that follow.

With this as an obligation, it becomes is our responsibility to provide our students multiple opportunities to do the work of citizenship.  THIS IS WHY SENCER is so important- now more than ever.  No longer can we say someone is educated just because they have accumulated 120 credits within a menu of courses instead  the question we should be asking is have we educated our students to uphold  freedom and democracy  by  empower them to use their many talents, and skills  throughout their lives for the greater good of society.

Make no excuses, there is  an embedded goal in SENCER  to support our democratic practices. This required us to borrow from architecture the form follows function  approach or as it has been adopted by biologists, structure begets function.  Applied to teaching and learning, this implies the choices we make on the form (structure) of learning begets the outcomes (function). The outcomes desired will depend on how and what we teach.  And it is the shift in focus from instruction to the function of instruction (or from the HOW to the WHY of teaching) that we need to focus on now. We do this  in a democratic society by creating many opportunities for our students to take up problems that affect them, work in their communities, and catalyze inquiry and learning in and outside of the classroom as authentic, relevant, challenging, and MEANINGFUL.

SENCER: From Knowledge to Action

Let me ask, , what if you knew that without adding an anticorrosive in the water lines, lead would leach into the everyday drinking water of families?

What if you knew that living near a bus depot increases your risk of asthma and if people in developing nations are being killed just to get the little food and water needed to keep them alive while others are killing themselves by overeating and wasting water resources? 

What if we knew that mothers who obtain higher education not only benefited themselves economically, but provided a significant long term economic benefit to their children and grandchildren.

What if free will, autonomy, and connecting learning to personal interests were proven effective ways to motivate learners and introduce new subjects?

What would you do if you knew all these things? What might our actions look like?  What is our obligation?

As a nation and individually, in terms of our financial and human investments, education is the most important and most critical intergenerational compact we have as a society with one another.  Education is the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next so that the next generation will have a more prosperous future than ours.  Our democracy, our culture, the health of our society, and our civic life is dependent on our fidelity to this intergenerational obligation we have as a society.  Using evidence, and what we know about successful teaching and learning, is essential in meeting that obligation.

The field of research on learning is a relatively young science. There are myriad of questions that need to be asked related to how learning takes place.  SENCER approaches draw on what we know about learning, motivation, and self-efficacy to teach STEM disciplinary content, while also supporting civic engagement, community partnerships, democratic practice, and life-long learning within different types of environments, including the traditional classroom. 

In fact, our classrooms are world-class research laboratories only if we ask the right questions about what is going on in them. Experimentation is key As a scientist, I’d like to believe that if people had the facts, they would come to a logical conclusion supported by evidence.  Research takes many forms.  It’s important to think about educational research as we would a laboratory research program.  As we teach, we can study our efforts to nurture scientifically and technically prepared citizens as a form of our scholarship. The scholarship of teaching and learning is just as important as the scholarship of discovery. Helping our institutions to recognize this has been an uphill battle where we are finally making some progress through new faculty promotion ranks.

The power of education for our democracy requires a shift from inert learning to active learning.  We have to shift from demanding the memorization of definitions and facts with little connection to student’s lives, to topics that of immediate relevance to students and their communities– to an education which is liberating, the kind of education needed by free people in a democratic society. Inert learning means students do not develop the critical thinking, the discernment, and the sense of responsibility, and the confidence to engage productively in the deliberations and decision making of their communities, in other words the skills needed for democracy. This is a more challenging standard for teaching and learning, in which students command both the subject, knowledge, and the skills needed to seek out new information and put knowledge into practice. We learned from motivation theory that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation require free will, connection to something that matters, that is relevant to the learner.

When it comes to our interventions in learning, form follows functiondemocracy and liberal learning go hand and hand.  Our responsibility is to facilitate this transition by creating opportunities for liberated learning, learning that is relevant to the learner, learning that has meaning and matters and  can be put  into action. 

There is a wonderful passage by William James in Talks to Teachers (1892), which states in a few words what years of research has verified:

“Any object not interesting in itself becomes interesting through becoming associated with an object in which interest already exists.  The two associated objects grow, as it were, together; the interesting portion sheds its quality over the whole; and thus things not interesting in their own right borrow an interest which becomes as real and as strong as the originally interesting one. "

The following should not surprise you - 

The most naturally interesting object to a person is what directly affects their life and future. 

So, from this -- there emerges a very simple way to learn more deeply:  Begin with relevance--something that interests and impacts the student - and then offer subjects that have some immediate connection with these interests. 

I taught a course on AIDS, but it covered most of the content in an immunology course.   I taught a course called “cancer,” and it covered cell biology – The courses conveyed the same material in the conventional biology courses, but the content was more interesting, relevant, and memorable in a real context. I can promise you, students were more engaged by pressing topics that  interested them – Cancer and AIDS.  If you start with an interest - - learning becomes more connected to what really matters!

William James, and later John Dewey, who greatly expanded James’s educational theory, offered us a glimpse not just how to teach but how to support deep learning. After all, we cannot afford to invest and educate a new generation of students that merely acquire knowledge without understanding how that knowledge can benefit society, their communities and the nation. 

In fact, we must ( it is our obligation) teach the content and the skills and values of democracy by creating liberating and diverse opportunities for our students to practice the work of being an engaged citizen.  Colleges and universities are agents of our democracy and we must therefore provide students who attend our institutions ample opportunity to practice those skills. It’s our obligation as knowing individuals to further the SENCER ideals and to support intellectual development and our democratic process.




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