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Money From the Sea: A Cross-cultural Indigenous Science Activity

Originally appears in the Fall 2009 issue

Cross-cultural science education is a topic that either polarizes or numbs people, depending on their understanding of the concept and their agenda for science education. Those who think there is only one right answer and one definition of science may think that cross-cultural science education is fundamentally flawed and a waste of time. Those who tend to believe that we can approach questions from different angles and starting points and still come up with workable solutions usually think that cross-cultural science is imperative.

What exactly is cross-cultural science education? For that matter, what is science? Do Aboriginal peoples have their own science, and have Aboriginal peoples made contributions to the body of knowledge that we call science? Western education systems freely acknowledge the arts and the political and economic systems of Indigenous cultures, but somehow fail to acknowledge Indigenous science. Thus, in many educational settings where Western science is taught, it is taught at the expense of Indigenous science.1

It would seem that the disputes over how science is to be taught in the classroom turn on how “science” is defined. There are many different concepts of science and of what counts as being scientific. The Latin root, scientia, means knowledge in the broadest possible sense — knowledge arrived at through observation and experience. Scientific theorizing, or Western modern science, began only towards the end of the 19th century when scientists in Europe began to grapple with such abstract theoretical propositions as evolution, natural selection and the kinetic-molecular theory. Care was taken to create a set of rules for deriving theoretical statements from observations, and this set of rules evolved and became known as the scientific method.2 By emphasizing methodology and the logic of assertions, questions and concepts, Western science came to function as a gatekeeper that effectively screened out Indigenous science. In fact, Western science has become so powerful a gatekeeper that even practical experimental science appears to be diminished.

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Gloria Snively is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where she teaches science and environmental and marine education, and is co-director of a graduate program in Environmental and First Nations Education.