Because science education occurs in the context of broader education, it has the dual function of transmitting the general dominant culture as well as the culture of science. Exposure to science does not occur only in the classroom, but also in everyday life. The media present aspects of scientific culture on a regular basis. The relative success of this is evident in the number of scientific terms and concepts that have become part of everyday culture. But shared cultural knowledge about scientific culture varies from individual to individual.
Students coming into a science classroom have different amounts and kinds of cultural capital as a starting point. Those that have exposure to scientific knowledge from multiple sources will have an easier time of it. The role of science education in cultural transmission is not often made explicit but can be seen in goal statements about scientific literacy and objectives in the curriculum that refer to knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The version of science that gets transmitted in the science classroom is an idealized one, and even though the rhetoric is about science for all, the goal of educating future scientists continues to be more prominent in science classrooms. More time is spent on learning science than learning about science, in spite of the efforts of science educators involved in teacher education. The messages received in science classrooms do not, as mentioned above, reflect reality but some version of it. For example, many students continue to describe scientists as white males in laboratory coats. This was partially encouraged by textbooks that contained pictures of males doing experiments. While textbooks now present a more balanced view, long-standing beliefs are difficult to change. Alison Kelly argued that science is masculine in four senses: (1) in the number of males who study it, teach it, and practice it; (2) in the examples and applications studied; (3) in that the behaviors and interactions follow what society has described as male patterns; and (4) because the thinking commonly labeled scientific appears to embody a male worldview. One could add to this that the choice of analogies and metaphors used to teach science and to build explanations of phenomena are more common to male experience.
Also evident in science classrooms, according to Smolicz and Nunan in a now classic article on science education, are four ideological pivots or implicit value-systems: (1) an anthropocentric view, which presents man as the master and manipulator of nature and stereotypes the scientist as the controller of nature with his technologically induced powers; (2) quantification, which tends to dehumanize scientists and reduce all things to machine-like objects; (3) the positivistic ideal, which implies that theories should be organized only according to the canons of logic and presents a linear image of progress in science; and (4) the analytic ideal, which promotes a mechanistic view of science and is reflected in schools by a reliance on simplified mechanistic models as aids to understanding conceptual material. To this description one could add the espoused value of reductionism in studying phenomena. My own research in science classrooms supports the views presented here of what gets transmitted in science classrooms and adds that scientific knowledge tends to be presented as “truth” through a top-down approach. With respect to the language of science, grade 9 students learn a larger vocabulary in a science classroom than they do in a French language classroom. Most evaluation is written and tends to focus on memory work, with exact definitions being more valued than paraphrased ones. In some situations, students had to learn not only a concept, but the analogy that was being used to explain the concept. All of this implies an assimilation approach to cultural transmission. Given that situation, let us now consider the implications of this in a multicultural science classroom.