Monday, September 25, 2017

Science Standards in New Mexico

Sent this to the Public Education Dept. Their email address is in this New Mexican editorial on that subject.

To: Jamie Gonzales, Policy Division, New Mexico Public Education Department
RE: Proposed revisions of New Mexico Science Standards

Dear Mr. Gonzales

I am writing to you as a career professional scientist, not as a K-12 educator.My background includes a Ph.D. in geosciences from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where I studied the early evolution of the earth's continental crust. From there I went on to an appointment on the graduate faculty in geosciences at the University of Hawaii's School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, where I researched topics in igneous petrology and environmental geochemistry. Finally, I landed at Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry Division where I applied geochemical principles to nuclear forensic analysis. My comments here represent my opinions alone.

I found some aspects of the proposed New Mexico Stem standards laudable insofar as they include a lot of opportunities for teachers to teach the scientific method, which is critical to understanding how we arrive at an understanding of scientific "facts". Whether it be climate change or the age of the earth or any other natural phenomenon, the critical piece we need to teach young people is the scientific process by which we collect observations and make sound interpretations, i.e., the scientific method. Indeed, I am sometimes loath to say scientific "facts" because science is the method of weeding out what we know from what we think we know and from what we don't know and its amazing the caveats we put on what we "know". Robert Pirsig said it best in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you actually don't know".

Most important to this discussion is having excellent teachers. I was very lucky as a high school student to have an Earth Science teacher with a master's degree in Geology. He was such a good teacher that he won the New York State Academy of Sciences award for excellence in high school science teaching. Mr. Milton Babcock was a master of creating simple but challenging scientific problems out of everyday events. One I still remember was his creation of a week long "puddle watch" experiment where we made, and wrote down carefully, quantitative measurements on the evolution of rain puddles and mud cracks after a spring storm. Indeed, part of the test of a good teacher is deciding the appropriate level of how to teach the scientific method.

What disturbs me about the draft standards is where it appears we are either watering down or evading the teaching of scientific knowledge that some may find uncomfortable. I will give some brief examples and stop there.

]4-ESS1-1 NM: asks students to identify "possible" explanations offered by rock formations and fossils. What we really want are plausible, scientifically justifiable explanations based on scientific methodology. 2. MS-ESS1-4. Many have complained about eliminating the age of the earth. MS-ESS1-4 asked students to use rock strata to organize earth history but eliminated the actual age of the earth from the topic. Actually, one cannot use rock strata to determine the absolute age of the earth, so taking out the reference to 4.6 billion years is appropriate for that topic as strata give us relative time scales. But somewhere in the curriculum students must think about the actual age of the earth and how geologic ages are unambiguously determined. This is a critical oversight. Our understanding of the age of the earth evolved as we learned more about the chemistry and physics of atoms, nuclear processes (in both stars and atoms), and chemical systems. We know that lacking modern instrumentation, Bishop Usher calculated the age of the earth from Biblical genealogy. Later on, scientists estimated its minimum age from indirect means including how long it would take to salt the oceans (Joly) or how long it would take to cool the earth from a molten mass (Lord Kelvin). There were other estimates as well; I once taught an advanced Geo 101 section on how our knowledge of the age of the earth evolved. It was not until the development of radioactive dating in the mid twentieth century that we obtained an age that was based on absolute chronological measurements rather than indirect inference. Even that work, by Caltech Professor Clair Patterson, was difficult. Geochronology, by the way, is my background. The "evolution" of our understanding of the Earth's age is great story of science as it progresses.

One of the early criticisms of a young age for the Earth was that it did not allow adequate time for evolution, as pointed out by Lyell. Evolution seems another topic with which the PED is uncomfortable but is a critical scientific paradigm that cannot be avoided, regardless of who is queasy. Indeed, biological evolution is interwound with the earth's geochemical evolution, such as oxygenation of the atmosphere, and both topics must be taught, to some degree of understanding, if students are to understand how their world got to where it is today and where it might be in the future.

Finally, it is inappropriate to talk about climate fluctuation and gloss over climate change. Both are important processes that have acted over the age of the earth. Indeed, one of the biggest struggles we have in predicting whether forward models of climate change are accurate involves understanding decade to century long climate fluctuations so as to confidently understand long term trends. But the bottom line is that by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in vast amounts, humans are now, without a doubt, an agent of climate change. Getting students to understand that dynamic is critical to their being able to make value judgements on both scientific and political issues. Let's not duck the problem.

My recommendation is to send this draft of the standards out to a knowledgeable committee of scientists and science teachers for revision. We cannot afford to get this wrong and from my read of not only the standards but this morning's Albuquerque Journal, a lot of New Mexicans think this draft needs work.

1 comment:

Robin Hubert said...

Thank you Mister Mutt!!! And I also endorse the idea of the scientific panel of experts and teachers to review the proposed 'twittery." (My word for Trump's deplorable contribution to what used to be the American Value System, accumulated, stewarded and refined over the past 200 + years.) It's hard to believe that this lil man, his moronic cohorts and their ignorant beliefs have any legitimate place in our history or future. To compare them to those who have gone before, who have encouraged and protected a sincere belief in the Constitution and in the idea that enlightenment and truth should be the only raison d'etra for our educational system at whatever level, would be like comparing a cup of sewage to the Holy Grail!
I am woman;hear me howl! Robin M. Hubert, Alameda, NM