A Formula for Better Science Education

Stephen Norris

Talking with Canada Research Chair Stephen Norris

Upon receiving word that he had received a renewal of his Canada Research Chair, Professor Stephen Norris could barely contain his smile, “I was delighted, absolutely delighted.”

Recipients of a Canada Research Chair have reason to be proud; it is a genuine, national recognition of their work.

The primary focus of Professor Norris’ work over the past few years has been on improving science instruction in high school classrooms.

“The puzzle is, how do you build a science education that has two very different goals –one, to recruit the next generation of scientists, and two, to foster a citizenry that has a knowledge of science, knows how it works and can take a critical stance with respect to science,” says Professor Norris.

The clue to successfully solving this puzzle is in the approach teachers take to science.

“[I think] learning scientific language is important, but currently students are expected to learn over 1000 scientific words, more words than you would need to know to converse in a second language…[this] is a distorted image of what science is. I am interested in teaching scientific language, without having students memorize all of these terms,” explains Professor Norris.

When speaking to Professor Norris, his passion for science education becomes obvious. He links language with science in a way that aims to inspire critical thinking in the classroom. 

“Teaching students how scientists write, and how they use the language to argue for a particular conclusion, to support it with evidence, to argue why their interpretation of their data is a better interpretation than another’s, and most importantly, how they convey through their language the tentativeness of science, is important,” says Professor Norris.

The hope is that students who approach learning science in this way will be more engaged, especially those who do not see themselves as becoming future scientists. Learning science can and should be both exciting and thought provoking.

His research has clear implications for students in high schools in Alberta, and across Canada.  “We are planning on developing a whole array of material that will be available for high schools. How do we give students a more accurate image of science? The approach I am looking at is using published scientific literature and adapting it for use in the classroom,” explains Professor Norris.

The adapted literature looks and feels like the real thing – largely because it is, underneath the hood. The theoretical framework in the documents presented to students is unchanged, only the level at which the information is presented is altered.  Using real-world and often very current research, students are encouraged to use critical thinking to navigate their way through the adapted reports of research. Ultimately, they leave the classroom not only with a number of scientific equations learned, but also with a critical understanding of the thought behind the science.

Exciting researchers tend to inspire others, as discovered by those who have worked closely with him.

Augusto Riveros (MPhil., MEd, PhD Candidate) comments, “[he has]given me a wealth of opportunities for academic growth. His critical and attentive eye is always there to spot the gaps in my thought and guide my research. He always asks me the type of questions that send me back to the library. His warm and open attitude towards knowledge always invites dialogue and sincere discussion… he has a solid reputation and his colleagues respect him a lot.  He introduced me to a number of important scholars in the field.”

As the world of science continues to evolve, the work of professors like Stephen Norris in the Faculty of Education will continue to find new ways to educate the youth of our country. While his aim is to supply material to current teachers and change current science education teaching practices, an even bigger impact may yet come when those currently studying in the Faculty of Education graduate and begin to teach using the methods being discovered in his research today.

“The Canada Research Chairs program invests $300 million per year to attract and retain some of the world's most accomplished and promising minds.

Chair holders aim to achieve research excellence in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities, and social sciences. They improve our depth of knowledge and quality of life, strengthen Canada's international competitiveness, and help train the next generation of highly skilled people through student supervision, teaching, and the coordination of other researchers' work.”