Putting the "I" in Science

Fall 2014

By Lise Goddard


Central to envisioning what we want our schools to look like in 20 years is what we want our science instruction to look like. We live in a world of rapid change, and how schools adapt to this new landscape is a question of utmost relevance. Our collective impacts on land, water, biodiversity, and atmosphere accrue steadily, inching us toward undesirable outcomes with far-reaching consequences. At the same time, dangling in front of us are opportunities to get things right.

Science is a bridge that can link dynamic conditions to adaptive strategies, problems to solutions. Depending upon how we look at it, we might see these times as rich with possibilities for doing better.

How can we use our shifting environmental and cultural ground as an opportunity to teach science lessons that are real and relevant? We start by reexamining our notion of what education is for. Our science curricula should not just aim to develop in students a strong knowledge base; it should aim to develop and train people who — through their knowledge base and life skills — see themselves as participants in their communities and the world, and act accordingly.

Science and Social Justice

In its November/December 2013 issue, Orion magazine published Belle Boggs's "The Science of Citizenship: What's at Stake When Schools Skimp on Science?" It's a compelling and gut-wrenching article about the cultural alienation of entire populations whose participation in key personal and societal decisions, elections, and the economic structure of their communities is limited by not knowing, say, exactly what a cell looks like or what might be polluting their water supply. Certainly, many factors contribute to weak science backgrounds, but one overarching factor, Boggs makes clear, is weak education, particularly in conveying the relevance of science to students' and citizens' daily lives.

Boggs acknowledges, "How well we understand science affects almost every aspect of our personal and civic lives: our health, our reproductive choices, our understanding of the news, how and whether we vote, and our interaction with the environment." Boggs, an articulate spokesperson for environmental justice, goes on to say that our poorest communities with poor science training are doubly afflicted with closest proximity to sources of pollution from mining, power plants, and industry. Clearly, there's a convergence in educational and environmental crises. One might call it a perfect storm.

The beacon that independent schools can light in this storm is rooted in Teddy Roosevelt's call to action: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." It's not easy for those of us in independent schools to play a role in public school reform, but we ought to put to good use what we have and where we are. We are well-resourced with intellectual horsepower; we're agile enough to improve upon standards and mandates that don't work; we have interesting facilities for teaching science; and we all express a commitment to excellence, character, and community in our school's mission statements. Whatever else we might do to improve education for a better future, we can certainly use our science curricula to empower all our students, whether they go on to pursue science degrees or not, to see the link between science and social issues — and to act on that knowledge.

Putting the "I" in Science

Independent school students know what cells are, what they look like, how their mitochondria work, and how they replicate. They have engaging, lively, and often alive demonstrations in their classrooms. So, where are the blind spots for committed independent schools aiming to cultivate science-literate citizens? One area is the bias in the language we use.

Conventional training — one might even say fine training — in scientific writing encourages adherence to rule No. 1: Don't use "I" when writing science reports. Such writing is to be objective rather than subjective. It is to be dispassionate, detached, fact-based, and reproducible.

I get it. The rule is a foolproof way to avoid writing science reports like journal entries. It steers us away from opinions and long-winded expositions. It is what real scientists do. But in school, an over-reliance on the passive voice — on asking students to pretend that who they are doesn't matter in their research — has the undesirable effect of disconnecting science from society. This point was driven home for me when I heard John Warner, cofounder of the field of Green Chemistry, at the 2010 National Bioneers Conference. Warner lamented — and simultaneously marveled at — the fact that, until recently, no chemistry department in any American university required its chemistry majors to take a course in toxicology. In other words, the architects of our chemicals of commerce have historically received no training in the toxic effects or unintended consequences of these chemicals. His team from the Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry went on to describe a strange aspect of chemistry: the relationship between a molecule's function and toxicity is not linear nor necessarily predictable. For example, changes in the location or orientation of a molecular branch in a dye might make it more durable against fading in the sun while completely ramping up — or down — its toxicity.

Warner's point is that our scientific language may contribute to dissociating the human from the process in which he or she participates. Removing "I" in the language of the "Materials and Methods" sections of a science paper removes accountability. We are trained to say "5 grams of X was mixed with 5 grams of Y," and we may come to believe, as we have written, that the chemicals actually mix themselves. Pair this disassociation with a lack of training in toxicology and chemical engineers might become players in a high-stakes system without checks and balances.

The "no I" rule certainly has its time and place — for example, when students perform calculations involving scientific laws that do not bend to opinions or wishes. Know what formula you're using. Plug and chug. Produce an answer. There is no debate. School-taught science must retain its signature objectivity. But somehow we must also teach science so that the student is a part of the processes he or she is exploring, certainly as an observer, and, when possible, as a player, too. In other words, science must be relevant — and perceived as such — to students' lives.

To this end, we need to think of "I" in two ways: literally and metaphorically. Literally, it can mean putting the first person and active voice back into our science writing — for example, as the mixer of the chemicals ("I mixed 5 grams of X with 5 grams of Y") or as the narrator whose paper tells a story that engages the reader while retaining objectivity and reaching for outcomes that are not preordained.

UC Santa Barbara Professor of Ecology Josh Schimel asserts in his book Writing Science, "A paper doesn't only present our data — it also interprets them.... The papers that get cited the most and the proposals that get funded are those that tell the most compelling stories." Laying out concrete steps that guide scientists to value and practice the fine craft of writing, Schimel's manual instructs scientists how to narrate their experiments as stories that unfold with logical sequences of data, action, well-timed tensions, and other structural components of storylines. When a writer makes the reader's job easy, papers matter. When they don't, a paper's accessibility and impact are limited to a handful of fellow experts in a narrow field.

Good narrating may seem obvious, but when done effectively, it embodies a sea change in perspective. Even though the word "I" doesn't appear in the text, "I" is very much in the paper as a guide, a teacher, a voice that interprets and makes sense of a sequence of facts for a reader. How we teach voice in science writing can affect how students perceive their relationship to their work.

At my school — Midland School (California), a coeducational boarding school for students in grades 9-12 — I've applied some of Schimel's advice to my 10th-grade chemistry students when they write technical reports on how solar photovoltaic systems work, from individual PV cells to grid-tied arrays that can power a household or a school. The students become narrators of a sequential tale targeted to an audience of parents or peers. When they focus on narrative voice, I've found, they not only produce more engaging writing, but they are more invested in the process. In order to tell a story, they must first convince themselves their work is relevant and then try to convince a reader. They tap deeper into their creative sides to elaborate on details. They own it. They're not writing for the teacher.

Metaphorically, there are ways of putting "I" into scientific studies entirely separate from how we write about it. It's a question of how we experience it. As a case in point, Midland science classes train students to be better observers, fluent in the landscapes surrounding us. I admire the way my colleagues Ben and Laurie Munger teach place-based science to ninth-graders and upperclassmen on Midland School's 2,860-acre property. Acting as guides, they take their classes out into the field, placing "I" and "we" in a landscape and teaching students to use compasses and contour lines to place themselves on a map. Joining Laurie on a backpacking trip with her geology class last spring, I watched her students record bank height and steepness, channel width, gravel size, and riparian plants across a transect of the Sisquoc River at its confluence with Manzana Creek in the San Rafael Wilderness. They had at their fingertips an arsenal of geological terms and diagrams from classes and the textbook, and this was their chance to see how creeks and rivers actually behave. Limited to a textbook, a creek bed is literally dry. But in a creek, the study of geology can come to life. By learning through their senses, observations, measurements, and experience, these students were getting something else you can't get from a textbook — the chance to see themselves in that landscape.

Extending the metaphor, we can also put "I" into what we do with science, thus returning us to the promise of this article: how to teach science in a way that inspires better citizens. The world is ripe with opportunities to study the science behind urgent issues tied to our basic needs: water, food, and energy. The outcome of these studies must be more than science-based awareness of problems. We must instill a heightened sense of how to navigate the problems with informed choices, votes, consumer habits, and the ability to contribute to solutions. We must put "I" into these major topics with all our students, from the iconic frustrated ones asking, "But what does this have to do with me?" to the Ivy-bound ones who can ace standardized tests and on whom we pin much of our hopes for a purposeful future.

Such experiential learning requires built-in time and guidance for all of its steps to play out (see sidebar in blue box below). To be delivered most effectively, it requires opportunities for meaningful participation in the world. Students must be able to do something as citizens, whether as scientists, builders, or activists. A tangible experience as a player — even a small one — is formative for adolescents.
Science-Based Experiential Education

Experiential education — for which relevance is the goal — offers a valuable approach to making science relevant to the lives of our students. The Experiential Learning Cycle, developed by David A. Kolb, a social psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, and shared by Jessie Barrie, the director of the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN), involves four steps in an iterative process, in which past learning informs future experience1:
  1. A concrete experience
  2. Reflection on that experience (What happened?)
  3. Abstract conceptualization of the experience (So what? What went wrong? What went right? What should we do differently next time?)
  4. Active experimentation (Now what? Take what we learned and transfer it to the next experience. This creates the basis for change and improvement.)
Applying these steps to the teaching of science helps students of all ages see the ways in which science is directly connected to their lives —- and to responsible citizenship.


1. From Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, David A. Kolb, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1984.

Activism Starts Here

In the important book The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It), Charles Saylan and Daniel Blumstein advocate strongly for interdisciplinary and active solutions to environmental problems. Social action is their most fervent and final point: "[E]ven the best possible curricula will not translate into action unless it includes a strong and relevant social component. Students must experience active involvement in a community where theoretical knowledge is practically applied and actions and reactions have personal significance and value to the individual and community alike." Key to active participation are exercises in school in which "students experience the process of making measurable impacts."

In other words, our science curricula must provide a solid understanding of the environments in which we live while offering opportunities for students to be stakeholders and players. Real solutions are interdisciplinary. They involve critical thinking, economics, science, technology, math, politics, history, communication, artistic expression, writing and speaking, and the art of persuasion. Imagine the power that will reside in a well-educated­ population of 20-year-olds who have seen their work matter in high school, and who additionally start to sense what unique strengths they can bring to such work!

Midland's tagline is "Live Your Education," and Midland students see the outcome of their work chopping wood for heat, tending a 10-acre organic garden, and annually installing grid-tied solar arrays that cumulatively, after 10 years, meet 30 percent of campus electricity needs. Central to implementing these projects is direct student involvement alongside professional guides. A key outcome is that we make the invisible visible to our students. This has been in Midland's DNA since our founder, Paul Squibb, wrote that, "Money, light, heat, and water are not things that flow naturally out of pipes, but are things for which somebody has to spend time and thought and energy.... I believe the [student] who has learned not to take the material blessings of life for granted will live a more vivid and interesting life and will be the better citizen." Studying water, food, and energy — amid a landscape of daily immersion in the outdoors — are not "add-ons" at Midland; they are at the core of rigorous college preparation. They provide a spectacular backdrop for teaching science-based solutions to global problems. They are natural extensions of a school mission that values character, self-reliance, and the development of our inner resources through daily jobs.

Of course, many other schools have embraced science-based experiential education — from schools that run farm and garden programs to those that engage students in real-world research in which the results impact public policy. Two excellent examples are Albuquerque Academy (New Mexico) and Nichols School (New York).

At Albuquerque Academy, students in Earth Systems Science (eighth grade) and Bio E (Biology with an Ecology Emphasis) are helping to create a new garden for the school and community. The Southwest is faced with the challenges of providing food with resources that are dwindling due to climate change and soil depletion. The new Desert Oasis Teaching Garden is designed to teach students and the local community how to grow food in a hotter, drier land using nature and the wisdom of ancestral peoples who have grown food in the region for hundreds of years. Since the garden's inception, students have been involved in every step of the process, including using satellite imagery to measure the potential for harvesting water off the school's science roof in order to size cisterns to help write a grant for the purchase of the cisterns. Bio E students, meanwhile, have been working on an independent project to teach their community about sustainable gardening.

At Nichols School, in Buffalo, seventh-grade science teacher Sandy Cunningham engages her students in the study of local water resources, working with the Environmental Protection Agency and a number of nongovernmental organizations, including Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and Trout Unlimited. After learning about the biosphere and the distribution of water resources, the students focus on the Great Lakes — studying the hydrology, nutrient and water movement, the food webs, invasive species, and water quality issues in each lake. They also focus on Buffalo's Scajaquada Creek, investigating the history of the area around the creek and the creek itself. The students eventually engage in a three-part investigation of the waterway: mapping and evaluating land uses, riverbank evaluation and erosion potential, and a chemical analysis of the water.

Where will schools be in 20 years? It's hard to say. But we know we live and work and teach in pivotal times. We know, in particular, that we are rapidly drawing down our natural resources as our population rapidly increases. We know that the pressures we've put on the planet are not only altering the climate but also are doing serious damage to the planet's biodiversity. And we know that our system of formal education is central in addressing any of these and related issues. Whatever else we may do in school, we'd be wise to connect the teaching of science to citizenship.

Where do we begin in choosing science topics to educate citizens? The number and range of issues are staggering: climate change, renewable and nonrenewable energy, ecology, farming, health, water quality and rights, public vs. private ownership of resources, economics, life-cycle analysis, full-cost accounting, externalities, and investing. But we don't need to address them all — and run the risk of subjecting our students to issue fatigue and fear. Instilling in students John Dewey's "attitude... of desire to keep on learning" and grounding them in the belief that what they do matters is more valuable than covering a great many topics. Give students a chance to experience a small win, and then another. Don't just profess a litany of problems.

I find author and Oberlin professor David Orr to be a North Star pointing out our deepest needs in environmental education. Having read his books and heard him speak several times, I'm convinced he's right in lamenting that college students do understand climate science, but they don't think it's their responsibility or that they can make a difference. In 2008, I heard Orr say, "I worry less about solvability than despair that will keep us from trying."

The vitally important part about trying requires re-tooling student habits away from being spectators and toward being players. This must begin long before college. It matters what we do and it matters that we do. Perhaps it can start with putting "I" back into our study of science — and see where it leads us.


Belle Boggs, "The Science of Citizenship: What's at Stake when Schools Skimp on Science?" Orion Magazine, November/December 2013.

John Dewey, Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi Lectures, Touchstone, 1997 reprint.

David Orr, Eco-Schools Pre-Conference Workshop, National Bioneers Conference, San Rafael, CA, 2008.

Charles Saylan and Daniel Blumstein, The Failure of Environmental Education [And How We Can Fix It], University of California Press, 2011.

Josh Schimel, Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Paul Squibb, "Historical Notes," Midland School Alumni Directory, 1957.

John Warner, Plenary Talk: "Intellectual Ecology: Green Chemistry and Biomimicry" and afternoon session with the Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry, National Bioneers Conference, San Rafael, CA, 2010.
Lise Goddard

Lise Goddard is director of environmental programs and curriculum at Midland School (California). Founded in 1932, Midland was recognized with a Governor's Award for Environmental and Economic Leadership (California's highest environmental honor) and a Santa Barbara County Green Award. Its course "Water: California's Liquid Gold" was named one of AdmissionsQuest's "Five Schools with the Coolest Classes."