Science Education encore

Purgatory Case #1

The Case of a Brief Science-Humanities Romance

The Project

During my high school teaching years, I received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to foster interaction between the sciences and the humanities. This involved working with teachers in any of the five high schools in the school district who volunteered to participate.

I collaborated with world history teachers to introduce some history of science and technology into their courses, with social studies teachers to increase the attention paid to the social, economic, and political consequences (positive and negative) of science and technology, and, in the other direction, to help science teachers pay some serious attention to the ties between science , on the one hand,  and science and society on the other. The participating teachers would, in turn, share their materials and approaches with colleagues. Gradually, according to the plan, all of the high schools would become rich in science-humanities studies within the existing curriculum framework.

The Results

It did not happen. When the grant ended, most of the teachers I had worked with gradually discontinued their cross-discipline efforts and did not lobby their colleagues to introduce some cross-disciplinary content in their courses. The district did not become a beacon for science-humanities content.

Analysis

On reflection, I don’t think the project had a chance, and I’m surprised that Carnegie funded me. It should have had more savvy than I did at the time about the realities of changing high school courses. Why did it fail—leaving aside the possibility that I mismanaged it?  Three reasons stand out:

As the dittoed (a happily vanished copying technology) material on The Science-Humanities Project that I distributed to the teachers makes clear now—and should have then—I was offering more that I could deliver. To preserve quality, I had, in the end, to restrict my “service” to a small number of teachers, far below the critical mass needed to influence an entire school district.

Though willing to accept outside largess, the school district itself had no provision for continuing it or other such cross-discipline efforts on its own. This meant that after two years, I no longer had time away from my teaching duties to work with the interested teachers, nor financial support for a part-time secretary, materials, and inner-district travel.

The truth is that there was no faculty-wide demand for innovations that were problematic and that added burdens without rewards. 

What Did I Learn?

In their enthusiasm, education reformers are likely to overestimate what they and their projects can actually achieve.

With or without outside funding, innovations in school science have little chance of success unless they are established at the outset as long-term undertakings for which resources will be made available and incentives provided.

Although many school and university educators favor the idea of cross-discipline studies, at least in principle, in practice it is extremely difficult to achieve.

What Do You Think?