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Put a Little Science in Your Life, Extended

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brian Greene in the June 1, 2008 NYTimes makes some very important points about science education. Those in turn have some important implications for thinking about science and how scientists present it to the world, some of which Greene makes explicit and others of which warrant some amplification.

"Its striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that somtime shows up in the "real" world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world."

"As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work - we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And its a profound loss."

"an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science's underlying technical details."

"At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, its a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities ... the verticality of science is unassailable."

"But science is much more than its technical details ... And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details ... We rob science educatiom of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars."

"Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that's been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living."

"Its the birthright of every child, its a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world ... and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us."

Yes, indeed, science "has the potential to be what we all collectively need as we evolve into a world wide community: a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride." And it would certainly help if one paid more attention in the teaching of science to "cutting-edge insights and discoveries" and "breath taking vistas," if we portrayed science "in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living."

My sense though is that Greene understates both the problems and the needs to achieve such a "cultural shift." And that at least some of what has to change to address those problems and needs requires a cultural shift within science itself. Not all scientists would be comfortable presenting science "alongside music, art, and literature." Many regard science not as a complement to other ways of making sense of and appreciating the world but rather as an alternative, a path to "objective" truth in contrast to the subjectivities inherent in other human activities. In presenting science in this way (and encouraging others to see it this way), scientists not only encourage unrealistic expectations of science but also set it undesirably and unnecessarily in conflict with other claimants to "Truth". If science is to be successfully portrayed in terms of breath taking vistas for all humans, there is going to have to be a greater appreciation among scientists themselves of science as an opening to as yet unconceived understandings rather than an unerring and progressive approach to a description of "reality."

Scientists also tend to presume that science is something that is done only by those who have been annointed by a professional community and, his appropriate remarks about "little scientists" notwithstanding, Greene seems to encourage this perspective. To sustain the engagement with science that everyone is indeed born with, it will not be enough to supplement science classes with "cutting edge insights and discoveries". What is needed is instead encouragement for ongoing and continuing inquiry by all individuals, students and otherwise. Classrooms need to be structured not to teach what is known, no matter how old or current but rather to engage students honestly and actively with the processes of discovery in their own terms. And professional scientists need, in general, to encourage everyone, in their own ways, to contribute to the ongoing development of the current stories that science uses to conceive new futures.


LuisanaT's picture

Striving for cross-listed course, an interdepartmental education

In a perfect world, all of the facets of life would overlap visibly enough to make interdisciplinary courses and make them work.

Incorporating different fields of knowledge have shown, at least in the classroom, to be incredibly effective in learning. Information is much more easily understood and remembered if outside- that which does not necessarily fall under the same-areas of study are involved. For example, having a week full of lessons revolving around the physics of sound and its pitch might end perfectly well with demonstrations of its variance expressed through musical instruments. Connecting different things together makes the lesson learned much more applicable to the real world, where the varying concepts of life do not occur as isolated incidences but together simultaneously.

I would like to propose as a part of the graduating requirements, if not already commonly achieved by the time one finishes school- of any school at any educational level for that matter- should include taking a course which explicitly joins differently disciplined courses like those listed under an interdepartmental department.

Paul Grobstein's picture

interdisciplinary courses

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Nice example of how connections can make things easier to learn. One might actually invert it. Start with the sounds of instruments, that in turn raising questions. And then talk about the physics as a way of answering those questions?

Important too is the notion that dealing with the "real world" requires being able to make connections among things traditionally handled seperately in classrooms.

LuisanaT's picture

On the flip side

If one were to use this little lesson plan I mentioned in reverse, I agree that it would be more if not just as effective in teaching. It is incredibly advantageous that this kind of approach gives the students the opportunity to come up with their own observations about the pitch involved in the use of musical instruments. This is a great way to spark the students’ interests and initiate an inquiry-based lesson amongst the students that will inevitably reflect on basic concepts surrounding the physics of sound. With this foundation of observations, the students will also be able to create their own hypotheses, and is a great way to avoid instructional objectives, which quite frankly, are too specific to accommodate to the vast differences in individual learning.
This actually reminds me very much of a presentation held in my Math and Science Pedagogy course last semester where the physics teacher, Doug Vallette, gave a presentation about modeling physics. During the presentation, Dr. Vallette asks the
students to state to the rest of the class what s/he notices when he lets go of a weight on a pendulum, presumably to generate the student’s previous knowledge about physics. A second question he asks of the students was to provide examples of things they can measure in regards to the apparatus (i.e., the mass of the weight, the length of the string holding onto the weight, etc.) Once he filled the board with the observations and various applicable measurements, the students in my pedagogy class discovered the discrepancy found between the two; we were able to give a variety of means for computation but state only a few things we noticed about a pendulum swinging a weight. This allowed us to realize that information (theories, laws, etc.) taught to and regurgitated by students has been embraced in school more so than a student’s ability to tap into their own senses and look at the world with. For if you were to think about it, there is an infinite amount of observations one could make about a particular object, let alone one in motion, but only a limited amount of logistics that are relevant and even fewer depending on the level of education one has received at that point and time. Computational responses like these are more easily accepted in, what I want to call, separate society, which is why this type of tool to tackle the world with is the only one that snowballs in the student’s repertoire of knowledge.
Anne Dalke's picture

the unanticipated consequences of science

Greene understates... the needs to achieve such a "cultural shift"...within science itself.

Yep. Starting, maybe with the belief (shared among scientists and the general public) that (as Greene reports it) "science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable."

A few months ago, in the Bryn Mawr Working Group on Emergence (which, btw, explores a different sort of science....) I learned about a 1936 essay, published in the American Sociological Review, called "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action," in which Robert Merton elaborated the process whereby “action ramifies.” Learning, Merton explained, is necessarily a series of continually adjusted processes:

"…activities oriented toward certain values release processes which so react as to change the very scale of values which precipitated them….Here is the essential paradox of social action—the “realization” of values may lead to their renunciation….Public predictions of future social developments are frequently not sustained precisely because the prediction has become a new element in the concrete situation, thus tending to change the initial course."

In other words, making the everyday experimental actually means exacerbating its inherent instability. This need not be a problem; it might actually be a desired--because intensely generative--outcome of science. But it does bring assumptions about the "precise, predictive and reliable" qualities of science into question....

Wil Franklin's picture

exacerbate and resistance

Not sure I understand what you mean by exacerbate? Are you promoting mass confusion and disorientation within classrooms? If so, how is that achieved and can students come back from the abyss? I like the idea of taking students to the brink of the abyss and then helping them back, but exacerbate sounds too much like you drive them full throttle off the edge. That appoarch might elicit resistance from students uncomfortable with such dramatic change. Does anyone really want to be forced to exacerbate - even if choosing it for yourself is so...productive?
Paul Grobstein's picture

shifts in culture: science and ...

Yep, there is a need for a shift in the culture of science

"the most important contributions are not those that show a particular existing alternative way to make sense of things to be better than other existing alternatives. The most important contributions are those that bring into existence previously unconceived alternatives"

But its not only scientists who would like things to be "precise, predictable, and reliable" and who encourage that perspective on science and by scientists.

"We all have a tendency to think that the random, the accidental, is that which disrupts order and so is a challenge or threat to "meaning.""

We've got a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. Science is embedded in, and necessarily both influences and reflects wider human cultures. So maybe its not only the perspectives of scientists but the perspectives of all of us that have to change?

it is actually from the random, the accidental that the ability to appreciate meaning itself originally came into being, and that they continue to be an essential source of our own ability to both conceive and reconceive meaning

Are we all ready to accept something along these lines as a core principle of human culture?
LuisanaT's picture

It’s in the hope of NEVER drowning

In one way or another I feel as though everyone would like things to be “precise, predictable, and reliable” for that is the way our educational system has been set up to be; acquire and learn the exact skills introduced here and you will strive in the real world. But once again that does not take into account the complete uncertainty life has to offer post-schooling. It is just as Will puts it, the exact knowledge you need to be prepared to tackle the uncertainties of life is in itself an uncertainty-you just have to jump right into any body of water even if it is a little deep or unfamiliar to you.
Wilfred Franklin's picture

randomness, order and meaning

Interesting, the chicken and egg dilemna here with order and chaos/randomness. If we acknowledge that meaning has something(?) to do with sitting in contrast to something else, then order and chaos are meaningless without each other and it doesn't matter where it starts. Perhaps then, art and the humanities sit in contrast to science and both are necessary for each other. This seems to suggest that as ptong above recommends, science courses take time for art and likewise, the humanities should take time for science. It is only in the interplay between them that any useful meaning develops.

ptong's picture

Mixing science with everything else

Greene mentions that "We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living." And i think he should expand a little more on that subject because I believe that is an important aspect in education: tying everything together to get a bigger picture.

When I think about what Greene said, I can see how music, art, and literature can be influenced by science themes in its works. For examples, music can evoke the mood of a storm like Disney's Fantasia, art can illustrate beautiful scenaries like Guan San Yue, and literature like "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown can set a plot based upon "anti-matter". Yet it is significantly harder to see how art, music, and literature influence science. This could be part of the reason science is so much more "constraining" as Professor Franklin mentioned.

The dilemma with combining music, art and literature with science courses is that in order to do this we need more time than we are given in a semester. Currently, it is hard enough for professors to teach the necessary material in the semester and it is equally hard for the students to take it all in. To add more course work seems inefficent and impossible.

Whether it be making year long courses or truncating the science material in science courses to incorporate more humanities, history, etc, this is where we need to discuss what is the best approach.

Paul Grobstein's picture

making room for a science/humanities interplay

Maybe some of the "science material in science courses" is actually hindrance rather than scaffolding and could be done away in the interests of a usefully broader perspective that includes science?  A perspective that would actually make science more learnable, and better connected to what one is going to have to work with after leaving school?

It is interesting that it seems more obvious to have science influence art/music/literature. I wonder if that's an artifact of cultural perspectives on science?

jrlewis's picture

Yes, I would like to see

Yes, I would like to see every course recognize the art of science and the science of art. Topics in photography such as various lens filters easily relate to physics. The materials and methods section of any biochemistry research article reveals the art and intuition of the scientist. Despite the difference in subject, there are many similarities in the study of art and science.
Wil Franklin's picture

constraining the curious "inner child"

The question of hindering human inquiry to the point that most run from science is easy to recognize but hard for me to remedy. The problem suggests letting "jaded" inquirers re-discover their own curiosity. That seems to suggest letting individuals explore whatever they find curious. In practice/in my classroom, I cannot make that jump. Or at least I'm not sure I have allowed enough room for individuals to really awaken their curious "inner child". I want very much to do so, however, every year I end up with scaffolding and constraints by choosing topics and presenting particular problems. Can a teacher really allow for honest open-endedness or must he/she be satisfied with scaffolding? But doesn't that run the risk of hindering inquiry? How to draw the line?

jrlewis's picture

I have been that jaded

I have been that jaded inquirer in a year long intro lab. I was also apathetic. I had no motivation to explore any topic, I felt devoid of curiosity. Without some sort of structure to the course, I might not have made any effort at all.

It wasn't until the last experiement/project, that I became engaged. What interested me, was the change in location, from the lab to the woods. I have always loved the woods and spent some of my childhood, playing, riding, and walking nearby in Gladwyne and Wynewood.

However, my lab partner detested this lab and lamented that we were not inside disecting some animal or worm. Different students will connect with different environments, techniques, and topics. I think the best that can be done is to offer a wide variety, a sampler of as many possible combinations. Hopefully something will appeal to everyone.

Along this line, projects are a good way to allow students to pursue their own interests. This may help a jaded student move from interest in a specific topic or application to a more general engagement with their science course. For a example a physics student at Great Valley did a presentation involving the mechanics of horseback riding.

LuisanaT's picture

Team Teaching and Professional Development

It would be great to have a class extremely integrated in the number of disciplines included, but I fear it will be very time-consuming. For having the physics teacher come into the photography class to give a not so “mini” lesson on the physics involved in the camera lenses would have the class run for a very long time. Simply mentioning a small detail like this about cameras can trigger a range of other sets of information and is only a small example by which every one thing we learn about is interconnected to a vast number of other areas of study. Imagine how long one lesson/class would be if more and more complex components from different fields were explicitly incorporated into it. There just isn’t enough time in the day, in the week, or in the year to encompass so many different elements. Maybe restructuring the time schools dedicate to the students would be helpful in including more facets of knowledge into a course, ultimately increasing the student’s consciousness and understanding of the world.

This team teaching effort the physics and photography teachers have would require both teachers to formulate the student’s schedule around an extensive lesson in photography that will function as the backbone and guiding force for learning related concepts throughout the day. A good way to encourage the intermingling of disciplines in the class would be during the Professional Development sessions. These sessions allow for conversations about worries, concerns, methodologies, achievements, and ideas related to teaching and learning to occur with similar teachers and just, if not more importantly, with different teachers that might overlapping in studies or pedagogy. The continued interaction from each meeting can encourage a change in course curriculum that will encompass and place greater emphasis on concepts derived from other disciplines.
Paul Grobstein's picture

scaffolding as an aid to inquiry?

Maybe the issue here isn't in fact leaving "enough room", or at least not only leaving enough room. Being "curious" and evolving from that depends on having things around to be productively curious about. As per

Start with materials that students are interested in, and about which they have both thoughts and questions.

Then the "scaffolding" might actually promote rather than hinder inquiry? If one is willing to use it with "honest open-endedness"?