With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

NSTA Executive Director, David EvansWhether from Spiderman or Voltaire, the sentiment proves critically important to our approach to science education. As such, we hold great power to encourage, enlighten, and nurture young minds that are inherently curious and full of poignant questions. As good teachers, we are responsible not to be the authority that provides the answers to students, but to be the guide that helps them develop the skills to find the answers. Students look to us for knowledge and direction, and we must not abuse that power. We must foster continued curiosity, critical skepticism, and the acquisition of skills that will help them face life with confidence and maybe pursue further study, even careers, in science. We must give them the power to act with informed responsibility.

Last week, two incredible scientific breakthroughs were in the news. Nature published an article detailing the work of MIT researchers who have simulated the evolution of the Universe from a point just seconds after the Big Bang (Properties of Galaxies Reproduced by a Hydrodynamic Simulation). The scale of the simulation and the details it contains from the structure of the universe to the formation of heavy elements to the roles of dark matter and dark energy are almost uncanny in reflecting the universe we observe. And scientists from The Scripps Research Institute engineered a bacterium containing synthetic DNA nucleotides found nowhere else in nature, essentially adding two new letters to the alphabet of life. One announcement answers important questions about our place in the universe and provides a model to enable further study. The other raises important questions about the very fiber of our being and the meaning of life. Both announcements have significantly altered our view of accepted scientific understanding. Once again, the “facts of science” have been given a good shake. So let’s teach students how to digest the news, how to ask for evidence, and how to understand the nature of science.

Typical high school students (nor most of the rest of us for that matter) probably have not mastered the level of science and math required to truly understand the research at the highest level. But I don’t believe content mastery is necessary for the news to have an impact. I’d like to see teachers introducing life-changing research like this to pique student curiosity and inspire a desire to ask more and know more. I’d like to see teachers encouraging students to think critically about the breakthrough—to ask questions like: How does this relate to what I already understand? What is the source? Are the results replicable? What do other scientists say about it? What does this mean for me? What will it mean for the Earth? Is there a role for government?

We have been building models of our place in the universe since prehistoric times out of a need to be a part of something bigger. Now we have a model that connects the very dust from which we are made to the fabric of the universe. I’d like to see all citizens appreciate these knowing that they are based on observations of the physical world and lead to testable predictions. Regarding the Scripps research, my hope is that educated citizens would be conscious and critical enough to snap to attention, because this is ground-breaking. I want to hear things like, “WHAT? 6-nucleotide DNA? I thought the genetic code had only 4 letters! Is this stuff ALIVE? What does it mean? Can we use it to cure disease? What happens when it gets outside the lab? Can the bacteria’s DNA get into our own? Who’s overseeing this? What protocols are in place? Have I voted this year? Is anyone minding the shop?”

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