Task Force Essay: Science Education in the United States: Some Lessons for the Islamic World

June 19th, 2015 | by MuslimScience
Task Force Essay: Science Education in the United States:  Some Lessons for the Islamic World
February 2015

By: Prof. Bruce Alberts

10882124_778953662180050_2514996403735420712_nMy strong personal interest in science education began in the early 1980s.  At that time, my three children were young teenagers in the public schools of San Francisco, and I was a professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the medical school of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).  Up to that point in my career, like most of my colleagues at the university, I had focused almost exclusively at educating graduate students and running my small research laboratory. However, my wife Betty had just been selected as the president of the Parents and Teacher Association (PTA) of San Francisco, a volunteer organization of parents devoted to supporting the San Francisco Unified School District.  In that role, she would speak at nearly every meeting of the District’s elected School Board.  These meetings were held every two weeks on Tuesday evenings and broadcast on the radio. I became a regular listener and was disturbed by what I heard. There was almost no discussion of the serious issues of education:  goals for student learning, the curriculum, or how to support teachers with training and resources. Sadly, to the detriment of both, the School District and my large, highly successful university seemed to exist on two different planets, even though we were only a few blocks away.

I decided that I would work to create productive interfaces between these two different worlds, a process that started with meeting with a group of the District’s best science teachers to see how UCSF might help. This meeting led to the creation of a set of voluntary one-on-one partnerships between a District teacher and a UCSF scientist, in which each scientist was to serve as an adapter between the teacher and the university by responding to teacher requests for help with teaching resources (chemicals, equipment, organisms) or information (textbooks, expertise, training). Twenty-five years later, this program survives as UCSF’s Science and Health Education Partnership (SEP; see

Inquiry Based Science Education:

While my focus in this article is on science teaching at the university level, not on science education for students of age 5 to 18, the above history is relevant, because it was from the many outstanding pre-college science teachers I met through SEP that I first came to realize how little I understood about science education. Even though I had been teaching biochemistry at the college and graduate school level since 1968, I knew almost nothing about what experts in science education had learned from many cycles of curriculum development and research. In fact, I don’t believe that I even knew that such research was being done.  I was by no means unusual in this regard: nearly all of my fellow professors were equally uninformed. We all equated teaching with traditional lecturing, because those of us who became professors had gotten the A grades in science classes in which the students were merely passive listeners, and we quite naturally assumed that everyone could learn well in this way. (See

Of equal importance, I have since come to realize that a major rate-limiting step in improving the science education that students receive before college is how we define “science education” in the introductory college science classes that are taught in universities. In retrospect this should have been obvious.  If, for example, most first year college science courses in biology attempt to cover all of the material in a comprehensive text book of 1200 pages, this will set the standard for biology education at lower levels in that nation.  Those lower level courses will likewise stress “coverage” and be a mile wide and an inch deep, lacking the kind of deep exploration of any topic that is needed to impart a sense of excitement and understanding. In fact, because there are many less words available for explanation in a lower level textbook, precollege courses often become little more than a march through huge numbers of word associations, with students being forced to memorize hundreds of meaningless phrases for their course examinations, such as “the mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell.”

Evidence on Better Teaching Approaches:

Fast-forward to the present, and it is difficult for any college science professor to plead ignorance with regard to the benefits of incorporating active inquiry into their teaching. In recent years, a very large amount of research has been carried out to compare the effect of traditional lecturing versus the inclusion of “active learning” in college science classes.  Thus a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences could analyze the results of 225 controlled studies of college science, mathematics, and engineering classes, finding that, “average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning”. The authors thereby concluded that the results “support active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms” (see

Through the National Academies, the prestigious US National Academy of Sciences has published many book-length summaries of what we know about good college science teaching, all of them freely available as downloadable PDFs on the web at (See, for example, Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, 2012; Promising Practices in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education, 2011).

For those eager to improve their teaching, there are many sources of useful information designed to facilitate change. For example, since 2002, the open access journal CBE: Life Sciences Education has published a large series of “how-to teach” guides for college science teachers (see, for example,

And for those who prefer videos to print, the iBiology website contains a series of concise talks by leaders in college science education reform at And essays and curricula from the 24 winners of Science magazine’s two year contest for the best inquiry based modules for college science and engineering (IBI Prize) are freely accessible at its open-access web portal for education at

The Best Way to Teach:

The small liberal arts colleges in the United States have long been leaders in exploring the best way to teach.  But with typical class sizes of 50 students or less, they were often dismissed as not relevant to the much larger classrooms of a large comprehensive university. But we now have multiple models for the implementation of active learning in introductory science classes that serve over a thousand students per year.  These include the comprehensive reform efforts led by Nobel-prize winning physicist Carl Wieman — first at the University of Colorado, Boulder and then at the University of British Columbia (see and UBC: And in 2010, the University of Minnesota opened a new science building with 16 flat, “no-lecture classrooms”, in which several hundred students sit around a large table in groups of 9, sharing two or three laptop computers attached to the internet as well as to overhead projection screens.  All introductory biology courses are now taught in this way, along with an increasing number of other science courses (see videos at ( ;

The analysis of 225 research studies that showed such positive results for active learning, referenced above, included much less ambitious efforts than those at the University of Minnesota. The research supports even modest changes in traditional lecturing that are easy to implement even in large lecture halls. For a discussion of seven different options for incorporating active learning in a college science class, see

Some Simple Tools:

Perhaps the simplest modification to implement is the addition of “clicker” questions to lectures that are presented in a standard lecture hall. In this case, the lecture is interrupted every 15 minutes so to pose a conceptual multiple-choice question that requires student understanding to answer. After the students vote (using a device that resembles a TV remote), the results are immediately displayed electronically. The classroom then becomes very noisy, as each discusses the answer with several near-by neighbors. After a few minutes, the students vote again, invariably displaying an increase in their understanding. In the past decade, this modest form of active learning has spread widely throughout US universities, and it is being implemented for many different subjects, in addition to science and engineering classes.

As an example, a clicker question that I used in a course on cancer taught to a medical school class is presented below:

From what you know about cancer so far, would you predict that:

A). For most of us, our probability of getting cancer has little to do with the particular genes that we inherit; usually, cancer is instead the result of unlucky accidents.

B). The controls on cell proliferation would be expected to be such that, for the vast majority of our cells, no combination of a small number of mutations could cause cancer.

C). Cancer at some level is inevitable, no matter what we do about avoiding exposures to harmful substances.

D). Elaborate new systems that control cell proliferation had to arise before a unicellular organism could evolve to produce multicellular organisms on the Earth.

E).  All of the above.

Here the correct answer is E.

Good clicker questions are difficult to prepare, but help can be found at

Research also strongly supports the value of group work in problem solving by students (see, for example,, as well as the value of direct feedback — not just course evaluations  — for improving the way that faculty teach (see, for example,;

The Purpose of Teaching Science:

I have thus far failed to discuss the critical issue of what exactly is to be taught. Obviously, it is meaningless to advocate for introducing more active learning in introductory college science classes in the absence of a framework for what it is that students should be learning: active learning for what purpose?  Here I am on difficult ground if research is to be our guide. Research demonstrates the value of having one or a few central “learning objectives” for each class period – statements about the knowledge and skills that students should gain, which are clearly thought through and written down by the instructor in his or her initial stages of course design. But what exactly is most important for students to learn in any discipline is a matter for expert judgment — and not all experts will agree.

Most broadly, I would argue that every college science course – be it biology, physics, chemistry, or earth sciences – should aim to enable students to gain a deep understanding of the nature of science. What is it that scientists do, and how does our broad consensus of how the world works (Science with an upper case S) develop from the many efforts of individual scientists (science with a lower case s)? By the end of any science course, students should be able to defend the statement that “science is a special way of knowing about the world” and to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific questions. And I would like them to be able to appreciate quotes like the following:

“The society of scientists is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth. Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between the individual and the group. It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a range of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honor, human dignity and self-respect.” (From Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values, 1956).

Other core ideas will be discipline specific.  Confining myself to biology, the field that I know best, different faculty will want to stress different aspects of biology in an introductory course, reflecting that teacher’s passions and expertise. This fits with the fact that biology is a huge, ever-expanding field of knowledge, and only a portion this field can be taught effectively in the time available.  And I am a strong believer in the “less is more” approach to education, since the frequent attempts to cover all of biology in a single year leave students with little sense of the science, and too often end up being little more than a race to memorize thousands of different science word definitions.

Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that there are at least a few core ideas that should be included in an introductory course.  A recent attempt to outline such ideas for biology can be found at  This website describes the Advanced Placement Course in US high schools that has been designed to match the best college courses in the subject.  Analogous information is available from the same source for courses in chemistry, physics, and environmental science.


In closing, I would like to emphasize that, wherever possible, students should be forced to struggle with a problem before being told the answer.  This is a very good way to enable students to understand the nature of science, as well as to get them to appreciate central scientific concepts.. Consider, for example, the topic of DNA, the molecule that stores all biological information for cells and for organisms, forming the basis for heredity, Many students fail to appreciate how amazing DNA is, because they have no idea of the huge intellectual gap that the discovery of its double-helical structure filled in 1953. Before that time, it was impossible to imagine how the great amount of information needed to produce an organism be “written” in the tiny space inside the cell nucleus, or how it could be so stably maintained over centuries despite the random chemical changes caused by the heat energy that acts on molecules over time. It may save class time to omit all of the history and rationale, but it can destroy most of the pleasure of learning.



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