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The public isn’t sick of experts, they’re just sick of experts telling them to just believe them

Jamming science down the throats of people that don't trust science won't help. It's too late for them to change their mind.

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804 words. 5 minute read.

Science is experiencing a lot of problems lately. Although everyone seems to want move forward and our government is pushing a science agenda with a desire for a stronger science education for our students, the public distrust in science is increasing and scientists are struggling with what to do.

Many say this problem is a result of the public being sick of experts, but I think there’s a bigger core issue: most science is difficult to understand and there is a disconnect between choices during an experiment and the outcome which makes it difficult for most to understand how science is performed and what we can learn from it.

But I think there is hope, and that hope requires that science teachers embrace the right technology.

For every action, there is a reaction

I spent last night coding. Now, when I say coding, I mean that I was manipulating some simple html code someone else wrote to achieve a similar look on a webpage I was creating.

Despite beginning with little skill, after 4 hours I had a better understanding of the structure of what I was doing, and here's why: with computer code, I immediately see the results of what I've done. I know if my code broke something or whether I achieved what I wanted. I can easily test what a section of code does by manipulating it and viewing the outcome.

This is a form of hypothesis testing. I assume this code performs the action x, if I alter the code, it should perform action y. I can the easily test this hypothesis and see if I was correct.

This is exactly what a scientist does each day in their research, but the feedback and outcome are always delayed by months, if not years. For example, as an evolutionary biologist, my experiments require time for the animals to breed and produce offspring, and then I have to wait for those offspring to mature before I can test to see if my hypothesis is correct. In other words, it takes months for me to learn from my mistakes.

It’s difficult for the public or students of any age to perform experiments like these, and therefore, learn the scientific method by trial and error.

But what if technology was leveraged to make the scientific exploration more like my coding experience? This could allow students to experience mistakes and gain a better understanding of the scientific process.

Technology and the age of personalized learning

Our current technology largely attracts students to learning either through making their learning into an enjoyable experience (i.e. gamification), or providing students with a simulation of how a system functions (e.g., how cells undergo division).

In neither case are students engaged in a problem-based or exploratory learning approach and are instead learning by answering questions or simply by watching something happen. In some circumstances such as maths or reading comprehension, this may work well, but this will not work for science as scientific discovery is a hands-on approach.

What is required is a blending of technology with hands-on experiences.

Virtual reality where individuals could immerse themselves in a virtual science lab and perform experiments with immediate results is an option. But whether you love or hate virtual reality, the fact is that until it is affordable to the poorest students, it is not a viable teaching method.

Augmented reality is another approach and here the technology is more affordable as it uses existing mobile phones and tablets to blend a virtual and real world. Students could perform experiments with augmented reality animals that are programmed to behave in a “real” (and noisy) way.

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I used an augmented reality approach to teach students about animal contests and experimental design. Of the 40 students in the class, all of them felt interacting with the virtual animals helped their understanding of how to design an experiment and what kinds of data they would collect.

In fact, in other approaches where we used games to encourage discussion and problem solving 98% of students enjoyed their learning experience and felt their understanding was improved by technology. We haven’t performed any formal studies yet, but are preparing to do so. Nonetheless, the results are promising and exciting.

Blending science, technology, and learning

Although students enjoy sceince at school, most don't see it as a career option and the scientific understanding of our students isn't improving.

If we want our future population to trust science, we need to provide our students with a better understanding of science to prepare them for an uncertain world.

Problem-based approaches that provide intrinsic learning experiences may work better than technology using extrinsic rewards, but to figure this out, we need more studies to explore this question. But unlike augmented reality games, these studies won’t be that easy to perform.