Rethinking Science Education in the 21st Century:

An Invitation to Join the Conversation


Robert Roe

Mag-Net Online Association of STEM Educators Inc.


For many teachers  there is little or no distinction between students ‘doing’ science  and teachers ‘teaching’ science. This conflation has implications when considering what is meant by science. Is it the acquisition of ‘scientific’ facts? Is it being able to explain the behaviour of the material world via mechanisms or processes? Is doing science   no more than being able to acquire technical skill in reproducing the results of existing experiments? Additionally, how does new knowledge, new facts, new ways of describing the world or explaining behaviour   become incorporated in what is known as science teaching or the teaching of science? Can teachers change their practice? Should teachers change their practice? Should teachers tell new stories of the enterprise known as science. Should teachers recount new biographies of people working in science  projects? Biographies, for example of people working in science during the late 20th and early 21st centuries?


To encourage reflection and participation in this important debate I have structured my musings around 5 scenarios, each of which explores the notion of science education from different perspectives. Each scenario, however embraces the invitation for the reader to join the conversation – online or with others interested in the notion of improving  our understanding of what science education means in the 21st century.


Scenario 1:

Imagine you are at a social function – a sports event, a concert, a family gathering – and a stranger standing next to you introduces himself: Good’ay! I’m Socrates. You respond in kind. After the usual exchange of social niceties, Socrates – channelling his famous namesake, the Athenian philosopher in residence – then asks: What do you do? Immediately, you respond, I’m a science teacher. I teach science.

Socrates enquires, to whom? You reply, to grade 5, or year 11, or undergraduate chemistry students or that you are a PHD supervisor. Socrates continues: That’s interesting.  Could you tell me what you mean by science, and how do you teach it? Eventually after being satisfied or bored, Socrates drifts off and engages others in a similar pattern of conversation on his quest to find truth or wisdom in relation to the form of life lived by people in the 21st century.


Later on, the next day or even several months later you are aware that you are pondering the question: What is science and how do I teach it? You recall something of what you said to Socrates. Something about how people live in a technologically advanced world and they need to know about how the world works. About how science can describe things in the world and how they work. And that people can use materials to make things which improve our quality of life.  You remember saying something about how these things we call technology such as cars, television, smart phones, the Genome project and climate change and so forth have come to represent an important aspect of our social and cultural worlds. You recall Socrates asking how do you teach this thing you call science. And that somewhere in your conversation you described how you prepared your lessons. How you took your students on an excursion or showed them a video. You remembered trying to explain how a particular software package helped students do science experiments using the computer before doing the experiment in the laboratory. Judging by the expression on Socrates’ face you began to realize that ‘painting word pictures’ in someone else’s mind is not an easy task. And the task becomes more difficult the more you rely on experiences that are not familiar to those people to whom you are speaking. You also remember and were troubled by Socrates’ question: how does science teaching in general and yours in particular keep pace with advances in science?


Scenario 2:

The speaker in the seminar session at the annual science teachers’ conference in referencing the work of Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 96) - a physicist, historian and philosopher of science who talked about paradigm shifts when describing science in terms of ‘normal’ science and ‘revolutionary’ science – immediately caught your attention. You were no longer in that ‘semi-conscious, speaker induced dream-state’. You were now conscious and alert, focusing on the speaker’s interpretation of Kuhn’s claims concerning the progress of scientific knowledge. You recognized this issue   had relevance to that question posed by Socrates: how does science teaching in general and yours in particular keep pace with advances in science? The speaker, in interpreting Kuhn explained that scientific fields such as physics, chemistry, and biology undergo periodic revolutions or "paradigm shifts" rather than solely progressing via the linear and continuous accumulation of new knowledge. In these paradigm shifts the nature of scientific inquiry within a particular field of science is abruptly transformed, affording new approaches and new understandings enabling scientists new ways of doing and describing the activity and purpose of science which would never have been considered valid before. The speaker explained that the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, is not established solely by objective criteria - since Competing paradigms or competing accounts or models of reality are frequently incommensurable and not easily reconciled. This has lead instead to the practice of determining scientific truth as being defined by a consensus of a scientific community: for example, the reclassification of Pluto following the formal definition of what it means to be a ‘planet’ by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006; or what constitutes scientific opinion on global warming as published in the Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 1990 - 2014).


The speaker’s voice begins to fade, you are no longer consciously listening, instead you begin to reflect on the significance of Kuhn’s ideas of how the enterprise of science changes. Suddenly you are aware of the ‘Socratic’ voice asking questions: what do you understand is meant by normal science? What do you understand is meant by periods of revolution? If the enterprise of science changes does the enterprise of teaching science also change? Before you can give this seemingly profound question the benefit of your full attention you are brought back to consciousness: people are clapping, leaving their seats and moving towards the exit. You join the conga line of humanity as it spills out of the conference venue and rapidly disappears from sight.


Scenario 3

It’s Tuesday, the second week of the school holidays. You have the afternoon free. You aren’t yet feeling sufficiently guilty about not doing any school related work, especially since you have nominally planned to do something on the weekend. You have checked your emails. Searched the Web. Browsed face book and scanned your twitter feeds. All is right in the world: that is in your social and your social-networked worlds. In the background the radio has been broadcasting the Science Show. Robyn Williams is talking    to a scientist who as a young child was fascinated by the people of science and their discoveries and experiments.


You begin to listen more attentively as the scientist explains: Advances in science have been termed "revolutions" since the 18th century. Take for example the work of Isaac Newton (gravity), Antoine Lavoisier (oxygen), William Whewell (polymath, philosopher, historian identifying the emergence of the ‘scientific method’ in the 15 – 16th centuries). This discussion continued for some time before the scientist concluded: This gave rise to the common view of the scientific revolution: That is     a new view of nature emerged, replacing the Aristotelian view that had dominated science for nearly 2 millennia. Science became an autonomous discipline, distinct from both philosophy and technology and came to be regarded as having utilitarian goals. Robyn then asked: Was the scientific revolution in astronomy dependent on a single change in the way people viewed planetary motion? The scientist said: The scientific revolution was not marked by any single change especially since science is not a singular enterprise. A range of new ideas contributed to what is commonly called the scientific revolution. In fact, there were many new ideas or ways of thinking witch were emerging in the various fields of science and were called revolutions. It just so happened that in the area of  astronomy in which the story or narrative    which popularized the Copernican Revolution (initiated in 1543) which was completed in the "grand synthesis" of Newton's 1687 Principia, became the ‘poster-child’ for the ‘scientific revolution’ marking the change from the traditional  to the modern era. It is quite common for historians and textbook writers to render the change as a ‘problem’ solved: By the end of the 18th century, the scientific revolution had given way to the "Age of Reflection".


Robyn began talking about Thomas Kuhn. You vaguely remember something about  paradigms and normal science, when Socrates spoke: If "normal science" has come to refer to the relatively routine, day-to-day work of scientists working within a paradigm, is there a paradigm  in which  the relatively routine, day-to-day work of teachers of science can be understood as ‘normal’ science teaching? Socrates did not wait for you to answer, instead he asked: what is meant by the relatively routine, day-to-day work of teachers of science? You ask yourself: who are these teachers of science? They are teachers who teach from Preps to  PHD. They work in primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions. Socrates returns: the paradigm? The paradigm is  science education? What does that mean, you ask yourself. Maybe the curriculum is the paradigm. Again Socrates does not wait for you to decide, he asks: Are there revolutions in science education? Are there revolutions in what is understood as the science curriculum? Are there revolutions in the teaching of science? You become conscious of Robyn thanking his guest  - who incidentally is the author of a new book: Science As An Interdisciplinary Enterprise In The 21st Century.


Scenario 4

As part of your commitment to ongoing professional learning you watched two documentaries: the first described the challenges of building the International Space Station (ISS), the second documented the search for the ‘God’ particle otherwise known as the Higgs Boson. As the final documentary finished and you began making yourself a drink of tea, Socrates enquired: So, what did you make of those documentaries? Are they stories or narratives about new science or just a modern story in the cannon of normal science? I don’t know. Socrates asked: Do they tell a story about the solving of new problems, or do they simply tell the story of doing existing science  - repeating  known experiments in new  exotic laboratories : the International Space Station or CERN? As I was reflecting on these questions I wondered if I could only interpret these documentaries from my existing understanding of what I believed science to be. What should I look for in these projects of science that could distinguish them from documentaries produced in the 70s, 80s or 90s on the science of space flight or particle physics?  I realized that the task was becoming quite complicated. Nevertheless I decided to re-watch the Building of the International Space Station. This time making notes. Within a few minutes I realized that this science project – could represent a new way of thinking about and a new way of conducting science as an inter-disciplinary project. That the building of the international space station like the search for the Higgs Boson are scientific enterprises involving the participation of teams of people with diverse educational backgrounds and life experiences. For instance, building the international space station was a collaborative project Involving thousands of people from 16 countries   with diverse educational and employment experience including  Project managers, engineers, theoretical and experimental scientists, astronauts, communications , language and interpreters as they learned  via Virtual Reality video game technology  to work and solve problems  of design, testing  and assembling  the various modules of the ISS in the vacuum of space. Socrates, once again interrupted my train of thought: What about the curriculum – it’s not only about the science or the social and cultural experiences of the people – you need to think about the experiences and of the meaning of these experiences for your students, don’t you? Again I didn’t know the answer to Socrates questions. I suppose so. But what can I change in the way I teach existing science. I don’t really follow the science curriculum. I usually just follow what is in the textbook or what others are doing. What else can I do? Socrates asked: What stories do you tell your students? Are these stories drawn from the past: of the biographies and exploits of people and projects from the 16th to the mid 20th century? Do you tell the story of science, or people working in science projects that relate to the biographies of scientists and non-scientists who are working on contemporary science projects requiring interdisciplinary experiences? The phone rang. I picked up the receiver, half expecting to hear Socrates, I was pleasantly surprised when the caller confirmed the excursion to the Victorian Space Science Education Centre  where my students  would remotely control the Mars rover.


Scenario 5

In returning to the theme of my musings : Rethinking science education in the 21st century, the challenge    is to avoid giving the impression that  what is on offer is ‘expert’ or ‘sage’ advice – that I or others associated with Mag-Net Online Association of STEM Educators Inc. – know the answers to these questions or know what works in the classroom and what doesn’t. Our invitation is for you and others to join the conversation with the express purpose to explore what it means to engage in interdisciplinary science projects and to jointly construct interdisciplinary science activities that demonstrate     practical pedagogical approaches.


STEM Teaching with an Analogue-Digital Focus


On behalf of the Mag-Net Committee of Management, I welcome this opportunity to bring to your attention the establishment in August 2013 of Mag-Net online association of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (stem) educators. In establishing the Mag-Net Online Association of STEM Educators Inc., the founding members were mindful of and pay tribute to the efforts of the members of the original Mag-Net Virtual Science and Technology Centre which was established in 1996 in Victoria and was active until 2000.



The purposes of the new Association are:


1. To provide collegiate support  in the curriculum use of new media for teachers of science, technology, engineering  and mathematics (STEM) in primary and secondary schools and other educational institutions.

2. In consultation with the Association’s members via online discussion groups and content management software to develop and revise a generic rationale for both engaging in and challenging of the practical classroom experiences of students with new media. 

3. To highlight and illuminate the new media projects and interests of the members of the Association through the establishment and maintenance of an online professional community of active contributors.

4. To act as a publishing centre of excellence for members and for writers and authors who are invited or commissioned by the Association.

5. To facilitate the exchange of existing high quality online curriculum materials and services of interest to members from other like-minded organisations and associations.

6.  To seek dialogue and partnership opportunities with other like minded organisations or associations in enhancing the curriculum possibilities for the use of new media.

7. To promote, recognise and celebrate best practice of STEM educators.



Rethinking Science Education in the 21st Century: Some ideas for future discussion


Science education is a particular form of life  which is different from that of theoretical and experimental science.


Interdisciplinary Science education is about:


  • sharing understandings  of existing science knowledge, facts, theories and skills of scientific reasoning   and experimentation with new generations of prospective science workers


  • Building an understanding of the scientific enterprise based upon
  • The history and philosophy of science together with The history of ideas and
  • The biographies of individual scientists and non scientists working collaboratively in interdisciplinary science projects


  • Building new narratives, new biographies and descriptions of new problems and the nature of new scientific projects


  • Introducing students to both theoretical and experimental perspectives Of theoretical and practical reasoning


  • Understanding and applying methods of experimental design, testing and evaluation in the building of models


  • Describing the  material world  populated by entities, objects or substances
  • Theorizing on probable mechanisms or processes to account for their behaviour


  • Building communities of people to solve problems in the local community