I learned of Dewey's philosophy relatively recently, in 2003, when I worked for Ameri*Corps helping to found an Office of Community Engagement based on a higher education movement called "service-learning." The movement is based on the idea that the best way to get connect academic learning with practical benefits is to literally connect them, both through traditional internships and through new community service-based assignments--CPAs could offer free tax advice to the elderly, cooks could make rounds at soup kitchens, and so on. Dewey's part in this project for social change is on the educational side--his philosophy, and the experience gained from putting it into action at the Laboratoy School, undergirds one basic tenet of sevice-learning: learning happens by doing.
At the Laboratory School, Dewey was determined to make knowing and doing part of the same learning process. His mission was to "reinstate experience into education". The Laboratory students spent most of their day outside of the classroom, engaging in activities like sewing, carpentry and cooking.... But these activities weren't simply exercises in manual labor. Rather, they were demonstrations of "active learning". "If a child realizes the motive for acquiring a skill," Dewey argued, "he is helped in large measure to secure the skill. Books, the ability to read and bookish knowledge are, therefore, regarded as tools."
Take cooking. At the Laboratory School, the children were often responsible for preparing their own lunch. Dewey's insight was to build into this activity a wealth of related academics. Before students could boil an egg, they had to conduct experiments to determine the proper temperature at which to cook the egg. When they graduated to the preparation of more complicated dishes, the students had to weigh and measure the ingredients (arithmetic), understand the process of digestion (biology), analyze the process of cooking (chemistry and physics), and so on.
The secret, of course, was to sneak in the science. The knowledge had to seem indivisible from the lunch. "Absolutely no separation is made between the 'social' side of the work, its concern with people's activities and their mutual dependencies, and the 'science,' regard for physical facts and forces," Dewey wrote in 1899, in his best-selling pamphlet The School and Society. If the teaching was done right, the children wouldn't even realize they were being taught.
If we take science to be the body of bookish knowledge collated by scientists, we're bound to be bored with science--and we're bound to resent it when science changes its collective mind about eggs or climate change. This is exactly why we need to change the way we educate people about science. Put another way, we need to stop educating people about science. Science education has to be more participatory and far less about repeating canned exemplar experiments for which we all know the expected result. Ultimately, science isn't something you can be told, it's something you have to do. If you're participating, you own it, and you'll defend it.