“Genuine science literacy requires understanding how scientific knowledge is attained, its nature and limitations.” Dr. Dudley Herschbach, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, as quoted in, “ Science News: The Magazine of the Society for Science and the Public”, July 19, 2008, p. 32.
“If we teach only the findings and products of science – no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be – without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? … The method of science … is far more important than the findings of science.” Dr. Carl Sagan, “The Demon Haunted World, p. 21.
We live in a period in history in which scientific discoveries and their applications profoundly influence our society. From advances in medicine and communication systems, to developments in agriculture and genetic engineering and the utilization of resources, we live in a world informed by, and dependent upon, science. We also live in a world that has been profoundly altered by human activities, as evidenced by such things as the loss of ecosystems and species, resource depletion, the energy crisis, and global warming - each of which threaten our way of life. Unfortunately, many studies have shown that the average American citizen is scientifically illiterate and fundamentally unable to understand these developments and issues. For example, one-half of the American public does not know the earth goes around the sun once a year. Half of Americans believe that the earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. Billions of dollars are spent each year in the United States on health practices, many of which have not been scientifically validated, and some of which have been shown to be either ineffective or harmful. Just as importantly, many people do not understand the significance and importance of the scientific method and of scientific reasoning, both of which are based on the need for objective, logical evaluation of empirical evidence when evaluating claims. As a result, people fail to appreciate the significance of science as a “way of knowing” and also do not realize that this method of critical thinking can be used by all people in their daily lives to help them evaluate the validity of information to which they are exposed.
To address this issue, Sam Houston State University is developing a QEP that focuses upon the development of critical thinking in our students by teaching them to evaluate claims using both scientific reasoning and basic scientific concepts. This will be accomplished using two approaches to teaching introductory science. In the first, the Departments of Biology and Geography/Geology will teach an entirely new multidisciplinary, Gen-Ed science course called “Foundations of Science”, which will focus on the evaluation of extraordinary claims that are common in our culture and which have significant appeal to students. These claims include those pertaining to astrology, UFOs, alien abductions, legendary creatures, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, non-traditional medicines, paranormal phenomena, and others. Through an examination of these topics, students will learn some of the basic facts, principles, and theories from many different disciplines of science. In the process, students also will learn more about the nature of science and the scientific method, how to more reliably evaluate information, and how to avoid common errors in reasoning that lead to erroneous conclusions. The second approach, which is discipline-specific and which will be used by the Departments of Physics and Chemistry, will entail altering the format of some sections of their introductory, Gen-Ed science courses so as to include one day of guided discussions and guest lectures each week in which students will learn more about the nature of science and the applications of science in their lives. Because these critical thinking skills are generalizable, the QEP should positively impact our students’ critical thinking skills in the non-science areas of their studies. The university will assess student progress in the development of their critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and scientific literacy using both standardized tests and locally-developed tests. A combination of pre-test/post-test and comparative assessments will be used in this process.