Neal Lane


National Association of Biology Teachers

Minneapolis, Minnesota

October 11, 1997

Biology: Everybody's Science Everyday

(As delivered)

I am delighted to be here and I am extremely honored to be the recipient of the "Distinguished Service To Education Through Scientific Research Award." I have sometimes thought that the granting of an award coupled with the invitation to speak can be a Devil's Bargain for the audience. You may not disapprove of the award -- but having to listen to the awardee speak is more than was called for.

Well, let me allay your fears about being victims of a droning-after-dinner-talk. I have been audience to many of them and my remarks tonight will be in the category of brief-after-a-big-meal talk.

In fact, I hope to adhere to the advice on speeches that the comedian George Jessel gave years ago. Mr. Jessel said, "If you haven't struck oil in the first three minutes, stop boring." So this may be even briefer than I intended.

The advertised title of my remarks, Biology: Everybody's Science Everyday, should not be construed as this middle-aged physicist thinking that he can tell you anything that you don't already know about biology, or even that he can tell you much about what you do already know. Rather it indicates that even a physicist knows that there is no science closer to our humanness than biology.

Recently, I was looking through a biology textbook published in 1996, for grades probably 11, 12 and undergraduate level. I was impressed particularly by the connectedness to our daily lives and societal dilemmas -- everything from human genes and genomes to the use of animals in experiments. Biology teachers are on the firing-line of some of society's most complex and controversial issues.

Fortunately today, teachers do not have to rely on textbooks, no matter their quality, as a singular resource. The Web allows a textbook to become more of an integrated resource with the availability of the myriad materials that a click of a mouse can bring. All the more ways to make material current and compelling.

We can almost take for granted the relevance of biology's subject matter, but we can never take for granted teachers and teaching. And that is what I really want to discuss tonight.

It is both exciting and intimidating to address a group of front-line teachers. My past experience has taught me that teachers are neither wooed by rhetoric nor persuaded by pontification.

I suspect that we have all experienced that approach from our students. I think there are few things more terrifying than a group of eleven twelve or thirteen-year-olds who stonily stare you down the first week of school with gazes that say, "Go ahead, teach me! I dare you." College sophomores sometimes have the same challenge.

And yet somewhere in the rhythm of teachers and students there develops, in the best of circumstances, a mutuality, a respect, and a learning from each other. Those are the cherished moments that keep us dedicated to a profession that is gratifying but very demanding and difficult.

Civilization has progressed along the bold and adventuresome paths that great teachers have forged. Through all ages, it has been teachers and mentors who have cut through the thickets of our ignorance and confusion. We owe much of our gratitude for this formidable gift to the early Greeks. Their daring experiments in education laid down many of the basic doctrines upon which the heritage of western civilization's educational thought is built.

It was the Greek intellectual adventures that taught us to follow reason without the fear of consequences (often brutally tested in the annals of history, and even today), to substitute scientific for uncoordinated empirical knowledge, and to equip citizens for intelligent participation in civic life.

There are also many other cultural and intellectual tributaries, Asian, African and other European, that have made primary contributions to educational history. We must take up the task of drawing on and teaching those more inclusive histories, especially at this time, with an expanding global economy and a capacity for instant communication with the most remote parts of the planet.

In his talk at a school in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts last month, President Clinton reminded us that the student body in the whole of America is 52 million, the largest ever, and also the most diverse ever. This size provides a vast reservoir of capability. This diversity weaves an "ever richer national fabric," one on which we will increasingly depend for enhanced creativity and broader perspective for America's future.

In a sense, all diversity is an inherent strength -- individually and collectively -- diversity in views, in approaches, and in backgrounds. There is a piece of wisdom that comes to us from the Navajos which says, "When all peoples have the same story, then humans will cease to exist." Here we see the strong recognition that our differences in culture, belief, and perspective are not just to be accepted but to be encouraged as important to society's survival. And, -as an aside- to the physicist's ear, one also hears in that ancient Navajo saying a hint of the second law of thermodynamics!

When we encourage a diversity of views and approaches we not only have the benefit of more complete knowledge from all those differences, but those differences teach our students to live with, indeed to derive value from ambiguity.

Sara Lawrence Lightfoot -- prominent Harvard educator, and author of The Good High School -- said in an interview about ten years ago, "In our schools, students are mostly trained to get to the answer quickly. Part of teaching is helping students learn how to tolerate ambiguity, consider possibilities, and ask questions that are unanswerable." As we all know, this is particularly important in teaching science. And, of course, the teacher becomes increasingly important in dealing with ambiguity because the wisdom, confidence, and comfort are incarnate and must be conveyed by that distinct human presence.

Often as we think of ourselves as teachers, we have a tendency to think of our students as vessels to fill with information and expertise. However, we know that just as every teacher comes to his or her task with hopes, dreams, foibles, vulnerabilities, cultural persuasions, and the like -- so too do students. Sometimes the most stubborn or unconventional of our students turns out to be an iconoclast, in the best sense of the word, of outdated theories and incorrect dogmas.

I often think of the educators who tried to teach the Richard Feynmans, Jim Watson's, and Carl Sagans when they were in school. What a challenge that must have been. Yet how capable their teachers must also have been to nurture and help prepare those unique spirits for the work they did.

And one has to wonder about those who taught Jonas Salk so that he would make not only stellar scientific contributions but develop such extraordinary insights in social philosophy as well.

Still, the greater challenge for us as educators is the student who comes to us with low self-esteem and supreme disinterest. For this student to succeed and prosper and contribute to society we need to search ourselves for the energy and ingenuity to tap that youngster's often deeply buried sense of hope.

The past president of Brown University and current president of the Carnegie Foundation of New York, Vartan Gregorian, speaks of education in this very way. He says, "Education means drawing out of you what is already in there, not merely instilling something." The astute educator recognizes these gifts in students. They may be hidden behind blue spiked hair, or a painful diffidence, or a maverick demeanor, but it is our task to recognize them and then nurture them.

It is, in turn, society's task to support and honor its teachers at every level. America has often been slow in that realm. At the National Science Foundation, we have a strong commitment and strong record of teacher development support as well as system-wide educational reform programs in science, math, and technology across broad geographical areas -- both rural and urban. I suspect many of you have been participants in NSF sponsored projects such as the teacher enhancement program or one of our systemic initiatives. Our commitment is reflected in our budget; one fifth of the NSF budget is devoted to science and math education. And we have made it our highest priority to ensure that our research programs contribute to education as well.

The opportunities that we support are designed to strengthen teacher preparation in both content and pedagogy. We provide support to improve instructional materials. We actively encourage and support opportunities for students and teachers to work beside professionals in science and engineering.

We at NSF believe that a primary focus of all education should be development of the nation's human resource -- a workforce and citizenry that is competent and contributory. For teachers this development means the broadest and most supportive teacher training to produce the best student preparation and performance. Although this focus requires our relentless attention, it is not enough.

In addition, I believe that we as teachers must address some of the broader, more comprehensive questions, like what kind of future are we preparing our students for ? Although we may not be able to answer that question precisely, it is, nonetheless, paramount to ask it. As response, we know there will always be some predictables, some ponderables, and many imponderables.

It doesn't take a clairvoyant to know that the future will be increasingly technological. Surely, that is among the predictables. (We need only reference some of the technological innovations built into Bill Gates' new home.) But along with that technological compulsion come unanticipated complexities that arise from the interactions of diverse technological paths and human adaptation. We as educators play an important role in bringing these recognitions to our students.

In the category of the ponderables, there is undoubtedly the question of what will be the nature of work in the future?

Of the imponderables, how we balance the sustenance of a burgeoning global population with the preservation of our planetary habitat has to be one of the primary dilemmas for the long-term? There are myriad possibilities. Each can lead us on a different path for the future.

As a society and a civilization, we cannot avoid these issues. As teachers, we have a special responsibility to help students think about them and think about the future they will not only live in but help shape. We must teach them to ask what kind of future they want.

And so we come full circle to Biology: Everybody's Science Everyday. Many of our most fundamental societal questions and goals for the 21st century fall, sometimes unenviably, in the camp of biology teachers. We know that many students graduate with only one course in science. Although this is far from the ideal, it is frequently the reality. Most often the course of choice is biology.

It then falls to all of you the task of instilling a sense of scientific judgment in those students so that, as the Greeks taught us, we train and educate for responsible participation in the civic life of society.

Because science is such a natural vehicle for teaching problem-solving and critical thinking skills, biology class will frequently be the arena for that training, especially when it represents one's single exposure to science in high school -- but also when it is the foundation of a lifetime of learning in science and technology.

As society grapples with disease and prevention, food and energy production and environmental depletion, drug use and abuse, population growth and planetary stress, ethics and social decision-making, and much more, our teachers will increasingly be our leaders "for everybody, everyday."

I hope you will forgive me for straying across that forbidden boundary of rhetoric and perhaps even a bit of pontification. I want to thank you again for your award. For me the greatest honor is that the award comes from teachers of biology. I honor all of you tonight for the fine and important work that you do "for everybody, everyday." And I ask that all of us applaud all of you - the teachers of biology!

Thank you.

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