The notion of risk in the teaching of science

In Québec, the primary objective of the secondary school science and technology curriculum is to train citizens who are capable of participating in major debates and challenges related to science and technology. But do teachers have the necessary tools to succeed in this mission? Vincent Richard, an education researcher at Université Laval, analyzed future teachers' understanding of risk, a notion that is prevalent in many controversial scientific issues.

In science, risk is clearly defined: we verify and measure the probability that an event will occur as well as its deleterious and detrimental impact on humans, society, the environment, etc. The lay conception of risk is more subjective: individuals may ask themselves, for example, whether an event can happen to them and whether they will be seriously affected.

In science, risk is clearly defined but the lay conception of risk is more subjective.

What about future teachers? Vincent Richard presented the controversy surrounding the presence of genetically modified salmon in U.S. grocery stores to a group of teaching students. He put together three files: one containing scientific articles, one containing reports from the mainstream media, and one containing grey literature. The goal was to find out which sources of information the group would use and how they would present the risk associated with this food to their students.

The researcher then analyzed six arguments. He found that four of them had completely ignored environmental risks. The two people who made these arguments had degrees in biology. Moreover, most of the arguments about the dangers to human health remained subjective and took little account of the fact that scientific studies showed no significant threat.

Vincent Richard's study raises the question of whether teacher education students who do not have a bachelor's degree in science would benefit from improved training in order to better understand certain scientific concepts.