The book begins by describing a hands-on science event the author staged for youngsters at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, using simple everyday items. For example, air pressure was demonstrated using an empty milk carton. Adding a splash of water and placing it in a microwave for a minute flushed out the air with steam. Quickly removing the hot carton and screwing on the lid left it airless. The surprised audience then watched as it was flattened by the weight of air pressing down upon it. When he explained that a cubic meter of air weighed over 2½ lb, they found this hard to believe. However, this could be demonstrated using a helium balloon. Other experiments ranged from flying an airfoil made from a toilet-roll tube, to “rubberizing” leftover chicken bones, using vinegar, to demonstrate the flexible component of bone. The enthusiastic comments after each session showed that few experiments took place in most school classrooms.
Weeks later, McGowan received an invitation to address the annual meeting of the Science Teachers’ Association of Ontario, the largest gathering of science teachers in Canada. Consulting Ontario’s science curriculum while planning his talk revealed little that resembled science. Instead, he found a quagmire of sociology and misunderstood science, with meaningless flowcharts and quotes from educationalists. Surprise turned to anger as he read through the mindless drivel. Something had to be done.
In chronicling what unfolded, readers learn that teaching science, both in Canada and the United States, is dominated by educationalists. Their interests are in understanding how individuals learn, not in understanding science, and most have little or no knowledge of the subject. This is obvious from their erroneous perceptions of science. The disconnect between real science and the educationalists’ perception of reality is illustrated by reference to the author’s own scientific research.
Attention is focused on The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the new benchmark for science education in the US, and on A Framework for K-12 Science Education, upon which it was based. The overriding influence of educationalists is reflected in the esoteric language, the compulsion for theorizing rather than experimenting, and in glaring errors of science. Additional evidence for the negative influence of educationalists is provided by some of the incomprehensible nonsense published by education departments in several states. Incidentally, a leader for the NGSS writing team was an educational consultant for one of these flawed documents.
A sojourn to London in the sixties gives readers a taste of UK schools and introduces them to the Nuffield Science Teaching Project. Here, students spent most of their time experimenting. Imagine today’s students inoculating Petri dishes with bacteria to test the efficacy of penicillin, or making a working model of the gut to see how the enzyme in their own saliva digested starch.
Some of the consequences of scientific illiteracy are illustrated by reference to the health and wellness industries, along with some of the author’s experiences during his battles with creationists in the 1980s. Readers will be surprised, and amused, by some of his disclosures.
Recounting the author’s presentation to the science teachers shows how significant experimental results can be achieved using everyday items. For example, a test bed improvised from a milk carton was used to show that the drag forces generated by Plasticine models of a disc, sphere and streamline, all of the same cross-sectional area, decreased in that order when blown by a hairdryer, as predicted by fluid mechanics.
Drawing upon his teaching experiences, which ranged from middle school to graduate school, the author outlines how the Nuffield approach can be used to return real science to the classroom. The biggest obstacle in the past has been the costs of equipment and preparation time, but creative improvisation essentially eliminates these problems.
More has to change in the classroom besides the way science is taught, and two hotly debated items discussed near the end of the book are student assessment and student behavior. Included in this eclectic chapter is Summerhill, a private school founded in England during the 1920s by a rebellious Scotsman. Believing children were innately good, his students could do just as they pleased. His book about the school sold over a three million copies, drawing worldwide attention. Summerhill school has been credited as the likely origin for the laissez-faire approach to teaching.
Ending the book with a review of the most important issues facing the planet leaves readers with a clear understanding of why scientific literacy is so important. Most of the problems will be familiar, but one will likely come as a disquieting discovery. And a second will unfold like a sinister spy novel.