Current challenges to science education

Science courses typically focus on preparing students to know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world. Important as this goal is, it only gives a very limited picture of what science is really about. Scientists observe natural phenomena, perform experiments, propose hypotheses to explain their findings, publish them in specialized journals, and discuss their interpretations with colleagues. They are passionately driven by all sorts of motivations, from personal curiosity to the need to solve practical problems, and they try to find logical explanations for their findings, even if those findings turn out to be completely unexpected. Most students, however, are given a very different picture of science, which emphasizes a linearity in the process of scientific discovery that has little to do to how science really works in practice.

Bruce Alberts, a renowned biochemist who has worked extensively on DNA replication, has developed enormous efforts to improve science education in the last decades. While serving as president of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States from 1993 to 2005, he was responsible for the definition of the new national science education standards in the United States and for the publication of several studies on pedagogical matters.

In 2007, a committee of scientists and science educators brought together by the National Academies of the United States produced a report listing the abilities that students should develop in scientific courses:

  • to know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world
  • to generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations
  • to understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge
  • to participate productively in scientific practices and discourse

In many schools, especially at pre-college level, the first aim is excessively emphasized in relation to the remaining three, and hence it comes as no surprise that vast numbers of science students fail to understand how science works in practice, and how it differs from other forms of knowledge. In fact, the deep-rooted habit of presenting too much information in scientific courses without favoring in-depth explorations, does not contribute to the understanding of scientific concepts and practices. Science education needs to be reformed so that we can overcome these limitations.

Between 2009 and 2013, Alberts served as Editor-in-Chief of Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals, and he frequently discussed current challenges to science education in the editorials he wrote. The following texts provide some of his thoughtful reflections on science education. 

Trivializing science education, 20 January 2012

Redefining science education, 23 January 2009


How can the history of science help to overcome current problems in science education? See next page