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Teaching Controversial Topics

A few years back I added a unit on global warming in one of my classes and there was an unexpected push back from my students based primarily on the views of their parents. I did not handle the controversy as well as I could. They are great opportunities to help science processes lead the way to better understanding.

Controversy usually arises from a lack of the understanding of the facts in science. People often blur the lines between science and beliefs. Certainly no one would question beliefs but they follow a different set of rules than science.
Science is more than a set of facts. In science we study things that we can observe directly (like animals) and indirectly (like sub atomic particle) and things over time (earth processes). We have to be able to let others observe the same things so our approach to science needs to be consistent.  The results of observations and experiments (of course these are repeated several times) are reasonably the same when performed by competent investigators.

We also in science investigate processes with natural, not supernatural causes. It would be tough to put a supreme being to the test so we investigate the natural processes. The causes of these naturally occurring events can be used to make predictions which can be tested to determine if these predictions are true or false.

We must be able to test the natural cause of the phenomenon. We use controlled experiments and fair tests. We also know that these results are always tentative. Future knowledge and technology will lead to other experiments which may alter or even revise the previous results.
There is a great write up on this at the Indiana University site.
http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/lessons/conptt.pdf

When I begin my class with this description of science aligned with rich examples for the students to explore the questions about faith and even politics seem to get put on a back burner. We can examine the evidence for and against global warming with fresh eyes and confront our own misconceptions based on the evidence.  For example, the evidence from ice core samples gives a record of the carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere for each decade dating back hundreds of years. The photographic evidence of ice retreat on glaciers and ice sheets is provided from various sources in photographs.
http://www.worldviewofglobalwarming.org/pages/glaciers.html
http://geology.com/usgs/glacier-retreat/

What is exceptional about these sites is that they provide a great way to test the application of science to evaluate the bias in these sources. One of the goals of the new digital age is that we provide students with the intellectual skills to enable them to detect bias and evaluate web sites they use for accuracy.

The elephant in the room for controversy seems to be evolution. This is a cornerstone of science. Many alter the name to change over time. We do see more creationist science coming into instruction put there by well meaning teachers. The fact is that creationism is based on faith and not on science. I always make sure that students know I will not discuss faith. But we will use the tools of science to investigate the processes of evolution. Some are comforted by the fact that all science is tentative and that faith still is a valid part of the world. It simply follows different rules for study and proof than science.  

Currently there is a debate building about nuclear power. This was thrust into the limelight by the crisis at the Japan nuclear plant damaged by the recent powerful earthquakes. My students hold strong opinions on nuclear power and few of them on either side are able to back up those opinions with any scientific facts. This is a perfect opportunity to dive in and let the evidence guide the discussion. I would first investigate the nuclear disaster in Japan as there is so much information on the web and so much of it is filled with good graphics and interesting visuals and narratives. The CNN site has some exceptional reports.
www.cnn.com

Next, there are some interesting science sites that explain nuclear radiation and hazards.
http://www.howstuffworks.com/nuclear.htm

Once students have a grasp of the science concepts behind the application you can jump to nuclear energy. Here you have a wide choice of sites. Many of these will have some bias but all are effective in giving evidence that will add to the discussions.
http://timeforchange.org/pros-and-cons-of-nuclear-power-and-sustainability
http://www.oecd-nea.org/

One site is from an organization called NEI. This is a lobbying agency for nuclear power. I have asked my students to investigate the web sites to see the vested interest of the group that hosts the site so that they might be able to determine if this is a site that would present a more balanced view or one that is more one sided.
http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/

Whether it is nuclear energy, evolution, or global warming there will always be controversy in science. That is part of the ballgame. Science loves to question its own results and theories.  We do this in part to make them stronger but also to learn more. Including kids on this journey makes perfect sense.

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