The Ongoing Battle Between Science Teachers And Fake News

Jul 28, 2017
Originally published on August 8, 2017 8:27 am

Every year Patrick Engleman plays a little trick on his students. The high school chemistry teacher introduces his ninth-graders in suburban Philadelphia to an insidious substance called dihydrogen monoxide. It's "involved in 80 percent of fatal car crashes. It's in every single cancer cell. This stuff, it'll burn you," he tells them.

But dihydrogen monoxide is water. He says several of his honors classes decided to ban it based just on what he told them.

The lesson here isn't that teenagers are gullible. It's that you can't trust everything you hear. In a time when access to information is easier than ever, Engleman says that his current students have much more to sift through than his past students. These days kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they've read online or heard elsewhere.

And science teachers aren't immune themselves. Earlier this year, Engleman received a booklet from the conservative Heartland Institute.

The packaging included a cover letter, "glossy book and a CD" advising teachers to be skeptical because scientists — it says — are unsure about the cause of climate change.

According to Heartland, one of these booklets will be sent to every public school science teacher in America. And those teachers could be a receptive audience. A recent study out of Penn State showed that one-third of science teachers are open to the idea that climate change could be naturally occurring, instead of human caused.

This poses a particular challenge to people like Susan Yoon, who are training the next generation of science teachers. She's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

She tells her students — like Nick Gurol, whose middle-schoolers believe the Earth is flat — that, as hard as they try, science teachers aren't likely to change a student's misconceptions just by correcting them.

Gurol says his students got the idea of a flat planet from basketball star Kyrie Irving, who said as much on a podcast.

"And immediately I start to panic. How have I failed these kids so badly they think the Earth is flat just because a basketball player says it?" He says he tried reasoning with the students and showed them a video. Nothing worked.

"They think that I'm part of this larger conspiracy of being a round-Earther. That's definitely hard for me because it feels like science isn't real to them."

For cases like this, Yoon suggests teachers give students the tools to think like a scientist. Teach them to gather evidence, check sources, deduce, hypothesize and synthesize results. Hopefully, then, they will come to the truth on their own.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As kids head back to school, their teachers are finding they have more questions than they used to. Fueled by Internet skepticism, some of them wonder about climate change, evolution and even whether or not the Earth is round. That can be a challenge for science teachers. Avi Wolfman-Arent reports from WHYY in Philadelphia.

AVI WOLFMAN-ARENT, BYLINE: Patrick Engleman likes to play a little trick on his students. Every year, the high school chemistry teacher introduces his ninth graders in suburban Philadelphia to an insidious substance called dihydrogen monoxide.

PATRICK ENGLEMAN: Dihydrogen monoxide is involved in like 80 percent of fatal car crashes. It's in every single cancer cell. And this stuff, it will burn you.

WOLFMAN-ARENT: Sounds pretty gnarly, right?

ENGLEMAN: But dihydrogen monoxide is water. So I convinced these children that water is terrible. And I've had multiple honors classes totally ban it based on the stuff I've told them.

WOLFMAN-ARENT: The lesson here isn't that teenagers are gullible, it's that you can't trust everything you hear, especially not these days. Because in a time where access to information is easier than ever, Engleman says, the students that come to his class have way more to sift through than they used to.

ENGLEMAN: They have too many resources at their hands. They used to just come in and be creative.

WOLFMAN-ARENT: Now, he says, students come in with all sorts of questions about things they've read online or heard about elsewhere. And the same applies to science teachers. About a month ago, Engleman received a nifty little booklet from a conservative think tank called the Heartland Institute.

ENGLEMAN: I should say, this is a really slick packaging. I mean, they have a glossy book and a CD and a letter from whoever this person may be.

WOLFMAN-ARENT: And it told him that scientists were unsure about the causes of climate change and that he should teach his students accordingly. One of these booklets will be sent to every public school science teacher in America, according to Heartland. And those teachers could be a receptive audience. A recent study out of Penn State showed that one-third of science teachers are open to the idea that climate change could be naturally occurring, instead of human caused.

SUSAN YOON: So my first inclination would be to somebody who says climate change is a hoax is to say that's wrong.

WOLFMAN-ARENT: That's Susan Yoon. When she was a science teacher, she fought the impulse to correct students whose opinions clashed with scientific consensus. Now she trains future science teachers at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. And she recognizes it's tough these days for students and teachers to sort science from spin.

YOON: I think it's harder with this information explosion to know how to negotiate through all this information that is available to you.

WOLFMAN-ARENT: So if correcting students is the wrong tactic, what should science teachers do? At a seminar Yoon leads, this very topic comes up. Nick Gurol, a student teacher, tells the class that some of his middle school science students in Philadelphia think the Earth is flat. They got the idea from basketball star Kyrie Irving, who said as much on a recent podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICK GUROL: And immediately I start to panic. How have I failed these kids so badly that they think the Earth is flat just because a basketball player says it?

WOLFMAN-ARENT: Gurol says he tried showing a video and reasoning with the students - none of it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUROL: What do I do? Like, they're not listening to facts. They think that I'm part of this larger conspiracy of being a round-Earther. And - so yeah, that's definitely hard for me because it feels like science isn't real to them.

WOLFMAN-ARENT: Yoon says ultimately, science teachers can't imprint the facts on their students' brains. All they can do is teach students to think scientifically and hope that helps them navigate an increasingly muddled world. For NPR News, I'm Avi Wolfman-Arent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "LOVE ABOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.