Science-In-Society, Society-In-Science: A Workshop on Critical Thinking
about Science & Technology in their Social Context
Critical and Creative Thinking Program
Graduate College of Education
University of Massachusetts-Boston
July 26, 1999
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716
August 2, 1999
I was invited by Peter Taylor to offer my views on the quality of the workshop
and, based on this evaluation, to make recommendations concerning future
workshops. In what follows I briefly summarize the sessions Iattended. I then
describe what I believe were the strengths of the sessions and offer
suggestions for improvements in future workshops.
I attended six of the nine workshop sessions. The following are summaries of
*Douglas Allchin, "Complex Case Studies from Simple Consumer Goods"
Douglas Allchin, an independent scholar in science studies, focused on
activities designed to raise students' awareness of the environmental
implications of the daily decisions they make concerning consumer goods. He
led participants through the use of case studies at two levels of complexity.
The first was a relatively brief activity in which students map out the steps
in the production of simple consumer goods, such as a loaf of bread or pair of
blue jeans. This activity reveals the multiple sites in the production of
consumer goods at which environmental impacts can occur. The second was a much
more elaborate case study of the environmental consequences of the emissions
from an automotive plant located in a predominantly residential area. This
activity is onAllchin's website and the participants received a handout of the
case to adapt for use in their classrooms. Allchin involved the participants
in individual and small group activities at several points in the session.
* Peter Taylor, "How do we Know There is a Population-Environment Problem?"
Peter Taylor, of the Critical and Creative Thinking Program at UMass-Boston,
explored some differences between simple and complicated accounts of the
environmental impacts of human population growth, and how more complicated (and
authentic) accounts can be used to foster conceptual change in learners.
Taylor presented an example of a simple (i.e.,decontextualized) account and a
complex (i.e., contextualized) account of the mechanisms and implications of
human population fluctuations, and then led participants toward framing their
own activities to open up the complexity of cases they might teach. Taylor
used student-centered techniques such think-pair-share, freewriting, and role
playing in the workshop, and by doing so he modeled student-centered teaching
for critical thinking skills.
*Charlene D'Avanzo, "Teaching Student-Active Science"
Charlene D'Avanzo, a professor of environmental science, presented a noon-time
keynote talk on a project funded by the National Science Foundation at
Hampshire College to increase the use of student-active teaching and learning
in undergraduate science, math, engineering and technology education. She
stressed in particular the vital need to make undergraduate science courses
more compelling and effective in order to recruit and train future K-12 science
teachers who will go on to use innovative methods. D'Avanzo employed a
conventional lecture format, but she responded to numerous questions throughout
*Diane Paul, "Genetic Testing as Disguised Eugenics?"
Diane Paul, a historian of science at UMass-Boston,presented a history of
eugenics that focused primarily on the United States. The extent of eugenic
research and social policy in the early 20th century surprised many of the
participants, including biology teachers, who said they associated eugenics
with the Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust. The participants' lack of
familiarity with the role of eugenics in science and social policy in the U.S.
in this century is indicative of the need for a historical perspective in
science education, including science teacher education. Unfortunately, time
ran out before Paul had the opportunity to address the question posed in the
session title, that is the degree to which current developments in genetic
testing share scientific, ideological, and policy roots with eugenics.
Participants received a bibliography of references on eugenics and genetic
*Arthur Millman, "What Would Environmental Justice Be?"
In this session, Arthur Millman, a philosopher atUMass-Boston, described how
the study of environmental problems and controversies provides a context within
which principles of social justice can be applied and elaborated. He cited
racism, imperialism, and Native Peoples' rights as examples of justice-related
dimensions in environmental controversies. To critically analyze these issues
students must employ thinking skills, such as the use of multiple perspectives,
metacognitive awareness, and the identification of assumptions. Millman began
this session with a presentation of these ideas. Near the end of the session,
the participants briefly discussed a case study of a conflict between an
environmental advocacy organization and a Native American tribe that received
permission to harvest one individual from an otherwise protected whale species.
The case illustrated how a current news story can be the foundation for very
challenging questions of justice, ethics, and environmental and social policy.
The participants received a handout with three short case studies as well as a
list of references related to environmental justice.
Taylor led the closing session in which participants and session leaders
summarized each of the prior sessions for those who could not attend. Each
participant then described what she or he had gained from the day's activities.
The comments ranged from general insights about new ways to imagine science
education, to specific activities they experienced in the sessions, to the
pleasure of spending time in a community of people committed to implementing
new and better visions of science education. Finally, Taylor shared what he as
the conference organizer had learned about helping teachers explore new ways to
teach and learn.
I did not attend the following sessions:
* Barbara Waters, "The Apple: Applying the Constructivist Model to Learning
and Teaching Science Concepts"
*Brian White, "How is Scientific Knowledge Generated?"
*Nina Greenwald, "Search for Solutions to Life's Messy Problems"
Strengths of the Workshop
Based on the sessions I attended, and on participants' comments about the
remaining sessions, the following strengths stand out:
1. The workshop modeled cross-disciplinary perspectives on studying science
in context. The workshop included session leaders from a variety of
academic disciplines. This led to a strong sense of cross-disciplinary
thinking and collaboration. A number of the reforms advocated in Science
For All Americans (AAAS 1986) and theNational Science Education
Standards (NRC 1996), the leading science education reform documents in the
U.S., call explicitly for a softening of disciplinary boundaries and for cross-
disciplinary perspectives in teaching and learning science. By its very nature
the Critical and Creative Thinking Program at the UMass-Boston entails these
sorts of academic border crossings, a characteristic that was reflected by the
participation of presenters with experience in primary through postgraduate
education, and with training in the natural sciences, social sciences, and
humanities. For example, Douglas Allchin brought biology and environmental
science together with an analysis of public policy making. CharleneD'Avanzo
made explicit the connection between how college and university science faculty
teach and the prospects for educating innovative K-12 science teachers. The
concern for teacher education is typically a left solely to professors of
education, but, as D'Avanzo made clear, reformat the K-12 level cannot succeed
without complementary initiatives in undergraduate education. Arthur Millman
drew conceptual tools from philosophy to illuminate the nature of environmental
controversies in ways that are simply not possible if science education sticks
exclusively to facts and concepts that have been torn from the circumstances of
their development and application. In these ways the very design of the
workshop modeled the kinds of cross-disciplinary thinking and collaborations
that are necessary when teaching about science andtechnology in their social
contexts. The participants, I believe, were likely to come away with the
realization that the isolation of science from other disciplinary perspectives
in K-16 curriculums is an artifact that interferes with students' (and
teachers') abilities to find meaning in science for their own lives. The
workshop also provided instructional and curricular models to place students
back in active contact with science and to place science in contexts that make
it meaningful and exciting to study.
2. The workshop modeled active learning techniques. Gettingparticipants
involved in experiential learning was a stated goal of the workshop and,
indeed, many of the presenters used techniques to activelyi nvolve the
participants in individual and small group learning. Drawing learners as
members of learning communities into active engagement with each other around
challenging, complex problems is a central goal of national science education
reforms (AAAS 1986, NRC 1996). The workshop was again, therefore, an effective
implementation of a leading vision ofscience education reform. An example of
this experiential learning was Taylor's use of several different techniques to
engage participants as individuals and members of learning groups. Following
an initial presentation he used a think-pair-share activity. He asked
participants to individually formulate a reaction to his presentation and then
to share their thoughts with one other person. This activity paved the way for
a whole-group discussion. He used a role playing activity in which
participants worked together in groups of four or five to formulate a response
to a dilemma based on identities they had been assigned. Finally, he used
freewriting, in which individuals write as much as they can about a topic for
several minutes. These responses then serve as the basis for small and large
group discussions. This movement among various activities and group structures
is not only an effective way to keep studentsattentive and engaged, but each of
these instructional techniques can be viewed as a different thinking tool that
may foster new perspectives on a topic. Pondering one's own thoughts, writing
them out, sharing them with others, and listening to others' reactions are all
ways to create shared understandings in a community of learners. In this way,
instructional techniques are much more than just ways to deliver information or
to keep students busy, they are themselves models for critical and creative
thinking. When used in teacher education programs such as this workshop,
active learning techniques not only model effective teaching, they give
teachers firsthand experiences as learners in a setting of innovative science
instruction. The knowledge, or more properly the feeling, of what it is
like to be an active science learner is an important element in helping
teachers make sense of and move toward this kind of learning in their own
3. The workshop made practical resources available to theparticipants.
All of the session leaders made instructional resources available to the
participants, although some sessions had more elaborate and refined resources
than others. Douglas Allchin, for instance, handed out a well developedcase
study to the participants. Arthur Millman offered three brief cases that he
had not yet used with students. And Diane Paul gave participants a
bibliography of sources on eugenics and genetic testing. When we consider K-12
teachers, in particular, if the goal of a workshop is to encourage them to
implement new approaches in theirclassrooms, it is vital that they receive
practical resources that they can immediately adapt to their circumstances.
Many teachers are expert adapters of materials, but they often lack the time
and resources to develop activities from scratch. It is not enough for a
teachers to get a few good ideas out of a workshop, they need actual
instructional materials that they can use, adapt, and elaborate to suit
themselves and their students. Most of the sessions I attended included these
Recommendations for future workshops
1. Consistently foreground active learning and criticalthinking. All
presenters should use student-centered, critical thinking techniques in their
sessions. Even sessions that are structured primarily as conventional
presentations ought to model techniques to keep participants engaged as active
thinkers rather than passive listeners. Most of the sessions I attended were
excellent examples of student-active learning, but Paul's and Millman's
sessions slid rather too comfortably into the sage on the stage approach that
is common in academic talks. There are surely times to hear from experts, but
even primarily didactic presentations can incorporate brief interludes that
turn the focus from what the experts have to say to the sense that participants
make from what they hear. To model lectures that actively engage students is
certainly a worthwhile goal in a teacher education workshop.
2. Strongly represent the interests and circumstances of K-12teachers.
Careful attention to the realities of K-12 classrooms is necessary to build and
sustain an audience in the K-12 community for teacher education workshops.
Although it is surely valuable to draw workshop participants from across the
K-16 spectrum so that people who rarely meet one another can begin to identify
work toward common interests, the danger is that the perspectives and
experiences of postsecondary scholars will come to dominate the workshop. The
realities of elementary and secondary classrooms are in many ways far removed
from what professors experience in their classrooms. It is therefore vital
that K-12 teachers be well represented among session leaders, and that the
academics who lead sessions understand something of the daily circumstances
with which K-12 teachers must contend. Although, on the whole, I believe this
workshop effectively served a diverse audience, some sessions lost contact with
the experiences of K-12 faculty. Quite simply, some session leaders did not
adequately consider how particular information or activities might be
meaningful and practically useful to K-12 teachers. Sessions in which K-12and
postsecondary faculty collaborate as co-leaders is one way to both draw upon
diverse perspectives, serve diverse audiences, and foster enduring connections
among K-16 educators.
3. Link workshop topics to state and national science
educationstandards. The ways in which the workshop could help teachers
meet state and national science education standards was not made explicit. The
standards movement has a tendency to be interpreted as a push toward "the
basics" (i.e., decontextualized facts and concepts), but it is important to
make clear that the study of science in social context is a component of
national reforms and most state standards. Workshops such as these can
therefore serve to resist the slide toward antiseptic teaching of science
"basics" and ensure that the opportunity presented by science education
standards documents for teachers to broaden what it means to teach and learn
science is seized. Some teachers will encounter resistance to their attempts
to broaden the meaning of science education, so it is important that they know
how to use to national and state science education standards to advance new
visions of science education.
4. Don't forget about student assessment. Curriculum (what is
taught/learned), instruction (how it is taught/learned), and assessment
(determining what students make of what is taught) are three interwoven
dimensions of science education out of which new visions of teaching and
learning can be crafted. As I noted above, many of the sessions modeled
excellent visions of science curriculum and instruction. But teachers must
also assess the understandings that students construct. Focused
discussions and practical suggestions concerning student assessment were
notably lacking in the sessions I attended. As we encourage teachers to move
away from traditional topics and methods of teaching, assessment takes on
greater importance. Conventional forms of assessment, such as worksheets,
multiple choice items, and short answer items, are unlikely to do justice to
the sorts of understandings we hope students develop from the complex and
open-ended problems they investigate when they study science in context. We
therefore need to help teachers develop assessments that are authentic to the
sorts of learning their students will do.
4. Solicit participant feedback in writing before the end of
theworkshop. Participants were asked for their comments and feedback
during the closing session, and they were invited to make written comments via
e-mail if they wished. In addition, I suggest that a standard written
evaluation be used in all future workshops. A one-page sheet included in the
workshop materials and filled out before participants leave usually ensures a
higher rate of response than an open request for feedback. With a standard
evaluation form it is possible to collect comparable data across workshops, to
focus on particular dimensions of the participants'experiences, and to collect
feedback on individual sessions.