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Critical thinking: essential piece of the puzzle

Staff Reporter

Published: Monday, February 18, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 00:02

Richard McKinney | The Houstonian

Richard McKinney | The Houstonian

I love puzzles. The way you make a picture piece by piece is fascinating to me. It always frustrated me when I got garage sale puzzles and there was a piece or two missing – the puzzle would forever be incomplete! Well, education works in a similar manner; if we don’t have all of the pieces, it will be incomplete.

For many students, we receive a basic level of science education throughout our time in kindergarten through 12th grade. This education is more about facts than anything particular. Those facts aren’t any good, however, unless you can effectively apply them. This was an observation shared by a few people in various areas of science here at Sam Houston just a few years ago.

Sam Houston is required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to develop a plan to promote critical thinking – a key element in the application of education. Now this works a little like Shark Tank; people come up with an idea. A committee is then formed to narrow the selection down and then they are presented to all other colleges to be voted upon. Okay – so not quite like Shark Tank, but you get the idea.

This happened almost four years ago and today we have what is now called Foundations of Science.

This course promotes an essential piece of the scientific puzzle. "It was based on my, and others’, observations of science and science literacy," Dr. Marcus Gillespie, a key creator in the class, said,"that there seemed to be a growing gulf between the fact that we are a technology oriented society, yet more and more people were questioning basic scientific findings, such as vaccinations."

To address this issue they decided to address how students look at these findings. 78 percent of people are scientifically illiterate. What this means is that 70 million people in America would not be able to pick up the science section of a newspaper and understand it. This poses a real problem for civilization and democracy itself.

"The nature of science is a form of critical thinking," Dr. Gillespie said, "drawing reasonable conclusions based on logic and evidence. If we don’t have an educated public making democratic decisions then they’ll be more likely to make bad decisions which could threaten democracy and civilization itself."

This is based off of H.G. Wells, "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe." Take the example of climate change; while America’s public is starting to warm up to its existence (pun intended), there are still a large portion of people who don’t believe it exists. Regardless of your personal views, if it is real, and we don’t believe it’s real, there are very serious ramifications.

"What we’re trying to get through is the notion that evidence and logic matter," Dr. Gillespie said, "so when we make a decision about these things we do it by avoiding fallacies and bias. Openly, honestly and comprehensively looking at the information and make conclusions based on that."

This course does not try to tell students what they should or should not believe, or what products or medicine to buy – the goal of this course is to provide the necessary tools to evaluate claims. Students who have taken this course score higher on the Critical Thinking Assessment Test than students in the university who have not taken the course, students outside the university who have not taken the course, and they even score higher than the national average.

I, personally, recommend this course to anyone who needs a science (which is everyone). I want to extend a thank you to those who helped develop it: Dr. Marcus Gillespie - Geography, Dr. Matt Rowe – Biology, Dr. Joseph Hill – Geology, Dr. Li-Jen Shannon – Computer Science, Dr. Sol Schneider – retired from Computer Science, and Mrs. Lori Rose – Biology.Without them, many students would not have been able to complete the puzzle of scientific education by adding the essential piece of critical thinking.

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