I just got back to the hotel after a busy first day of day at AAAS conference, and it’s been a good way to start things off. The hardest part of the day was deciding which sessions to attend since there were always multiple ones at the same time that seemed interesting. Kate managed to beat me posting, so you saw some of the things I turned down to go to other sessions.
I started things off with the panel titled Scientific Approaches to Teaching Science in K-16 Education, which was pretty interesting. The first speaker was Kevin Dunbar from the University of Toronto, who was described as an educational neuroscience. His talk focused on his work using the techniques of cognitive psychology to study how people can integrate changes to their conceptions in response to education. One particular interesting finding that was presented was brain scans taken of either people with little or no experience with chemistry and experts while viewing images describing how water undergoes changes from liquid to gas states. The novices primarily activated perceptual and visual regions of the brains, while the experts were relying on memory from the language-based parts of the brain. The second speaker was David Klahr, whose talk he titled “Evidence Trumps Belief” and dealt with the benefits of direct teaching versus more open-ended inquiry based approaches. He showed a figure with learning on the y-axis and amount of direct instruction on the x-axis, with the plot having an inverted U-shape. His argument was that determining where a student was on this curve is important in knowing how to approach instruction. His demonstrated this with his experiences looking at different ways of teaching elementary students how to design an experiment with controlled variables, where he found many benefited as well if not more from direct instruction by teachers rather than more independent learning. This was especially true when he repeated the study at an urban school with low math and science testing scores, where the instruction was needed to overcome existing deficits in knowledge. This experience also fit in with some of Dr. Dunbar’s presentation that dealt with his work redesigning interactive museum exhibits such as are common at the Pacific Science Center, where he found people needed to either already have a conceptual framework to apply to the activity or be given prompting with what they should learn from the exhibit. The final speaker of the panel was Diane Halperin who is working on developing a video game to teach critical thinking skills and basic science literacy, known as Operation ARIES. The concept is the player is a government agent trying to stop an alien plot to destroy our society through the spread of faulty reasoning and arguments based on pseudoscience (a completely unrealistic idea right?). One of the interesting ideas of the game is it is built around the use of a “trialogue” between the player, and two computer characters, one acting as an instructor and the other as a fellow student. Depending on the player’s already present skills, they can be equal to the other student, help their fellow student learn material, or view it less interactively and learn from the responses of the other student. The second unique aspect I found was it relies on the player to ask good questions to lead to correct information, which is probably a needed skill that isn’t generally taught in our educational system.
Concurrent to that session was a longer symposium on “Ensuring the Transparency and Integrity of Scientific Research.” I missed the first speaker and part of the second, but really liked what I saw of that second speaker Sheila Jasanoff. The theme I got from her talk was how the ideals of a functioning democratic society and scientific thought tend to coincide to a large extent, and conflict between scientists and the public generally results when these similarities are overtaken by differences such as over-specialization versus a desire for “hyper-democratization” where all people want to have input. A goal for scientists should be to instill a sense of stewardship and “civic science” that can include both specialists and non-specialists. The final speaker was Francisco Ayala, who spoke about his contribution to a booklet was titled “On Being a Scientist.” This was meant targeted to students beginning their training as scientists and served to provide guidelines about the role of scientists in society and their ethical responsibilities. Since this seemed to be focusing on material that I might read later, I decided to leave early to attend the panel on “Scientific Rationality and Policy-Making: Making their Marriage Work”.
I somewhat regretted doing that however, since this ended up being less interesting than I hoped. The first speaker, Robert Solow focused on the difficulties in evaluating the effects of specific policies. I didn’t find too much new in what he said. The second speaker was David Ulph, who spoke about how science can act to promote economic growth, as well as the challenges from competing goals that may make such growth less desirable. One interesting idea presented was the benefits of having separate incentives for basic research funded publicly and applied research relying on patents and profit incentives is becoming more complicated by moves to releasing products under open-source models while universities are developing the use of intellectual property.
Well that was just the morning sessions, I think I’ll leave it at that for here for now, but expect another post later with the afternoon sessions dealing with personalized medicine and the role of organizations like the National Academy of Science in policy-making.