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Science for the rest of us: UO fights for science literacy

Dr. Scott Fisher has looked into other galaxies and worked for the National Science Foundation, but he’s teaching a 100-level astronomy course at University of Oregon.

He describes himself as an absolute stereotype of a scientist: Bald with glasses, with facial hair reminiscent of Walter White. But his attitude about the way science courses should be taught is anything but stereotypical: He starts most classes with “What’s up, my fine peoples?”

But Fisher is serious about science. He’s a “planet hunter,” monitoring infant solar systems from a remote-controlled telescope in Bend, on UO’s Pine Mountain Observatory. He’s also looking for supernovas: If he spots one, he’ll alert the Gemini telescope at Mauna Kea, where he used to work.

“A major problem is not that people hate science, but that people had such a bad experience with science, that it turned them against it,” Fisher said. “And that’s what I’m trying to fight. Let’s have a positive experience that you can carry forward in life.”

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Dr. Scott Fisher worked at the National Science Foundation, where he came face-to-face with statistics detailing dropping science literacy in elementary schools. Photo credit: Cole Elsasser

In 2014, the National Science Foundation found that one in four American people don’t know the Earth orbits around the sun. Fifty percent of Americans believe astrology is either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.”

University of Oregon’s Science Literacy Program is working to change this. It offers general education science courses with the goal of making science interesting for non-science majors.

The approach in SLP classes is much different than classes that count toward a science major, and that’s because SLP classes are designed for non-science majors in order to get them engaged with science.

Students taking an SLP course should expect to walk into a class where they’re not going to be asked to sit and listen to somebody talk, according to Elly Vandegrift, associate director of the Science Literacy Program.

Melissa Kidman, a junior majoring in Family and Human Services, took astronomy with Fisher last year and noticed the difference in pedagogies first hand.

“We didn’t take that many notes, but I think it was really effective,” said Kidman. “Instead of sitting down staring at a notepad [and] stressing out about fitting all the words, we were up and thinking about it. He was getting those concepts across through conversation and discussion.”

This is what the classes are designed to do. They aren’t about whether you pass tests, but whether you want to keep learning.

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Fisher shows this video in class to help students grasp the true size of the universe. Here’s another tool: the sharpest view we have of the Milky Way’s closest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

“If we could get all of our students to be able to read something in the science section of The New York Times — not just now as college students, but for their whole lives — to me, that seems to me like a measure of science literacy,” said Vandegrift.

Though the majority of students attending these courses are not majoring in the sciences, a small subset are graduate students training to be teachers. These post-grads are studying the methods, not the content.

“Most of us who are college faculty didn’t receive any training on how to be teachers, so we want to help future faculty,” said Vandegrift.

Since promotion of SLP classes has been mostly through word-of-mouth, the classes aren’t as full as the faculty would like.

As of fall 2015, the UO offers 10 SLP classes. Only two are completely full: Fisher’s Astronomy 121, and an introductory Human Physiology. Three have over 40 vacancies, and the rest range from five to 30.

This isn’t the first time teaching has been adapted to promote literacy, according to Stanley Micklavzina, a professor in the physics department. He’s been a professor at the University of Oregon for 30 years and has seen the different styles of teaching that have been adapted to further some sort of science education.

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UO’s Science Literacy Program focuses less on memorization and more on getting students excited about learning science.


“There have been some drastic changes [in the way science is taught] in the last 10 to 20 years,” Micklavzina said. “What the Science Literacy Program is trying to do is take the science education and put it more into the realm of … trying to make sure students are learning the science, and not just regurgitating some memorization.”

Fisher, who worked for the National Science Foundation prior to arriving at UO, has been teaching for three years, and his astronomy courses have become a staple of the Science Literacy Program.

He decided to go into teaching when he saw low national test scores for science. From 2005 to 2007 — when most of Fisher’s students were in elementary school — elementary test scores dropped considerably.

“I saw the test scores and it bugged me so bad,” Fisher said. “I really wanted to do something to change that.”

Fisher knows that some students come in scared they might get overwhelmed with math, or that they’re only taking his class because most degrees require at least a general education requirement in science, and he understands that.

“If you reject science in some way, you immediately put yourself in this camp where you’re not keeping up,” he said. “We live in the information age, and if you don’t understand how to access that information and be comfortable with it, you’re going to be left behind.”

Here is a list of SLP classes in winter term.

A previous version of this article stated that Fisher worked for NASA. This was incorrect. In the same version of the article, a photo caption claimed that Fisher worked on the second largest telescope in the world. It has now been corrected to reflect its change in ranking. 

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Mike Mendoza

Mike Mendoza