UW–Madison’s John Rudolph urges America to rethink why we teach science — and why we should

By Laurel White

The reasons we teach science in America are largely myths, according to a new book from a UW–Madison School of Education professor. 

In “Why We Teach Science (and Why We Should),” professor John Rudolph argues decades of misconceptions have fueled the idea that science education spurs economic growth and builds crucial everyday reasoning and problem-solving skills. After debunking these myths, he contends the American science curriculum needs to shift away from its current focus on content memorization toward a new aim of building students’ understanding of what science is, how it works, and why it’s smart to trust scientific experts.  

john rudolph
John Rudolph

“Right now, what we think of as an ideal science education isn’t accomplishing very much at all,” says Rudolph, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Science Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the UW–Madison School of Education. “The public feels disconnected and alienated from science — we need to help the public understand what science is.”

In the book, Rudolph dispels the popular notion that science education needs to direct students toward jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

In fact, colleges historically produce between 40 to 100% more STEM graduates than are hired into STEM occupations each year, he writes. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, and Bureau of Labor Statistics have affirmed this dynamic for years.

Rudolph also notes only 7% of incoming high school ninth-graders in the U.S. end up earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a science-related field and working in a corresponding career, which means that science education focused on a career pipeline or skills training is misguided. 

“If our primary goal is to train people to be scientists, you’re not serving 93% of the students,” he says. 

The book also outlines how the prevalent idea that science education instills skills for everyday decision making and critical thinking is incorrect. Rudolph points out a wealth of research has shown people do not typically apply information or skills learned in science class to daily decisions.

“Everyone believes science is the epitome of rational thought — it’s logical, it’s based on evidence, it’s the height of the ability to reason,” he says. “They think if you just do science, you somehow magically acquire those skills. There’s just not much evidence for that.” 

Image courtesy Oxford University Press

Instead, studies have shown people are likely to use intuitive theories (theories that aren’t based on accepted science, but instead on self-generated ideas about how the world works) and personal ethics and values or economic considerations to guide their choices — even choices related to science-related social issues. 

Rudolph says science education should free itself of the confines of these long-held misconceptions about STEM careers and problem solving or critical thinking skills and refocus on providing students what he calls a more “expansive” science education. That education would focus less on memorizing content such as the parts of an atom, for example, and instead on learning how scientists came to know and agree on that structure.

“The goal we really need is for students to understand what science is, how science works, not just learn the facts of science or how to do science,” he says. “We should teach how scientists know something, and why we should trust them.”

Rudolph says research shows teaching students episodes from the history of science has been an effective way to accomplish this goal — a lesson on gravity expanded from a focus on memorizing the formula for acceleration due to gravity to understanding how Galileo first approached the question and developed an answer.  

He says bringing case studies where science and society intersect is also helpful, and urges a focus on explaining how institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and others like it are set up, funded, and function in the public interest.

Rudolph acknowledges this major shift in science education wouldn’t be an easy lift, but says taking a chance on a new approach could reap major rewards for social engagement with and understanding of science. 

“If America is going to ensure a future with a productive, mutually supportive relationship between science and the public, this is the type of change we need,” he says. 

In 2019, Rudolph published a similar book, “How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters,” examining the history of how science has been taught in schools since the mid-19th century. 

He says he sees the two books working together, with the first tracing where schools have been with respect to science education and the second providing a vision of where science education needs to go in the future.

“It all comes down to what the social purpose of science education should be,” he says. “That purpose has to be to help the public understand that science and scientific expertise are key to a sustainable and just future.”

Rudolph recently joined Madison’s NBC15 to explain the findings of “Why We Teach Science (and Why We Should).” That interview is available to watch here

More information about the book, which was released April 19 by Oxford University Press, is available here. A review of the book in Science is available here

Note for media: John Rudolph is available for interviews about “Why We Teach Science (and Why We Should).” Please contact Jody Moen at jody.moen@wisc.edu for more information. 

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