"Science is everywhere" and other disappointing answers science teachers give to their students

The question posed by this project is not necessarily an easy one to answer. For a start, we could get into all sorts of complicated philosophical discussions about what “important” means. Or what “science” means. However, I’m always disappointed when I hear other science teachers saying trite things like “it’s important to teach science because science is everywhere”.

Science isn’t everywhere. If you look inside your fridge, you won’t find science. You might need science to understand how a fridge works and science may be responsible for the increased energy efficiency of your fridge, but science is not in your fridge.

A variation on the “science is everywhere” answer is “because we live in a technological world”. But you don’t need science to use your shiny new iphone. You don’t need science to use your satnav. In fact, the more lovely these gadgets get, the less science the person using them needs to know. Back when I was a young geek, building my own stereo, a little scientific knowledge was useful. Now when my ipod dies I can’t even open the thing to take a look. It is a mistake to think that people need to know about science to live in a technologically advanced society. Yes, we need scientists to help us make ever-smaller gadgets with ever-increasing functions, but the rest of the population does not need to understand science to use the technology or to appreciate it.

Another poor answer to this question, perhaps the one that winds me up the most, is “because there are lots of jobs that need science”. This is the possibly the most unimaginative response I have heard…and I’ve heard it from far too many teachers. Maybe it’s not their fault, perhaps they’ve been brainwashed by poster campaigns like this one:

Physics Posterv2.jpg

It is depressing. Physicists worked out how to put people on the moon, they unlocked the secret to what makes the stars shine and they have just built a machine that will recreate the conditions that existed a fraction of a second after the big bang…and yet the people responsible for promoting Physics to our students come up with stuff like this. I know it’s a “careers” poster, but even so, I can’t help but think there are better ways to make a child stop and think that Physics might be worth studying.

I know that I am going to antagonise some of my colleagues in the profession by writing this…but the fact is that I have been deeply unimpressed by the responses from some teachers to the question “why is science important?” and that worries me. Because if science teachers themselves do not have a convincing answer to the question, it is hardly surprising if our students leave school without one.


  1. rpg
    Posted January 15, 2009 at 6:07 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Wow. That's a thought-provoking piece, Alom. Do you think Science teachers will be reading?

  2. Posted January 15, 2009 at 7:16 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I thought long and hard before posting this. I'm hoping that you mean it when you write that the piece is "thought-provoking" and that you're not using that phrase as a euphemism for "that'll piss some people off". After discussion with my colleagues on the project, we felt that it would be wrong to not talk about this...we have interviewed a number of teachers for the film project and, frankly, have been left depressed by the quality of responses we have been getting. We have come across teachers who say things like "science is everywhere" and then completely fail to explain what they mean by this. We have come across teachers who CANNOT answer the question "what is it about science that excites you?" and we have come across teachers who clearly don't seem to think that science is important in any meaningful way. With some of these teachers, we have spent time with them talking in depth about the project and given them plenty of food for thought...but still walked away with very poor answers to the questions we posed them.

    There are teachers who appear on this website, like David Perks and Lorne Charles (who is not even a science teacher), who can articulate good, thoughtful responses to the question "why is science important?" Whilst I do not expect every science teacher to reach the same levels of eloquence, I have been shocked by the number of teachers who cannot seem to provide a meaningful answer to the question. Just a quick browse through the entries on this website will provide you with a number of arguments that I think you could put to a bright student to explain why science is important, and yet these types of responses have not been coming through in my meetings with teachers. I am not claiming that my experiences so far are representative of science teachers in general, but, as my piece today suggests, I am convinced there is definitely a problem out there if even a minority of science teachers fail to answer the question "why is science important?"

  3. rpg
    Posted January 15, 2009 at 10:43 AM | Permalink | Reply

    No, I meant it at face value. I count myself as fortunate that in the latter part of my school life I had teachers who were clearly excited about science, even if they never articulated an answer to your question to us as students.

    They didn't have to say anything, we could see it in them.

    I can think of one, in particular, who would probably be surprised if I asked the question, but I could guarantee an answer. In fact, I have a letter from him in front of me now, full of excitement about chemistry—I'm composing a blog post about it.

    Yeah, I had my share of teachers who were clearly going through the motions, and it breaks my heart to think what my happen to, say, my daughters' inquisitiveness and air of wonder at the natural world once they hit high school :/

  4. Posted January 15, 2009 at 12:46 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The reason why I do what I do is because I was lucky enough to have fantastic science teachers in high school. Spiked magazine ran a survey a while ago asking scientists what inspired them to take up science - the most common response was that they were inspired by teachers or mentors(http://www.spikedonline.com/index.php?/inspired/article/1480/)

  5. Andrew
    Posted January 15, 2009 at 4:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Good observation but it is best to provide a solution when pointing out a problem. Otherwise nothing will change. The teachers explaining science might need help in gaining insight into better explanations.

  6. Posted January 15, 2009 at 7:04 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Er, that's the whole point of this project...

  7. Katie
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:32 AM | Permalink | Reply

    This certainly highlights the sad state of education, and it isn't just sciences; pure maths, languages and social studies' all have teachers that parrot some variation of the "because x is everywhere" line.

    At high school 15 years ago I had one year 8 science teacher explain that it was crucial that we understand an acid/base experiment so we could pass the unit, but when he was asked to explain some real world benefits to knowing about combining acids and bases he just fobbed the class off and told us that the test was more important.

    Yet the next year I had a teacher who was not only knowledgeable but was passionate about both science and teaching. He made what he was teaching interesting and relevant by using real world situations in experiments and tying many different disciplines of science together (much easier in more junior classes). One of my favorite experiments was "Would a text book dropped from the 3rd floor science class window be lethal?" Over a period of weeks we studied gravity, terminal velocity, force etc as well as the basics of human biology. Almost everyone passed and learned in his class because he didn't just teach at us, he taught to us. If anyone slacked off in his class he made a genuine effort to find out what the individual was interested in or cared about and tried to tie it back to what we were studying; don't care about chemistry -- not if you want to be a veterinarian, you'll need to understand biochem for nutrition and chem to put together medications, don't care about physics -- not if you're a runner, life will be easier if you understand wind resistance etc ...

    Anyway, all of the above was to demonstrate that the issue is not just that science teachers aren't that thrilled about science, but in a lot of cases they simply aren't good teachers. I've met a few scientists out and about and they can't explain what they're doing in a way that was meaningful to me despite the fact that we are both enthusiastic about the conversation and I've had humanities teachers read chapters of physics books and be able to teach the text incredibly well. Good teachers seek to impart knowledge in a way that is useful and is worth learning regardless of the subject.

  8. A. Ross
    Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:07 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Basic science IS in the world around us. For example, germs, the 3 laws of Newton, electricity, the stars above - are all around me. Don’t they exist in your world?! Learning science helps kids understand why your refrigerator is not floating in the air and why the fruits in it are healthy. As you already figured out, the science of your refrigerator can be learned via a text book or a science lab, not by simply opening it. Maybe you took the expression too literally?

    For me, a major reason to learn science is that science and scientists make the world a better place. From medicine to renewable energy, we are able to care and advance the planet’s habitants and its environment.

    Your reasoning, presented in a form of one line, is certainly insufficient. Perhaps you could expend on it in your future writings.

  9. Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:32 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I think you want me to expand on my reasoning for what I had written in the first piece - if you read my responses to the other comments, I think you'll find I've already done that to some extent.

    "Germs, the 3 laws of Newton, electricity, the stars above" are not science. They are natural phenomena which can be explained by science but they are not themselves "science". The point I am making is that many of the teachers I have spoken to as part of my work on this project seem to be unable to elaborate on what they mean by the statement "science is everywhere" and therefore seem incapable of actually providing a meaningful answer to the question "why is science important?" So no, I did not take the expression "science is everywhere" too literally - it was given to me as a literal answer.

  10. malcolm
    Posted January 19, 2009 at 9:04 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I don't see a poster above

  11. David N. Andrews M. Ed.
    Posted June 14, 2009 at 4:28 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Actually, science is not everywhere. The reason for saying this is that science is not the sun burning brightly because of nuclear fission, or the fact that chlorophyll makes the leaves on trees look green... it's the process by which we actually find these things out. When you 'do science', it means that you use a scientific method of investigation, data collection, data analysis, interpretation to give a theory (a grounded theory, since it is grounded in the data) and then start to hypothesise events that might give support for the theory and experiment to determine whether the theory is true, based on the results of the experiment (the purpose of which is to test a hypothesis). That's what science is, not the activity in the sun or the pigment in leaves... it's the process of finding things out in a systematic fashion.

  12. betty
    Posted May 17, 2010 at 2:36 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I Believe this post is absouloutly RIGHT!
    Im sorry but atm im in school and I hate science and i asked my teacher and she said too; that latter on in life i will need science because its everywhere, But I dont agree ethier.

    But I agree about the frige reply it made me amazied that someone actaully felt the same way as me and was a scientist himself.

    Thank you this post was very helpful :)

  13. Philip
    Posted August 22, 2010 at 11:06 PM | Permalink | Reply

    "That's what science is ... it's the process of finding things out in a systematic fashion."

    No, Mr Andrews, you are making the same erroneous claim that now pervades the school curriculum. You are confusing science and scientific activity.

    The word science is rooted in the Latin "scientia" meaning "knowledge". It is the knowledge gained by activities that include those that you have described.

  14. Dan
    Posted December 16, 2010 at 12:47 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Funny how people who said it is heartbreaking that nobody seems to be able to answer the question "Why is science important?", yet none have bothered to offer their own answers.

    So is anybody going to?

  15. John
    Posted February 18, 2011 at 8:57 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I don't understand the point of attacking others' answers to this question, if you do not seem to have one of your own. I teach physics, and it is fascinating to me, as are other science disciplines. However, I honestly do not know how I would answer that question if asked.

    My best effort would be that learning "science" will develop critical thinking skills that cannot be developed any other way, and prepare students to solve problems and analyze situations throughout their life.

    Would this answer also disappoint you?

  16. Posted February 18, 2011 at 9:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

    John, your answer doesn't disappoint me, but I am disappointed by the fact that you seem to have entirely missed the point of the piece I have written above and indeed the point of the whole project.

  17. klm
    Posted February 26, 2011 at 11:06 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I am science teacher, and I am reading.

    And in my opinion, Science is in the eye, not in the world.

    Science is a process that produces a body of ideas and information, not to be confused for the ideas or the information.

    The challenge is to sell the value of knowing with a Science-eye to our over informed students that already know too much (maybe too much of the wrong things, but too much nonetheless). We need to set up a system or approach--a set of criteria students can see as self-evident-- that when philosophically applied leads them to choose for themselves, the value of Science.

    Not too much to ask, is it?

  18. Laura
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 10:31 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I feel sorry for you that you can only see science as a basic definition and do not understand the magnitude of what it really means. "Science is Everywhere" is a statement that represents science is needed to better understand the world around us and all discoveries of what we know today came from science. The statement should not be seen as a disappointment, but from someone who is passionate about the subject.
    If you take my comment as missing the point of your article, then you may need a few minutes to settle your ego and think about it further.

  19. Samia
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 11:55 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I agree with Alom. The common responces do not answer the questions. Maybe examples need to be given.

    I have just finished my PGCE in secondary science, and am applying for jobs. The school requires me to describe Why is Science important in secondary education?

    Common answers that dont mean anything. - Science is everywhere is too much a vague statement.

  20. Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:25 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks Samia, I'm glad you agree that "science is everywhere" is too vague an an answer to the question. Some of the commenters here seem to have taken offence at what I've said, but I think that they have missed the point.

    Good luck with your NQT year and hope you have a long and happy career.

  21. Posted July 1, 2011 at 3:18 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Hello Alom,

    I enjoy your work so much and feel that we think about things in a similar way. Because I work in an informal science environment, I'd like to share a different answer than most teachers could share. My answer is Joseph Campbell's.

    Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell, "Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?"

    Campbell answered, "My first response would be, 'Go on, live your life, it's a good life, you don't need mythology.' I don't believe in being interested in a subject because it's said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, mythology may catch you."

    This is exactly how I feel about science. Science has caught me. I don't teach science because it is important. I teach it because, as Carl Sagan said, when you're in love you want to tell the world. And, if you let me, I can help you to be caught, too.

    But you don't need science. Go on, live your life without science. It's a good life regardless. In case you change your mind, though, I'll be here.

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    Posted December 4, 2012 at 6:54 AM | Permalink | Reply

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