Time for another awesome interview, this time with someone outside of showbiz…

As a resident of New Zealand I am naturally interested in the education of my country and especially how science fairs in the education arena and what sort of competition it has to deal with. To this end I sought to interview a local academic regarding these topics. I could not have done better than Dr. Alison Campbell, biology Lecturer at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. Alison not only runs a science themed blog but also has a hand in the Cafe Scientifique casual public science forum and aided in the writing of the revised New Zealand Science Curriculum. Without further ado, here is my interview with Alison:

[Scepticon]First off, you post a daily blog, BioBlog, hosted on the University of Waikato site, could you briefly describe the sorts of topics you write about?

[AlisonCampbell]Pretty much whatever takes my fancy – but I do have some limits! I originally began blogging because it seemed a good way to improve the support available to students sitting the Scholarship examinations (intended for top students in their final year of secondary school), & so that’s what guided what I was doing. I wrote about how to prepare for exams, why Scholarship is hard work, things like that, & also started reviewing & summarising new stories in the literature, because students at this level are expected to have quite a broad general subject knowledge.

And I talk a bit about university life, because that’s where most of these kids are headed. And also give them a bit of a feel for what I do – I want them to see me as a person, not some faceless academic in an office somewhere. I would hope that that last thing also says something about the uni in general, in the sense that its staff are real, approachable people who do actually have a life outside the ivory tower 🙂

I’ve also got into writing the occasional post about what I’m reading – I love books & want to share that & let people know about good popular science books. And I also have a go at pseudoscience (& how the media deal with it) from time to time. This is partly because I’d hope that doing this will help with the Schol students’ need to develop better critical thinking skills – but also because I’m really bothered by what I see as a quite widespread & uncritical acceptance of pseudoscience in the wider community.

The limits to all this are what I impose on myself – they’re not laid down by the University. I’m very aware that what I do does offer a public face for the uni & so I don’t write anything that would reflect badly on it – no bad language or things like that. But also, I know where my strengths lie & I’m not about to start pontificating about things on which I know absolutely nothing!

[S]I understand you helped set up the new science curriculum for schools, how detailed is the curriculum and what sort of process is undertaken in it’s creation?

[AC]The new Science curriculum document is much less detailed than the one it replaces. The ‘old’ one contained quite a lot of detail, including suggestions on what students could be doing to learn about a particular topic, & how teachers could assess this. There’s nothing like that in the ‘new’ one, which sets out some very broad guidelines about key concepts at each level but leaves it to schools & teachers to flesh out the details.

It had a robust development process with a lot of consultation, & I think does reflect the outcomes of that consultation fairly well. And one of the things that I really really like about the science document is that for the first time it places understanding of the nature of science right out there at the top of things. Previously this was a ‘strand’ that was supposed to be interwoven with the ‘subject’ strands (physics, chem, & so on) & as a result often got overlooked in practice. But now students from new entrants up are expected to learn something about what science is, what sets it apart from other ways of ‘knowing’ about the world, how people do science, how to communicate & participate in science. That’s a big achievement & an essential one, given that the need for a scientifically-literate society is so pressing.

[S]Where there any points of contention with the curriculum where you felt the science needed to be defended from ideological pressure?

[AC]Evolution 🙂 The ‘pressure’ was in the form of feedback during the consultation process, some of it quite well organised. It wasn’t a problem among the panel, however, although there were concerns about how teachers would deal with the prominence of evolution in the new curriculum. And it is prominent – wasn’t mentioned until year 12 in the old version, but now it’s there from new entrant classes onwards. Tailored for the age & conceptual understanding of the children, but very definitely there.

[S]Concerning the curriculum feedback process and the concerns raised about evolution, was this feedback from teachers regarding broaching the evolution topic in general or were there parents or special interest groups that were actually opposed to the concept?

[AC]There was a bit of concern from teachers, expressed as individual submissions to the curriculum project’s website, mainly to do with dealing with students/communities who opposed the concept. However, there was also at least one special interest group that attempted to organise its members to put in bulk submissions opposed to the extensive profile proposed for evolution. 🙂

[S]You have twice been interviewed on national radio with regard to attempts to insert creationism into our schools, in the U.S. there are laws regarding the introduction of religious concepts in the classroom. What safeguards, if any, do we have in New Zealand to ensure only science is taught in science class?

[AC]erm – I’d like to say, the curriculum document, but the ‘old’ one (still in use, the ‘new’ one doesn’t completely kick in until 2010 to give teachers time to develop resources for it) has a few gaping holes in it: it speaks of students learning about the ‘theories’ of how life developed, which leaves the door open for teachers to present the ‘theory’ of intelligent design as if it’s really science. And they would argue that they aren’t teaching a religious concept; after all, it’s a ‘theory’, isn’t it? (Not helped by a couple of confusing pronouncements from Ministry staff, along the lines of ‘you can’t observe evolution in the laboratory’.) Most teachers wouldn’t – but some would. And private schools that get no state funding can pretty much teach what they like, especially to junior students who aren’t preparing for state exams, & so you see schools teaching young-Earth creationism in science class. But I do have to add that these are a minority.

[S]In the U.S. a large proportion of the population do not accept Evolutionary Theory, this gives rise to a “grassroots” resistance to the teaching of evolution in schools. The resistance seems to also come from teachers themselves either through reluctance to be seen to be challenging student beliefs or their own ideological biases. Are these factors we should be concerned about in New Zealand?

[AC]I’m inclined to say ‘yes’. I’ve seen comments from teachers (from Auckland schools) to the effect that they avoid or minimize teaching evolution, simply because they would come up hard against the majority of students in their classrooms. And while I was involved in the curriculum writing group I had teachers saying very similar things; they were a little apprehensive about what implementing the curriculum was going to mean for them.

[S]In your experience how well is science taught in New Zealand? Are our teachers doing a good job of showing students how the enterprise of science works?

[AC]Generally it’s well taught, I think, in the sense that students get a good grounding in a lot of science concepts, & are more & more coming to get an understanding of what science actually is. Unfortunately science is compulsory in secondary schools only until the end of year 10 (4th form), which I think a pity. And I remember seeing an item in the paper a few weeks back where primary students didn’t particularly enjoy science classes (it wasn’t that they weren’t interested in science, but that they felt they weren’t getting enough of what they considered science), which is also a bit of a worry.

[S]If people are concerned about these issues what courses of action are open to them?

[AC]If I had concerns over my own child’s classroom experiences then I’d be inclined to raise them with the classroom teacher in the first instance. Followed by the HoD Science & the principal, in that order. It’s not really something that’s within the ambit of the Board of Trustees (our system being – thankfully! – different from that operating in the US). If it’s something more systemic, then write to the Minister of Education (& the shadow Minister).

[S]You, along with Dr Penelope Cooke and several others developed the Evolution for Teaching website, what prompted this, what are it’s aims and how has it been received?

[AC]The idea was to provide a resource written for New Zealanders that NZ teachers & students could use. Penny & I are both ex-secondary teachers & knew what was (& wasn’t available), and we’d also been encouraged to work on it by teachers. (I need to add that there were two other team members involved, Kathrin Otrel-Cass & Kerry Earl.) It’s been enormously well received, both in NZ & overseas: we get around 400,000 page requests a month from all over the place. And I really must get on to updating it again…

[S]You are also involved in the Cafe Scientifique science “outreach” program, what sort of feedback have you had about this and do you think you get a good cross-section of the community attending or are you “preaching to the converted” in terms of those who are already interested in science.

[AC]Funnily enough we’re just doing a research project at the moment, looking at what the Cafe ‘clients’ think of the evenings (& other things besides, like where they get their science information from). The feedback is generally extremely positive: people like the format, like the variety of speakers & their approachability/accessibility… about the only thing that’s mentioned in a negative way is the venue – it can be noisy in a pub & some of our attendees would like somewhere quieter.

We’ve got a group of regulars – the ones already interested in science – but we get others coming in, particularly when it’s a contentious or topical issue. (About 50% of those who come are involved in science one way or another.)

We also have a website, where we advertise the sessions & also mount the handouts that most of our speakers provide – I know quite a few school teachers use those as a teaching resource.

[S]With regard to the pseudoscience and culture of belief rather than evidence that seems to be growing, what do you consider to be the biggest threat(s) to rationality in New Zealand at the moment?

[AC]That whole thing about all points of view being equally valid. So that when the media run a story on a particular issue, they seem to think it essential that they present ‘both sides of the issue’. Even when, as with evolution, there really is only one side. And the almost universal lack of investigative journalism, at least in regard to science & pseudoscience. For example, take the case of an Auckland school teacher doing a ‘trial’ of the efficacy or otherwise of fish-oil capsules with respect to students’ learning (I blogged on it last week). Totally uncritical coverage in the papers. A couple of people wrote in to the ‘letters’ section of the Herald, pointing out that whatever else was going on, it definitely wasn’t science. And someone else took them to task for being boring old fuddy-duddies who wanted to take all the fun out of school science!

[S]Are there any other topics that you feel are particularly important in education today?

[AC]Some sort of crash-course for journalists?

Not really an education topic – but I’d love to see science receive greater recognition & appreciation in society. I work with the group that selects and trains the NZ team for the International Biology Olympiad competitions. And we do it on the smell of an oily rag: the total estimated costs each year are around $70,000, but we do it on a fraction of that due to donated time & materials, & a lot of fund-raising by the team members. Little or no help from the Ministry of Education, & funding bodies – such as the charitable funding agencies – simply haven’t wanted to know up until now (I understand things have changed somewhat for next year & like the rest of the group, I’m hugely grateful). Yet at the same time they’d give money to send a school sports team away… We seem to place such huge emphasis on sporting success, and yet it’s science & technology that underpin much of our economy. Scepavatarsmall

I would like to thank Alison for taking the time to answer my questions, I hope you enjoyed reading her answers as much as I did.

Read more from Alison at her BioBlog and if you live in the Waikato area check out the Cafe Scientifique home page for more sessions to come in the new year. For more information about student attitudes to science and the New Zealand National Education Monitoring Project Science assessment results visit nemp.otago.ac.nz/science/2007/index.htm, and for more on the International Biology Olympiad visit ibo-info.org.







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