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Science Teachers Report
by Kostia Bergman, Pat Brennan, & Mike Teel
The N.E. Regional National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) convention in Boston, last December, was different from past national NSTA conventions the Science Teaching Group has attended. We were asked to present our own sessions, given space for our literature table, and the NSTA sessions were run in a more open manner. Since the regional NSTA sessions allowed more teacher participation, there was no need for confrontation in order to raise questions or suggest alternatives. Some of the people we had met at previous NSTA conventions remarked that we had changed! (Evidently we had not made our reasons for confrontation clear at those conventions.)
After the conference that we had held last March on science and society issues, we were in good shape for the NSTA regional convention. We had prepared a number of workshops and materials. Our largest effort for the convention was preparing a series of booklets for students. It took four months’ hard work to edit the pamphlets so that they could be understood by high school students. Our effort has paid off. They can be used not only for students but for interested people with varying scientific and work backgrounds. The topics covered· are: The Energy Crisis, Issues of Health Care, and Genetic Engineering. (Politics of Ecology is on its way!) All together we had a lot to offer the other teachers at the convention. (And they dug it!)
Science Teaching Group Sessions
Three of our workshops were listed as regular NSTA sessions, and we also sponsored a talk by geneticist Richard Lewontin. His talk on genetics and IQ served as a catalyst to look at the racist theories of Jensen, Herrnstein, and Shockley. Some of the participants were surprised by the poor background that some of the teachers had, still holding the Lamarckian view that environment changes genes. The time for the talk was too short for extensive discussion.
The genetics and IQ issue was picked up again in our session on Genetic Engineering. After a half-hour presentation, the 80-100 people in the session broke into three groups. The discussion in the groups ranged from the use of Jensen-Herrnstein ideas in their (ghetto) schools to the impact of genetic testing (like for sickle-cell anemia). The participants report that the discussion was really good, with people drawing upon a wealth of personal experiences.
Our politics of ecology session showed us that many of the other socially concerned teachers had been doing their homework. They weren’t surprised by the three speakers’ twin contention that the energy crisis was brought on by the oil monopolies for their own benefit and that the wasteful nature of the American economy was also a product of the large corporations. In fact, in the discussion groups following the three talks, the other teachers presented a lot of additional information as we tried to define politics surrounding the ecology movement. One problem brought up was how to reconcile the fact that the energy crisis was promoting needed energy conservation with the fact that it was staged to benefit the energy companies. Of course, it’s the working people who are asked to conserve, with little challenge to the wasteful (but profitable) structure of the economy. There seemed to be a consensus that teachers could best act by showing their students how to think critically and by giving them a sense of acting politically in their own common interest.
The Science and Society Courses session was a repeat from our March conference, so it didn’t require much preparation. There were a couple of new faces among the speakers, including a high school chemistry teacher we met at the March conference. The session was organized so that each speaker described some particular aspect of their teaching for 5-10 minutes, and after each speaker a short time was given for comments and questions from the floor. This was in contrast to the normal NSTA session with its “expert” monologue, and was well received by the session participants.
The speakers outlined their efforts to develop students’ critical thinking, to streamline basic science curriculum and insert social issues, to study how science has treated women, and to go beyond the “sense of doom” one gets from studying social issues of science. The topic which generated the most interest was probably the way science has seen women. The talk provided a good example of how science has served some interests to the detriment of others, and how people can act together to understand and change society. Several people pointed out that it was by working with political action groups such as Science for the People—actually doing something—that both students and teachers lose their “sense of doom.” The session benefitted from having a number of teachers attending who had been leading science and society courses. Instead of trying to get people to teach science and society courses, as in the past, we were now talking about the best way to do it.
We made several attempts to organize informal sessions to talk about general teaching problems, including a wine and cheese get-together at one of our evening meetings. The only successful one took place in the afternoon following the Science and Society Courses session. Evidently people were really turned on by that session and by the advertising done around the literature table. So many people came that we had to break the group up into a number of discussion groups. People talked about everything from work-study programs to grading, from non-traditional teaching situations to student lack of preparation and confidence. Teachers got to share their successes, as well as the system’s failures. At the end there were a lot of comments about how enjoyable it had been to talk with other teachers.
The Science Teaching Group broke up into smaller units to attend some of the NSTA sessions which had social and political content. Sessions such as: Health Education, Population Control, Business and Technology, etc. Our objective was to open up the sessions so that the teachers present could actively take part in the discussion. The usual NSTA convention session revolves around monologues by a few “experts”. These same “experts” often praise open education, letting students discover on their own. This bit of hypocrisy is not too astonishing when one realizes what the purpose of the convention is: a trade fair for the education corporations and big ed schools—not a place for teachers to share ideas.
Sure enough, all of the sessions began in a monologue fashion. But this year there was little resistance when we politely broke the ice with questions and differing positions. Other teachers followed suit. The newer members of the Science Teaching Group got a chance to learn how to open up closed monologues. Surprisingly, there were few people at these sessions compared to our own sessions and the few other similar ones.
The closest thing to a confrontation took place around some guerrilla theatre. The NSTA was playing up the Boston Museum of Science (which glorifies the high-technology war corporations like Honeywell), so we asked the Honeywell Project for some help in exposing what the Museum does. They put together a good skit on the “neutrality” of science, and we both worked up a packet for using the Museum as a teaching tool (available for $.35). Of course, critical theatre pieces are not too welcome in ITT’s Sheraton Hotels, but the skit was put on four times—much to the enjoyment of the onlookers. It did a lot to create a favorable environment for discussing the politics of science teaching.
We went to the regional convention to meet and listen to more teachers. We wanted to tell them what we’ve been doing and explain our perspective on science and teaching. We also wanted to join up with others who share our concerns. So now we’re sending out a questionnaire out our booklets and teaching problems to the people we met. And we are putting together a discussion-meeting on the energy crisis for all who are interested, which we want to expand to look at the social relations in the classroom.
All the way through the convention and afterwards we were enthusiastic about the response we got. The literature table was crowded, many people came to our sessions. We met a number of people like ourselves (except they weren’t as activist as we). It can probably be said that we were successful in putting political issues into the normal discourse of science and teaching.