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How do you teach kids about science when there is so much scientific misinformation and conflict over the truth about coronavirus, vaccines and masks?
For the staff at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the problem isn’t new. The nonprofit, which works from the local level to the national level to make sure students across the U.S. have an accurate science education, has been guiding teachers on how to handle politically fraught issues like evolution and climate change for years.
Questions about masking, sending kids to school, new variants, CDC policy changes and conspiracy theories prompted the NCSE to develop a new set of lessons, called the “nature of science,” to tackle the most common misconceptions about science and how science works. The lessons are based around public health, epidemiology and the coronavirus pandemic because there’s “an urgent need for people to understand those topics,” said Ann Reid, executive director of NCSE.
“What we certainly see from the pandemic is having a low level of science literacy and a low understanding of how science works in the population is really dangerous,” Reid said. “It leaves people very vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation.”
“What we certainly see from the pandemic is having a low level of science literacy and a low understanding of how science works in the population is really dangerous.”Ann Reid, executive director of NCSE
This summer, the NCSE ramped up its efforts to help teachers grapple with controversial topics. It recruited a group of around 30 teachers who hail from places where conflicts over science during the pandemic have been especially heated, including Florida and Mississippi, to field-test a series of lesson plans on the nature of science — along with a series of climate change lesson plans that had been delayed by the pandemic.
The teachers were first assessed on how they how they approached teaching potentially hot-button topics like climate change and evolution (for example, in some cases teachers might avoid conflict, try to take a middle ground and let kids come to their own conclusions, or avoid a controversial topic altogether). Then they received training in how to teach the lessons in their classes so they could launch the series this school year.
According to Reid, because NCSE found that many teachers didn’t receive much training on topics like climate change or epidemiology, these new lessons include a lot of information to bring teachers up to speed on the science.
Exercises within the lessons are designed help give teachers competence and skill in teaching topics that are considered controversial, and also help resolve student misconceptions, Reid said. They also encourage media literacy: Each lesson is meant to help teach students how to evaluate whether scientific evidence is credible or not.
For example, an activity about masking asks students to work together to develop and test masks to see how masks work. Students also conduct research and present it to the class, and discuss the sourcing of information they review, including the scientists behind the research, and who paid for it.
“It’s going to be challenging obviously to measure whether we’re making a dent in that 50 to 60 percent of teachers who are not teaching these topics the way we would like to see them teach them,” Reid said. “But what we’re hoping for is that eventually we’ll be working in school districts with all of the science teachers so that we can start to really get in front of those teachers who might think that they just can’t teach these topics.”
Making science education more rigorous is more critical than ever, according to new report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which argues that especially now, “investing in improved science learning for all must be a national priority.”
Reid, however, is worried that improving science instruction is still a low priority in too many schools, and at the federal level.
“What I would have loved to have seen is that out of this pandemic, everybody would be having kind of a Sputnik moment of, ‘Wow, boy, we need to really invest a lot in science education.’ That’s really important. And there’s been some of that,” Reid said. “But I feel like it’s kind of been an add-on in some of the big funding decisions from Congress.”
This story about science education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.