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By Cathy Frisinger

Lucky math teachers. There's nothing controversial about square roots or solving for X or even right angles.

Not so with science. Middle and high school science teachers find themselves confronting controversial topics such as stem cell research, cloning and evolution in the classroom.

For his dissertation, Mark Bloom, assistant professor of science education, surveyed middle school and high school science teachers in several groups beginning with a group of 23 teachers participating in a workshop in 2005. He found the teachers appeared to have a significant deficiency in content knowledge related to evolution theory and they reported a significant amount of uncertainty regarding how to teach it.

Some participants indicated the need for more evidence that would give them firm confidence in evolution theory. Other teachers underestimate the strength of scientific evidence and are willing to present evolution as "just a theory," which shows a lack of understanding of what scientific theory actually entails.

The original intent of the research was to measure the understanding that teachers had regarding content knowledge of evolution theory. What the researchers found, instead, were deep-rooted misunderstandings about evolution and even deeper misconceptions about the nature of science.

These findings reveal that teachers' lack of understanding of the nature of science can impact their confidence in what they teach, allow non-scientific material to infiltrate the science classroom, and undermine long-supported, well-tested scientific theory.

"Many teachers described that they were unsure what was appropriate or even legal to teach their students, and others described discomfort in addressing this topic because of its controversial nature," says Bloom.

Bloom also discovered that educating teachers about the definition of science and what distinguishes it from philosophy and faith considerably eases educators' misgivings about teaching these hot-potato subjects.

Bloom, who says he came from a conservative religious background, says understanding these principles - understanding the specific definition and the limitations of science - helped ease conflict in his own life.

"If you understand what science can and cannot ask, and can and cannot answer, then you understand how it is different from religion or philosophy. Those other ways of asking questions about the world are valuable and can be truthful - they're just not science," says Bloom.

Bloom and education associate professor Molly Weinburgh published a paper on science teachers' understanding of science in the Winter 2007 issue of the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) Focus on Middle School, a quarterly journal for educators.

How is science defined?

Assistant Professor Mark Bloom teaches teachers that there are seven defining principles:

1. Science is tentative. "It's OK for Pluto to stop being a planet," he says. What scientists "know" may change tomorrow.

2. Science is empirically based, i.e. it's based on observable, measurable, quantitative evidence. This is a key part of what separates science from religion, Bloom says.

3. A large part of science is theoretical, but it's based on prior knowledge that allows us to make reasonable inferences. "No one has literally observed smoking causing mutations in cells to cause cancer, but we have lots of evidence to make us confident that this occurs," Bloom says.

4. Science differentiates between "laws" and "theories." Laws are descriptive and can be directly tested. Theories are explanatory statements that cannot be directly tested but have substantial predictive power.

5. Science is subjective and "theory"-laden.

6. Science is creative, meaning scientists make discoveries and create new knowledge.

7. Questions that are asked by science are guided by social and cultural values. For instance, epidemiological studies of heart attacks originally used male subjects only, so that differences in heart-attack symptoms in women from men weren't known until recently. 

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