Need for Change, Option E:
Students’ Misconceptions About Cells

Estimated Time: 20 minutes.

List of Materials

Sample Presentation
Presenter: The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate the extent of science illiteracy in the United States. In a 1991 article, Lynn Steen characterizes the dismal state of science literacy, quoting from a Private Universe Project interview where a reporter questioned graduates at Harvard commencement. Let’s take a look at part of that interview.

TRANSPARENCY: Interviewing Harvard Graduates.

Steen says, ‘One might dismiss this evidence as purely anecdotal or as a special case chosen to make Harvard look bad. But the results are consistent with a large body of evidence gathered over several decades.’ Indeed, the Private Universe Project videos have shown that college graduates from Harvard and MIT are scientifically illiterate about a dozen more topics.

Since we will be focusing on the topic "The Cell," let’s have a look at what one research study reported about students’ understanding of fundamental ideas about the cell. Here are some ideas that were included on a questionnaire about 10th-grade students’ understanding of the cell as the basic functional unit of all living things. All of the students had completed a 9th-grade course in biology.

TRANSPARENCY: Students’ Understanding of Cells. Cover the % correct answers for the moment.

Presenter: How many of you teach material on the cell in your courses? Would you cover these ideas in your teaching? Let’s predict the percentage of 10th-grade students who answered correctly.

Write on the transparency, for each concept, several percentages offered by participants. You might remind the audience that these are concepts we agree that we teach, and yet according to our percentages, we seem not to believe that students learn them.

Presenter: Here are the results obtained. Reveal the actual study results on transparency.

Presenter: How might you explain the large percentage of students who do not understand these fairly basic cell concepts? If we are teaching these ideas and most students are not learning them, then there is a problem. These concepts are essential to understanding the concept of the cell as a basic functional unit of all living things.

According to a 20-year study that looked at adults’ science knowledge, knowledge of how science works, and knowledge about how science affects society, only 6% of adults were judged scientifically literate.

How can scientifically illiterate voters make personal and policy decisions about issues of health? the environment? energy? How will they compete for jobs that increasingly require knowledge of science, mathematics, and technology? How impoverished will their lives be for not being able to make sense of everyday phenomena?

If time permits, ask participants to share examples from their experience of lack of understanding of science.

Presenter: It was to correct this situation, to reform science education so that all Americans would be more science literate, that Project 2061 began.

What are your thoughts as you look at the data on students’ understanding of cells? Would you expect different results if you were to interview your students on a concept that you had taught them?

Take some comments from the group.

Presenter: A teacher at a recent workshop was disturbed after seeing these results of students’ understanding of cells, particularly since they had just completed a high school biology course. This teacher was sure his students would know more than the data presented in the workshop indicated. He decided he would interview some of his students when he returned to his classes to discredit the data he had seen. As he reported later, in one interview after another he learned that his students did not understand much about the cell. They responded to his questions with what he described as sound bites or factoids. The students could not connect isolated bits of cell knowledge into meaningful understanding. While the teacher was discouraged, even incredulous, about what his students knew (or did not know), he saw the experience as positive and as reason to make some changes in his teaching because his students’ responses gave him a place to start from. What changes might you make if you learned what this teacher learned?

Encourage discussion.

Presenter: It is precisely these kinds of discussions among teachers that Project 2061 believes can contribute to change. You will have many opportunities to discuss the teaching and learning of specific learning goals throughout this workshop.