Field of Science

Making science relevant

One thing about being a scientist interested in how people think and how different groups of people think differently is that you constantly notice differences in how scientists and non-scientists think differently.

For instance, scientists like evidence. You think how you parent your children affects how they turn out? Maybe. It's a testable question. (For my position on the question and on the evidence, read here.) One mark of a great researcher is the ability to spot untested assumptions (one of my favorite examples being Marc Hauser's work on language evolution). Of course, some scientists are less confined by evidence than others, and my avowedly non-scientist wife is as empirical-minded as they come. But it seems to be generally true (though I admit I don't know any well-controlled studies).

Where am I going with this?

Does making science relevant help science education?

In the last issue of Science Magazine, Hulleman and Harackiewicz point out that

Many educators and funding agencies share the belief that making education relevant to students’ lives will increase engagement and learning. However, little empirical evidence supports the specific role of relevance in promoting optimal educational outcomes, and most evidence that does exist is anecdotal or correlational.
I smell an experiment. It was surprisingly simple: students in a high school system in the Midwest were randomly assigned to write essays (as many as 8 during the semester, with an average of 4.7 essays/student) that either just summarized what they were learning in science or tried to apply what they learned to their own lives. The students who wrote essays relating science to their lives got better science grades and reported more interest in science at the end.

Motivation or depth of processing?

The authors discuss this in terms of motivation: students who see the relevance of science are more interested in it. (They also seem to imply that it improves confidence.) I'm interested in understanding the mechanism better (a professor in my department complains that Science articles are necessarily too short to give necessary experimental detail and theoretical motivation): were these students more interested because of the personal relevance per se, or was it simply that thinking about relevance required investing in and reinterpreting the material. After all, science isn't just a list of facts (or shouldn't be, anyway). Facts are boring; interpretations are what make science science.

But that is, as they say, academic. As the authors point out, this was a relatively simple method that improved grades and interest in science. Assuming, of course, that it replicates, this is a valuable contribution.

And it suggests that making science relevant improves education outcomes. If that seemed obvious from the get-go, it's worth remembering how many obvious truths have turned out to be wrong. Occasionally proving the obvious is an occupation hazard, but still worth the effort.

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