Science Teaching: A Science and Society Course

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Science Teaching: A Science and Society Course

by Fran Conrad

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 3, May 1975, p. 33

Somerville H.S./Somerville, Mass.

I teach a Science and Society course at Somerville High School, a large working-class public school near Boston, where I have free reign over course content, but am constrained by an otherwise rigid structure, and the common problems of students who, because of the continual irrelevance of school to their lives, are skillpoor and antagonistic toward school. The topics studied in the course are examples of misuses of science, that is, applications not in the interest, or directly antagonistic to the interest, of the average person. At first it seemed to me that any of my array of topics was OK to start with, since they all led toward the same basic lesson. I chose Genetic Engineering, thinking the glamor and science-fiction aspects of cloning and Brave New World type of fantasies would appeal to the students. The unit was a disaster and I later realized why. 

Eventually it became clear that the course deals with three types of examples of science against people: 1) science and technology used for profit and not people (e.g., agribusiness, health care); 2) science used to lend authority to anti-working class ideology (e.g., genetic explanations for class differences, like the race/IQ issue); and 3) technology as a means of direct social control (behavior control, gene manipulation). I now know that the first category is the easiest to grasp and should have been done first. 

The other two categories are harder for students because they require a more sophisticated understanding of the class nature of society. Though students are aware of the corruption and cynicism of politicians and of the inaccessibility of government to the common person, they still accept the myths that we have democracy and equal opportunity for all. When, in the context of reading Brave New World, I introduced the term “social control”, it had absolutely no meaning. The idea that one sector of society has control over others made no sense since the students believed everyone is “free” and “equal” and represented in government. Since the whole unit hinged on this concept, it fell flat. They could see no relevance in the topic and so came to their own familiar conclusion, “This is boring.” 

Technique of Progressive Example What did work, however, was having students think through, one at a time, little pieces of a larger idea, using activities, wherever possible. For example, beginning the Behavior Control unit with descriptions of behavior control programs in prisons would lead some students to see nothing wrong and others to look at the programs as isolated abuses by misdirected prison authorities. The significance-one of many examples of technological social control and of placing the blame for social unrest on individuals’ “problems”-could have been lost. But I started with an example of doctors diagnosing runaway slaves with “drapetomania” (a mental illness) to explain their running away. Students saw the absurdity of that. Then I had them role-play the situation of a family with a son who has been caught selling drugs. I led them to see how they thought of a “drug problem” as a disorder of the individual. Then we looked at the similarities of the two examples-that by focusing on the individual as “deviant”, the “system” was off the hook. Later we talked about more subtle examples of behavior modification in institutions with reference to the first examples. Many students began to understand that social control was going on, if not why it was going on. The next unit, on the class nature of society, shed some light on the reasons that certain sectors have for attempting to preserve the “system.” 

Looking back at the Genetic Engineering unit, I realized that I had presented a bit of genetics, a list of techniques for manipulating genes, and then asked questions about the importance of it all. I neglected to provide situations in which the significance of gene manipulation emerged. This added to their misconceptions about science as an array of technical facts out of which geniuses somewhere else produce miracles. 

Progressive Reading Levels Many of my students have difficulty with reading. They can read, but for whatever reasons (boredom, negative feelings about school and associated “book learning”?) they rarely will read. Getting them interested is a necessary start only, because they are easily frustrated by a lack of skill; this reaction is perceived as boredom and they reject the topic totally. When they do read, they are very inaccurate about culling information, often grossly misquoting, and so have much difficulty putting together an argument based on reading. Skill in getting the facts straight can be developed, however, when graded reading level material on each topic is chosen or written. 

Such material is hard to find and is perhaps best produced by a group of teachers, such as the Science Teachers Group of Science for the People. A recent curriculum unit on food, hunger and population, called Feed, Need, Greed proved useful. [This and other curriculum materials are available from Science for the People.] It has very short collections of pertinent information, written simply, which raise but do not answer controversial questions. I used it to combat both inaccurate reading and lack of attentiveness. Pairs of students were assigned one to two pages each to present to the class. Other students were responsible for learning the material in preparation for a quiz. For a while at least, usually passive students asked questions and furiously took notes with a minimum of prompting. The next step was group workshops on the same topics with more substantive reading. Unfortunately nothing was available between the level of Feed, Need, Greed and excerpts from its source articles. Again reading frustration killed the topic. 

Other Methods Since reading has to be minimal for most of my students, other methods are needed. The most effective way to get some thinking going was often spontaneous role-playing. For example, to communicate the reactionary character of eugenics movements, we tried acting out what would happen if such a program was carried to the extreme and all poor people were sterilized. Kids took roles of various sectors of society and explored alternative courses, in all cases regenerating poverty. It began to emerge that this regeneration was in each case a consequence of the drive for profits. In other words, eugenics programs couldn’t help, because social inequities flow from a capitalist economy, not from bad “genes”. We were then able to show why eugenics movements were carried out. 

There were other issues around which students planned role plays. One play, for example, was in the format of a funding hearing on ways to appropriate education money between a black and a white school. A lot of concerned preparation resulted when another class was invited to participate as a voting audience. 

Students can also learn about their community by interviewing people-workers, their own families, prisoners, ex-prisoners, etc. Outside speakers can make presentations. My students’ concern over drugging “hyperactive” children was increased when they had a guest speaker from a local mental health center. All .of these activities helped to relate school work to real hfe. Two students went to Harvard Medical School (a bus and two trains away!) for a long meeting on tactics for halting objectionable research on the alleged relation of XYY chromosomes to criminality. [See SftP VI, #5, Sept. 1974.] Their excitement grew as they saw that a classroom topic could be a real issue in the real world. 

Different techniques are for different kids. I had to develop mine to cope with the low skill levels of my students. The same techniques, however, would suit students with higher skill levels, by relying more on reading for background. Good luck and I hope these thoughts are useful.


>> Back to Vol. 7, No. 3 <<