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Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Rant on High School Science Education

Originally Published: March 28, 2013
By Howard Feng
Imagine a clash of two forces and you’re in the middle. Each side tugs on your arm and doesn’t let go – each side feels it knows what’s right for you, yet ironically, you feel oppressed, similar to Offred’s situation in Gilead. In the end, you choose the “lesser of two evils” and side with the one that offers you that one gleam of light into your future.
Yes, I’m the one stuck in the centre, and the two opposing factions are science from my high school curriculum and science from my lab experience at a children’s hospital in Toronto. The juxtaposition of two seemingly-similar (though upon further scrutiny, I came to realize “seemingly” was the difference maker) academic environments revealed the flaws and sometimes, hypocrisy, of the high school science education system.
In grades 9 and 10, I became exposed to a broad overview of science – that’s it, though, just “exposed”. My grade 10 science class touched briefly on how proteins are made, and that was because I mentioned it in one of my presentations. When I began elaborating, my teacher cut me off; as always, she said, “You’re all going to learn this in grade 12,” and ended my explanation. The funny thing is, I already learned this in grade 9 in order to understand the experiments I was performing in the lab. It wasn’t hard to grasp, yet our high schools seem to push all this off until the last year of high school – the last year before … university. And teachers complain that students procrastinate?
Finally, in grade 11, I began studying “focussed” sciences: chemistry, physics, and biology (had I not fast-tracked physics, I wouldn’t have had the chance to take it). For the first few months of chemistry, I was learning the basics again. All that information on atoms, covalent bonds, balancing equations, etc. was being repeated. How difficult is it to have students start these lessons in grade 9? These fundamental chemistry, biology, and physics concepts are being repeated in grades 9 through 12. If we started specializing at the beginning of high school, our grasp on theory would excel that of twelfth graders right now. Think of the potential International Science Olympiad students we would have. Pushing these subjects until the last two years or maybe the last year of high school does has negative repercussions, in that it hinders students’ abilities to expand their knowledge and curiosity in the sciences. If I were not performing science research in a lab at the same time, I would be like many classmates right now, thinking, “Why’d I take this? It’s not like I’m going to use this when I grow up,” especially in a paradigm that concentrates of practice rather than intellect. Actually, one of my lab mates, who’s currently on international exchange from Germany told me how the German education system allows students to pursue a specific scientific field from seventh grade. No wonder all my textbooks are scattered with German names, from Alder to Einstein to Oppenheimer to Siemens.
Deviating away from just the theoretical side of science, I also see a gap between experiments performed in high schools and research being conducted by university students. In fact, it’s quite frightening how much the difficulty notches up in just three or four years after high school graduation. I can pinpoint this scare to the lack of lab experience in high school. Labs are those treats mothers give to their behaving 5-year-old children – rare, but so sweet. Unfortunately, there is no specific laboratory course and many schools lack the equipment to perform practical experiments. If it wasn’t for my whopping $3000 International Baccalaureate school tuition, I wouldn’t have been able to learn how to use a spectrophotometer or look into a microscope (mind you, I did this all in a research lab for free)! When the best labs come in the form of slicing a frog in half with Dollarama scissors, it’s pretty clear that our high school science curriculum does lag in comparison to the rate of scientific growth.
I’d like my two worlds to walk hand in hand. My time in school should complement my advancements in the lab. When the universe is greater than we can know, we cannot restrict ourselves by reiterating the same material year after year and miss out on the empirical side of science. Ultimately, I propose reform, not revolution. A reform in the current high school science curriculum by eliminating general science education and concentrating specifically on biology, chemistry, and physics. By adding in mandatory lab requirements and maybe even adding a course called “Laboratory” (yes, I do recognize these past two fragments; I’m a scientist, not Shakespeare). We then can start bridging this gap between our students and the real world. Who knows? This might all be for my own selfish reason to vicariously be an International Biology, Physics, and Chemistry Olympiad winner, as well as a gold medal science fair finisher, after missing out on those experiences due to this lack of science focus in school. Then again, I don’t know why anyone would want to pass on these opportunities if they were given. Maybe reform really is the answer.

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