CAN THEY THINK FOR THEMSELVES?



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CAN THEY THINK FOR THEMSELVES?



oes a tomato have DNA in it? The average European adult would probably answer ‘no’—only a genetically modified tomato has DNA in it—whereas the average European secondary school pupil would most likely answer ‘of course’. Given that children and young adults in secondary and higher education have a unique opportunity to develop critical thinking as well as assimilating facts, this chance must be better exploited to open their minds to the latest developments in science. Not only will it help many of them to get a job and contribute to the prosperity of Europe, but it will help all of them to understand better the fast-changing world we live in. How well do we educate the youth of Europe in biology? According to TIMSS, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, Europe is on average slightly less successful than the USA (see Table TableI).I). But is such a study really meaningful? Surely what is more important is the quality of scientists that the education system produces (http://www.uni-giessen.de/~gf1002/vdbiol/timss2.html). Thus, instead of looking at the beginning of the life-long process of learning and discovery, perhaps we should focus on high schools and universities. And this is where the problems borne in secondary and higher education come home to roost. ‘No one has taught them [PhD students] how to think,’ remarked Jorge Moscat from the CBM Severo Ochoa in Madrid, ‘in the first few years [in the lab] they need to be re-educated.’ And his group attracts some of the most gifted graduates in Spain, he said.

 

At the heart of the problem is an over-concentration on the learning of isolated facts and too little integration of mutually beneficial fields such as biochemistry, physiology, molecular biology, plant and animal sciences. For example, no serious biologist would argue that a purely molecular approach to solving biomedical problems is likely to succeed. The study of genomics has unequivocally demonstrated the need to integrate molecular studies with physiological and whole animal studies. However, as might be expected from the time-lag between developments in research and those in education, even at undergraduate level there is a preoccupation with molecular reductionism at the expense of integrative approaches. In a sense, this is a success story because it proves that the teaching establishment enthusiastically adopts important developments. But an integrated approach to biology teaching naturally breeds greater problem-solving ability, a quality that appears lacking in recent graduates. The problem of a lack of integration is also a horizontal one between all of the natural sciences. As Chris Leaver at the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University noted, in addition to many other shortfalls of the education system, biology teachers often place too little emphasis on mathematics and the physical sciences. As computing and mathematics become an increasingly important tool in the interpretation of biological data, so the need increases for biologists who are as happy devising algorithms as they are planning experiments in the lab. Ironically, among 16- to 18-year-olds taking biology in the UK, over half do not study mathematics or a physical science. This is one of the problems that the Royal Society, an organisation that collaborates with the British Association for the Advancement of Science to improve public understanding and education of science, intends to tackle in its recently devised education programme. The education system in the UK, where a new curriculum for 16- to 18-year-olds is just being introduced, has drawn widespread criticism for its science curriculum. But in terms of the graduate biologists it produces, it need not hang its head in shame. In comparison, German graduates fare much worse in skills such as reading and assimilating research papers. They are trained in ‘following recipes’ rather than creative thinking, noted Patricia Kahn, editor of the IAVI Report, a publication of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, who taught graduate students at the University of Heidelberg. She added that it is regrettable that German Scientists are stifled by the ‘factory system’ in which they are reared—a learning framework built around the memorisation of facts and practically no contact with professors. In secondary school education, Germany could also do better, but here at least there is at least one energetic initiative underway: The ‘Heidelberg Life-Sciences Lab’ (http://www.brains.de and http://life-science-lab.xmachina.de), brain child of Thomas Schutz, a biologist working at the Krebsforschungszentrum, who is coordinating an engaging calendar of events. In addition to opportunities for the public to learn more about science, Schutz, in collaboration with interested scientists, has devised a holiday academy. A group of school children selected in competition with others will work for a week on projects of their own design in a genuine research laboratory. The indefatigable Heidelberg biologist also plans a seminar to bring scientists and teachers together and to discuss continuing education of biology teachers, a matter of some urgency. For continuing education brings new ideas and inspiration into the classroom. It is an uncommon pupil who is not affected by a teacher’s enthusiasm for his or her subject. It is an all too often heard complaint of parents that their children simply are not interested in school subjects. And it is depressing to think that on entering school, the fascination that most children have for things that creep, crawl and wriggle can turn into apathy. Class sizes are clearly one reason; teachers cannot give each child enough attention, and this is where multimedia can help. However, the hardware needed to equip a school satisfactorily is in general too expensive for a publicly funded education system. A recent report revealed that only 6% of PCs in German schools have a CD-ROM—the figure elsewhere in Europe can hardly be better. Fortunately, many excellent Internet sites—often hosted by museums and visitor centres—offer an abundance of teaching resources for free. Predictably, most of the web resources in biology are hosted by US institutions and universities. Inspiring and educating young scientists is something that we cannot leave to chance, given the indisputable connection between scientific research and economic growth. In Israel, whose economy is firmly based on science and technology, this link is clear to those officials responsible for education. That is why in recent years a minor revolution has taken place in their education system, inspired by a report from a national committee, headed by Professor Haim Harari, President of the Weizmann Institute. Not surprisingly it addressed the very problems that still trouble Europe. First, the curricula were rewritten to place more emphasis on integration between the science and technology curricula. Secondly, teachers, in growing numbers, participate in continuing education through a network of regional training centres, which they attend one day a week. For this, they are rewarded with an increased salary. Teachers are important after all, as we have yet to recognise in Europe. Finally, a core curriculum is being devised for all subjects, not just the sciences. The Israeli Ministry of Education liaises very closely with academics in universities and provides them with a budget for the development of teaching materials. However, as Benjamin Geiger, Professor at the Weizmann Institute, who was involved in the implementation of this reform, conceded, Israel is small—1.2 million children attend school—and its education system is centralised, and hence activities can be coordinated relatively easily. ‘But the implementation of such a comprehensive reform is a slow and difficult endeavour,’ he added, ‘and it is still way too early to evaluate its success.’ Since Europe is large, there is an even greater need for a similar revolution. But given that many countries do not yet have a national curriculum, the possibility of a pan-European curriculum seems a little remote at the moment. The task of planning curricula and teaching them is not likely to become easier. An ever-increasing number of factors need to be considered. The expert panels who design curricula must include many different professionals, among them practising scientists, educators, social scientists and ethicists. The new knowledge and concepts that arise in research must be complemented by consideration of their ethical, social, environmental and economic impact. These are topics that must be tackled not only in science, but across the whole curriculum, as the Wellcome Trust recently recommended in its concepts for a national curriculum in England. What a challenge. Teachers have never been so valuable.

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CAN THEY THINK FOR THEMSELVES?


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