The U.S. has long been a global leader in science and technology, but Americans overall still struggle with many basic scientific concepts. Only about 50 percent know that humans and dinosaurs never co-existed, for example, and just a third can explain what it means to study something scientifically, according to surveys by the National Science Foundation.
These stats have gradually improved over the years, but they still lag behind many other industrialized nations. While the U.S. has produced some of the top scientific minds in modern history, Americans also have a long track record of balking at the way science is taught to schoolchildren. From the Scopes monkey trial to sex ed and climate change, battles over educational bias often have a tendency to distract from the education itself.
Sometimes, though, it's just a matter of presentation. Instead of flatly dictating scientific principles to students, teachers can let the data do the talking — or better yet, they can help students learn how to collect and analyze data on their own. That's the idea behind the Keystone Science School in Keystone, Colo., where I've spent the past two days with teachers from across the U.S. and Canada as they learn innovative ways to help students teach themselves about science.
In my first 48 hours at KSS, I've already gone geocaching through brambly fields, made 3-D topographic maps of local mountains, attended a lecture about pine beetles against a backdrop of dying pines, illustrated survey data with "human bar graphs," helped design and build a working model of an eco-friendly cable car, and conducted a hands-on lab exercise about pollution and toxicity thresholds. Today we'll be collecting water-quality data from local streams and then learning how to graph and analyze our findings, among other activities.
It's debatable whether true objectivity is ever really possible, but the KSS curriculum at least makes it a primary goal. In the cable-car exercise, for instance, we worked in groups to make SimCity-esque decisions about budgeting, construction materials, route planning, ecosystem disruption and employee benefits, all with the goal of making our cable car the most sustainable version possible. But the KSS facilitators kept us in the dark about the potential consequences of our decisions, leaving us to learn on the fly. And when it comes to science, there's no better way to learn.
(Full disclosure: This trip is paid for by Georgia-Pacific, a sponsor of MNN. GP has supported the Keystone Science School for more than a decade, and also helps send several science teachers there every year.)