Don't Know Much Biology
My oldest child enters high school this fall and, like most freshmen, will be starting her sequence of science classes with biology. From my perspective biology is not the logical starting point for high school science and it is time to reevaluate the entire science curriculum.
First, we need to ask ourselves “why do we teach our children science?” In my opinion there are two reasons: to produce enough scientists and engineers to maintain our economic well being, and to create citizens who can think for themselves rather than be vulnerable to the siren calls of charlatans and demagogues.
Let’s first consider the goal of encouraging children to consider science as a career. In this case you want to ensure that they have both a strong foundation in the sciences and that the sequence of classes builds towards an interesting crescendo that will inspire many of them to choose a science as a college major. This would entail teaching chemistry and physics in the 9th and 10th grades. Chemistry teaches you about the interaction of matter and physics covers the fundamental forces which govern the universe. All other sciences proceed from this common foundation.
Once you’ve got a handle on the basics of chemistry and physics, it’s time to move on to more complex systems such as a living organism (biology), ecosystems, weather, or the universe. I recall my ninth grade biology class as being an uninteresting meander among seemingly unrelated topics. If my biology teacher had been presented with a class of students who had already covered the basic sciences, she could have given a far more compelling class, addressing cutting-edge advancements in areas such as microbiology, genetically modified organisms, and emerging diseases. A biology class like that would likely encourage more students to pursue biology-based careers.
So what about classes for those who will not study science in college? How do we best prepare those students to participate in a society where science-themed choices about energy and resources are becoming increasingly important? Here again, I think a grounding in chemistry and physics provides the tools to critically analyze science-based issues like competing options presented by opposing political campaigns. Let me be clear, this is not intended as a slight to biology as a subject. But if you have the choice of mastering chemistry or biology, chemistry is applicable to a much broader range of topics.
It’s a commonly held view that, while the world has been changing dramatically over the past 50 years, the approach to high school education has not kept up. Perhaps it’s time to consider the way we approach the sciences.
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