• by Joseph Vigil • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 1996 • 

At the 1989 University of Nova commencement exercises, a marine biology film maker asked new graduates to explain why it is hotter in the summer than in the winter. Only a few of the students queried could answer correctly. Many of the students responded with the common misconception that the earth is closer to the sun in the summer months.

Now, admittedly, we can probably get by in life without ever understanding that it is, in fact, the earth’s angle of tilt in relation to the sun that accounts for our seasons. But would we ever appreciate why days are shorter in December than in June? Or why some people are skiing in Australia when others are sunbathing in Texas? We would also conceivably have difficulty designing a solar home or navigating by the North Star.

But even more fundamentally, without some knowledge of the earth’s patterns, we would have no reason to value them, to value the annual rotation of constellations in the night sky and the stories and myths to which they gave birth, or to understand the cultural impact of summer’s extended twilight on the people of the Arctic.

Similarly, the film maker asked the new graduates if they knew what effects the El Niño phenomenon had on the earth’s weather patterns. Being an oceanographer and having taken a class in college on climate, I knew that El Niño [the Christ child], although a Christmas time event, was not the “bearer of much joy.” Similar to the seven­year cycles of the biblical plagues, El Niño refers to the three­ to seven­year recurrences of westerly winds that drive warm equatorial waters toward the coasts of Ecuador and Peru and basically stop the up welling of cooler, nutrient­rich deep waters. El Niño events, such as those in 1982­83, bring droughts to some areas, while floods devastate others. Many people living in different regions of the globe see and experience the effects of El Niño without fully understanding the actual phenomenon.

For too long, as a society we have fostered the notion that science is the bastion of the egghead. We tend to believe that to be a scientist you must have an IQ of at least 160 and possess the insights of someone like the main character in the recent movie Phenomenon, who suddenly can learn things fully like another language in less than 30 minutes by reading a textbook.

Science vocabulary clearly has been a key part of most science instruction. By one estimate, students in the average high school biology class are exposed to more than 2,400 new terms in a year; more new words than they would be asked to learn in the typical high school French class.

Nobel­prize­winning physicist Leon Lederman has often lamented the way we bludgeon our children with dreary facts and “take naturally curious, natural born scientists and beat the curiosity right out of them” (Perspectives on Science, 1993­94).

The bottom line is that we are not trying to produce outstanding Science Bowl contestants but rather citizens who can make confident and rational judgments on science and technology issues. These issues may be personal (e.g., How can I better water my garden to increase the yield and size of my tomatoes?) or societal (e.g., Should the NASA space shuttle program turn over day­to­day operations to private industry in order to save money?).

Simply put: Science touches everyone’s life. Whether studying the behavior of the beluga whale at Sea World or working in a chemistry lab to develop an environmentally friendly refrigerant, science is fundamentally a way of thinking about our world. Currently in the news, deformed frogs are being found all across Minnesota, into neighboring Wisconsin and South Dakota, and even as far away as Quebec and Vermont (San Antonio Express­News, 1996). Is their deformity due to an environmental contaminant? Is this an early biological indicator that something is wrong with our environment? This could be important to our survival and the quality of life here on earth.

Modern science is arguably based on two key assumptions about our world:

  • There is an underlying order to the seeming disorder in our universe.
  • Events in nature have causes that can be identified and understood.

These assumptions dictate that science be a collective practice, with individuals across cultures and centuries sharing their observations, their hunches, their insights and their dead ends. The understanding of ourselves and our world is such an immense undertaking that it would be foolish for us to assume that science could be practiced in any other way.

As such, science then becomes an effort in which anyone can engage. Even my five­year­old boy, Patrick, does this when he observes the billions of butterflies migrating through San Antonio in September and when he notices the simple harmonic motion in his “Slinky.” Albert Einstein wrote, “The whole of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking” (1956). Encouraging children to ask questions about their world around them promotes science literacy at an early age.

So what does it mean to be scientifically literate? Perhaps it means that we ask lots of questions and make many observations, that we engage in furious debates but are open to many possibilities, that we maintain a healthy skepticism to minimize the risk of being misled or fooled. Perhaps it simply means that we rediscover the wonder of our youth.

Educators then have the challenge of covering grade­ specific material for their science program while providing their students with the true scientific method that is used in research to discover new principles of science. Incorporating hands­ on activities, real world experiences and current use of technology into instruction is a key to providing students with exciting and self­ discovered learning. Perhaps, in this manner we can inspire the Nobel prize winners, astronauts and Albert Einsteins of the next millennium.


Einstein, Albert. Physics and Reality. (1956). Perspectives on Science (Winter 1993­94), pg. 2.San Antonio Express­News. “Deformed Frogs Raising Fears” (San Antonio, Texas: San Antonio Express­News, October 1996).

Joseph Vigil is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]