Scientific knowledge, scientific methods, societal issues, personal needs, and career awareness are the goals for science education. In the period 1955 to 1975, these goals were in transition. Between 1975 and approximately 1995, the science education community reformed the goals. The publication of Science for All Americans (AAAS, 1989), Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993), and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) clearly set new goals for science education. The following discussion describes the status of goals in 1975 to 2009 and suggests the direction of change.
Science programs are primarily oriented toward knowledge of the academic disciplines. In the classroom, knowledge goals become the scientific facts, concepts, and principles that reflect the structure of science. Science teachers report that they want their students to understand the subject matter of science. For example, they want the students to know scientific concepts and definitions of scientific words, and to develop inquiry abilities and critical thinking skills. Understanding science is generally interpreted as passing a test.
There is little effort by science teachers to realize the goal of understanding and using the methods of science. For example, teachers do not use questioning techniques or instructional procedures that facilitate the cognitive abilities of scientific inquiry.
However, evidence indicates that students can attain an understanding of scientific inquiry as a process, develop essential inquiry skills, and use these skills to improve their ability to think critically about science-related problems (NRC, 2000).
Several factors hinder the implementation of the scientific methods goal. First, science teachers are neither model inquirers for their students nor have they been educated in methodologies of scientific research. Second, most science teachers lecture for more than 75 percent of the class time, leaving students few opportunities to ask questions. Third, inquiry as a goal of science teaching is generally not seen as productive and is not accepted by most science teachers. Fourth, teachers who are aware of scientific methods as a goal of teaching feel that only bright, highly motivated students can profit from inquiry teaching. Fifth, inquiry teaching is seen by teachers as time consuming, thus reducing the time available for basics, that is, learning facts and getting so-called right answers. The current improvement of science education and national support for the goal of scientific inquiry should change the lack of emphasis on this goal.
Increasing interest in science literacy and societal goals is evident in science programs. Science teachers are including these goals to make science relevant to the concerns of all students.
The goals for teaching science indicate more emphasis on environmental concepts, world problems, decision making, and interdisciplinary studies—all areas related to the goal of teaching students how to deal with societal issues. National Science Education Standards are having a direct impact on state and local frameworks for science education. State departments of education are influencing changes in goals through their legislative and regulatory powers, such as specific requirements to include energy conservation, environmental problems, and health, alcohol, and drugs in educational programs.
School personnel and parents express their concerns about meeting the personal needs of students through science education. This rhetoric takes the form of life-and-work and school-to-work skills related to science, the preparation ethic, and vocational or career education. In response, science courses often emphasize content that is seen as useful in everyday living.
Attempts to meet personal needs are made primarily through health or advanced placement courses. Some of the other goals, such as career awareness, overlap with these courses. Sometimes personal needs are met as a secondary effect of another goal. A socially relevant course on environmental science may provide fundamental knowledge that stimulates students to examine the life worth living.
The goal of meeting personal needs has always been subordinate in science education programs, especially when compared to goals such as knowledge. In the past three decades, the goal of fulfilling students’ personal needs has become increasingly important. This goal is closely related to both career and societal goals.
One of the currently important goals of science education is to provide information and training that will be useful in future employment. You might hear this expressed as the need for science education that supports a twenty-first-century workforce. Recent increased emphasis on this goal is due in part to public opinion and concerns by business and industry. The career awareness goal was found consistently across science programs, although it was not the primary goal of science education. What mattered most was the scientific and technological knowledge needed for the next course and whether all the courses were eventually related to one’s future job.
There is some resistance to implementing the career goal in science education. Several issues emerge: Teachers and communities have questioned whether the school should serve labor needs, that is, whether the school should help prepare for work. They have questioned the apparent conflict between work of the school and the world of work. Science teachers are reluctant to sacrifice the scholastic program to help youth prepare for jobs. When teachers, parents, and science coordinators were asked about vocational goals of science courses, they all agreed that these goals should be included—however, the majority selected general education goals over vocational goals.
In recent decades, the inclusion of career goals in science programs has been increasingly important. Although the career goal has been emphasized and is important, it probably will become an increasingly important goal of science education in the twenty-first century.
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