Science for the Illiterate

KEITH FRYE

June 30, 1993|By KEITH FRYE

Tyro, Virginia. -- Several years ago I taught a science course for which I had written the textbook. Somewhere in their schooling, my students had learned to use yellow felt-tip pens to highlight important points in their textbooks. Midway through a semester one student complained to me that he was painting every page solid yellow. I suggested that he wait until he thoroughly understood a passage before he yellowed it. That way he could see at a glance which passages needed further study.

This student looked at me as though I were senile and continued to paint his pages on first scan. I briefly considered asking my publisher to print the book on yellow paper to save students the chore of painting pages, but I doubt that would have had any effect. They would merely have purchased a felt-tip pen of a different color.

Survey after survey reveals that students are turned off by science before they even reach high school. In order to have scientifically knowledgeable citizens in the future, we need to have students studying science today. But today the numbers of students taking science courses at our colleges and universities are shrinking. We face a shrinking pool of talent from which to draw science majors, future science teachers and a scientifically knowledgeable public.

How do we educate all those future citizens who are not literate and do not seem to care? Students coming to college these days use the written word in two ways: First, it tells them which button to push next. Second, it is a string of symbols to recite on their next exam. Reading has no connection whatever with any ideas they might have or be expected to acquire. They do learn things, but not from written words.

For years we have equated knowledge with literacy. But people learned what they needed to know long before the invention of writing or, more important, the introduction of writing into their daily lives. Rather than ask how pre-literate people learn, we should ask what today's students have learned and how they learned it. If we can determine that, we can design their further education around those processes. Illiteracy is not really new. Before Gutenberg, we were a pre-literate society. Even today, most human knowledge is non-literate, and literacy may be a mere fleeting fancy.

One thing today's students have learned is how to get colorful action on an electronic screen using a keyboard, joy stick or mouse. They can follow program instructions and use a computer to play video games. We need to design instruction around a TV monitor or computer screen. Whether or not their illiteracy is willful, we can convey to them information and knowledge by routes they have used regularly even before starting school. If our students are not going to learn by reading, we should adapt our teaching to some process that bypasses these missing reading skills.

So how do you teach science to these students? With a properly designed diskette, I can teach students scientific principles using the written word only in a capacity that they understand -- which button to push next. A program can present cause and effect on a purely logical machine of a sort that influences them more than live human beings. Words are not a hindrance.

Audio-visual education went astray with its total lack of student participation. Some of these AV materials are not boring, but dim the lights and heads hit tables before the credits are over. Besides, it is supplemental material, not something they are going to be tested on later. The programs I devised are interactive: Nothing happens until a student makes it happen.

Let me give a simple example of an interactive program for science education. Suppose it is necessary in a particular sequence of instruction that students be able to visualize the properties of some complex three- dimensional object: a molecule of acetyl salicylic acid -- aspirin -- for instance. First the object appears on the computer screen. Words of instruction above or below the screen present students with options. One of these options will be one or more pull-down help screens with menus if appropriate.

For an object on the screen, the interactions available may include rotation about X, Y, or Z to permit viewing from all sides and through any angle of rotation. This object may be expanded or shrunk (zoom or unzoom). If more than one way exists to represent this object in abstraction, if different textbooks represent that object in different ways, then each of these views may be inspected sequentially or superimposed. Each component and cluster of components may be highlighted. Any part of an object may be removed to reveal what is behind it. Each and every way of viewing this object and the physical reality it represents is available at the flick of a key. But nothing happens on the screen until that key is flicked.

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