Laughter and Tears for Science Education: An Interview with Eugenie Scott Part One

Eugenie Scott accepts the AHA's Lifetime Achievement Award in June 2014.

If advocate and anthropologist Eugenie Scott hadn’t spent so much of her life as executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) leading a national campaign to defend the integrity of science in our public schools, perhaps she might have been a standup comedian. Even the most lantern-jawed journalist can’t help but crack up in the first few moments of an interview with her, which is what happened when I sat down with her at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference in Philadelphia in June, where she received the AHA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Eugenie Scott: I have left NCSE and the world is going to end … in several billion years. You’re not making this easy. It’s hard to laugh and write.

Scott: I think we both appreciate the Groucho Marx school of plagiarism: only steal from the best. [Still chuckling, regaining composure] How do you feel about being in this new phase, with perhaps some more leisure time but still a very public presence?

Scott: My stock line is that I’m retiring, not expiring. But seriously, I think it’s very important that I get out of the way so that NCSE can continue to thrive in my absence and the new executive director [Ann Reid] becomes the focus of attention. I’ll probably do more with the skeptics, whose issues overlap with issues I am knowledgeable about. I’m not going to be as current with creationist issues as my NCSE colleagues, but I’m still interested in public understanding of science, critical thinking, and science literacy. Your tenure at NCSE began in 1987 with the [creation science] Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision and ran through and beyond the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District [intelligent design] case. Did the latter really bring intelligent design in the public school curriculum to an end?

Scott: Dover was exceedingly important. We know there were districts and there were states poised to introduce Dover-like legislation depending on what happened in the district court. There were lots of school districts that would have enthusiastically required intelligent design to be taught. It didn’t look to most people like creation science. It didn’t talk about the age of the earth or Noah’s flood; it didn’t have the overtly religious aspects that creation science did. It was much more cleverly disguised, but it really was creation science. Part of the testimony was that an overtly creation science textbook had been transposed word-for-word into intelligent design, right?

Scott: Yes, and we supported that very, very well with empirical evidence. The judge listened carefully. It was clear that this was just a sleight of hand.

Dover was just such a crushing decision and laid it out so clearly: this is not science; this is merely recast creation science, which the courts have already determined to be not science, so you cannot constitutionally teach intelligent design either. It was full stop, dead in the water.

Of course, this is the rubber duck school of activism. You push it underwater and it’s going to pop up again. The creationism that resurfaced after Dover, which my colleagues are still battling today, is now cast as academic freedom. Our friends at the Discovery Institute are largely behind academic freedom acts and they are trying very hard to get these bills introduced and passed. There have been over sixty introduced since 2004. Two of them have passed, in Texas and Louisiana, which is two too many. The strategy with these acts is to bring creationism/intelligent design through the back door under the guise of academic freedom, giving students all of the views and all the circumlocutions with which we have become so familiar. Every spring in the legislative season there are a dozen bills introduced around the country.

NCSE is also still fighting to keep evolution in the middle school and high school curriculum. We fought these battles during the 1990s and early 2000s, state by state with state science education standards, and currently we’re trying to encourage the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of standards produced jointly by the National Academy of Sciences and a consortium of states. This is not a federal program. It is national without being federal. But pushback is coming because, of course, the NGSS includes evolution and climate change—the “controversial” issues. We want to ensure these topics are at least required. It’s the horse-to-water thing: If you don’t have the water, nothing’s going to drink. So at least if you have the standards required, there’s a chance the teachers will teach it. Apart from just trying to defend the integrity of science in our education system, I wonder if you see a need for reform in the way that science is taught in most public schools.

Scott: There are schools that are doing just fabulous jobs in science education, but for the most part there’s a lot of improvement that could be made. This is one reason why we’ve really encouraged the adoption of the NGSS. The next generation standards are very explicit about the role of active learning, experiential learning. Why is that so important?

Scott: No one in their right mind would teach classes in music by having students just read about music but never listen to or try to play music. It’s a push-me-pull-you situation, because there are some parents who are really concerned about their kids getting into college and doing well on tests, so they are pushing for lots of factual cramming, whereas the movement that’s been going on for the last twenty years in K-12 education is this hands-on, minds-on, experiential, less-is-more, depth over-breadth approach. It would give kids more lab time to really look at a problem and try to figure out, “Well, how do I explain why that’s happening?” Hypothesizing, setting up a test for an explanation, maybe carrying it out and learning a little bit about graphing to look at the results of a test—this kind of teaching is so much more valuable than giving the kid a worksheet of terms to memorize, but it’s a lot easier to test the latter. But we have the idea in this country that we can somehow do education on the cheap. Some schools are experimenting with new approaches, like having students learn math and even some science online from the Khan Academy, and then in class, teachers help them work out the problems.

Scott: It’s called the flipped classroom. Yes, what do you think of that?

Scott: It’s a great idea. And there are college classes that are becoming flipped like this. The idea is that rather than the professor providing the information in class and the student going home and practicing what’s been learned, you flip that. The student watches a video of the professor, or the Khan Academy, or whatever, but then goes back into the classroom and that’s where you actually interact with the professor or teacher. You get direct feedback during the process of learning. In educational jargon, this is called formative evaluation. During the process of learning you find out, okay, the student isn’t learning long division, so let’s go back and review that, so the student gets immediate feedback. Flipped classrooms are really a much better way of doing things.

Clay Farris Naff’s interview with Eugenie Scott continues tomorrow. Read their discussion of “threats to the integrity of science form the ‘anti-science left’” here.