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How Science Got Reduced to 150 Concepts & Skills


Riaz-ul Haque, Ph.D.,

Associate Professor (Emeritus)

University of Illinois at Chicago.

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It was serendipity which did it. If I were asked to design a new curriculum for science, I would have probably done the same thing that anyone else would have done. I would have gone to the library and would have come out with a massive compendium as a curriculum much like the one many of our learned and professional societies came out with after the Sputnik launch back in l957. As a matter of fact, those compendia, impressive as they were, did more harm to science than fix it.

My situation probably fits more with Pasteur’s statement that Chance Favors the Prepared Mind. Hailing from a developing country, I had first hand knowledge of what was wrong there.

After coming to United States to seek some remedies, I realized that the problem was just as acute here as anywhere else. Here, unfortunately, it was masked by the successes of science and the products and services it produced and provided which made US economy the envy of the world. Yet, amidst all this success, it was the student who was suffering quietly believing that if he is not able to get a full grasp of science, something must be wrong with him. He, therefore, resorted to “making the grade and graduating approach”. This way, he got a degree to be sure but he became a technocrat not a scientist.

I saw serious local and global consequences of this form of “graduation and credentialing.” What kind of advise this person would be able to give to the local and foreign governments, their Presidents and to the United Nations, I wondered.

Yet, science to me being a logical subject was not supposed to be all that difficult. My question then was, “are we, as teachers and scientists, doing something wrong and blaming it on the students?”

To test this “hunch” I decided to teach science to people with no science background. I did this by placing a public service ad in one of the local radio stations (WLS).

The ad simply said: I am looking for people to work in my lab; I will train you I am looking for people without science background. This was quite unusual so much so that even the radio station called to get clarification. Doc, is there a typo in here, they inquired. Assuring them that there was none, they aired the ad.

Twenty five people, ages 16 to 55 showed up. They were a collage of humanity representing various ethnic groups, males and female, some were high school dropouts, including one who was told that now that he has passed the truancy age, he can legally drop out of school. Some being Spanish spoke very little English, if at all.

I put this group in a borrowed classroom kindly made available by the Chicago Board of Education. Mrs. Marjorie Moleneaux, then Science Director of the Chicago Board of Education, worked closely with me on this adventurous project.

The first class was held in the Dunbar Vocational High School. Unfortunately, such an ethnically mixed group was not well received there. So, the next day the classes had to be moved to the St. Mary’s high school on the near west side on the Taylor street area.

I started the classes with no preconceived structure or curriculum. I just wanted them to know science as I knew it and as it historically developed over the past 200 or so years.

My first class consisted of showing them germs from my own mouth under the phase microscope. After all isn’t that how Leeuwenhoek started. He, of course, had no phase microscope for it was not invented by Zernick until l935. He had to make and contend with his own primitive microscope. But what he saw with that microscope took mankind to a new and exciting journey which brought us to where we are today. It was thus appropriate, very appropriate, to get this group started from the same way.  

After kidding around about the state of my oral hygiene and getting assured that there was nothing wrong with it and that the germs, one sort or another, are part and parcel of each and everyone’s mouth, they wanted to see what dwelt in their mouths also.

That simple beginning led us to isolating and identifying microorganisms, making media, sterilizing, making Percent, Molar and Normal solutions, diagnosing diseases by serological means such as agglutination and precipitation reactions. The group understood the concepts and was gobbling them all up.

The entire course was 20 weeks long, meeting three times per week for a total of 9 hours per week. This amounted to an actual hands-on lab training of 180 clock hours. The remarkable thing was that this lowly group of students, stuck in dead end life situations, found jobs in labs by their own efforts. No one had to be given a referral to go anywhere and no one was coaxed into granting them an interview or giving them a job. The students did it all on their own.

A small graduation ceremony was then held where certificates were awarded jointly signed by me (Riaz-ul Haque) and the then Superintendent of the Chicago Board of Education, Dr. James Redmond.

Chicago Tribune carried the story of this graduation and that is how the Labor Department got interested in this teaching approach.

All this was happening back in the sixties, the era of equal rights, when people seeking social and economic justice were demanding their fair share of the prevailing affluent pie.

The Labor Department saw a possible solution of this dilemma in this new teaching approach. I was thus asked to give a seminar to the key employers of the Chicago area. The seminar was attended by Abbot Labs, G.D.Searle, Libbey McNeal, Sherwin Williams and many more employers of the same stature.

The consensus of the group was that they will hire the people that I train provided the trainees were specially trained to meet the needs of the respective employers. This made sense. Why should a pharmaceutical company hire a person who knows making and testing paints or treating water or sewage? They felt that their needs were more specific.

The group was thus asked to provide specific lists of skills and concepts relevant to their fields directly to me or through the Labor Department. This they all agreed to do but six months passed and no such lists were received either by me or by the Labor Department.

One day, sitting in a restaurant, waiting for a friend to join me, I decided to make a list of what should be the background of a person if I were to hire him for my lab. Using the available napkins, I began to make a list of items that I felt would be essential. Surprisingly, this list turned out to contain only150 items and it was so complete and all inclusive that even I was surprised at the outcome. I was expecting that the list, considering the apparent complexity and vastness of Science would have hundreds if not thousands of items.

Nonetheless, I still felt that this list represented just my ideas and that the list may be relevant only to my needs and to my lab. I thus decided to conduct a survey to see how wide an application this list might have. My intent was to improve the list as well as enable employees to customize the list to meet their respective needs by adding or deleting items of the list.

The survey gave the participants four choices asking them to see if a particular item was essential for them, could be useful, or was not al all necessary for their line of work. They were also given the option of adding or deleting items from the list.

The survey was sent to a diverse group of employers and labs, including those who participated in the Labor Department’s Seminar. They were, however, not told that this list had anything to do with that seminar. I wanted the list to come to them out of the blue sky, so to speak, so they could give their unbiased opinion not tainted by the guilt feeling that this list might produce for having not done their job as they had promised.

The response was more than I expected but the remarkable thing was that no body changed anything in the list. Here then we had a list of skills and concepts that if one possessed them, he or she can be employed in almost any lab or can embark upon any science based career.

This list then became the curriculum of the Institute. So far, over the years, I have put through approximately 3,000 students of various age groups (the younger one being 12 and the older 65), various ethnicities, males and females, various educational background including high school and college dropouts, including some who were physically or emotionally challenged including hearing impaired. They all learned remarkably well and gotten on into areas of work they had not previously thought possible. A few who chose areas other than science as their avocation, nonetheless, found themselves to be better prepared to deal with day to day life situations. They seem to have lost the fear of science or fear of life and learning in general, thus becoming more adapted to a changing society as well as economic conditions.

Transplanting this system of teaching science locally and globally could most likely transform society as we know it now. Busy people involved in creative activities are not likely to have time for mischief, violence or terrorism. These latter sprout when one feels that they are being left out of the main stream of life and if someone convinces them that this is being done on purpose, the results are even more devastating.

With understanding science and knowing not only how it affects their lives but also how they can be the architects of their lives and of their societies generates pride in them due to their achievements which also builds hope for the future. Such people are likely to be global partners than adversaries.

The Institute’s programs originating with this serendipitous beginning can help us achieve that hopeful end.

I am, therefore, inviting you to join in this much needed task, now fortunately, made doable due to the finding that science is not all that difficult and also because it has enabled us to establish a Science Skills Center where all basic and applied science concepts and skills are taught in a systematic manner in a hands-on fashion using all the tools and the instruments scientists use to do science.  

Besides joining, I am also inviting you to have your children and grandchildren benefit from this serendipitous finding.

In addition to the Science Skills Center we were also able to integrate all of our fragmented knowledge into a comprehensible whole which ahs given rise to the Center for Integrative Learning see: www.centerforintegrativelearning.org. This center shortens the time needed to truly learn as it enables the students to learn on their own for which they can earn college credits via the CLEP program (college level examination of proficiency) and speed up their college graduation saving both time and money plus learning a whole lot moiré in a short time. As humans we are forever condensing and integrating while our educational system goes the other way, fragmented and breaking knowledge apart into bits and pieces and scattering them over a long period of time.  Just that fact alone suffices to give us ADD!  

For more information on joining the Center and also on tours, workshops and classes which are open to all ages, contact the Center at:

info@scienceskillscenter.org

729 S. Western Avenue, Chicago, Illinois USA 60612

Phone: 312-243-7716; Fax: 312-243-2041

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: In order to understand what can be done and why it is not happening now see:

 

What ails education at: http://www.iibbt.com/whatails.htm

 

An inspirational story of a hearing and speech impaired person who refused to settle for becoming a janitor, see it at: http://www.iibbt.com/Judy.html

How just a peak through a microscope can teach hygiene and also give a start towards learning science. See it at:  http://www.iibbt.com/sepah-eDanish.html

 

There is much more: Register by sending us an e-mail at: info@sciecneskillscenter.org and we will keep you posted of further developments.