(Photo: Inspection Institute Aeronautical Science Group, NASA)
On the Ed Zed Omega site, this article popped up. It’s about why kids “hate” school, and why certain subjects are useless to teach. I agree with the article, for the most part. Strauss isn’t saying that the subjects themselves aren’t valuable - her concern is with the way the subjects are taught, the way they are presented to students. Many of the subjects taught in high school are, in my opinion, too specialized. Much too specialized for general education, and not on target for preparatory education (as in, prep for college). Strauss mentions other subjects besides physics, chemistry, biology, etc., but it’s science education that I’ve been thinking about today, so that’s what I’m writing about.
Our society as a whole is already profoundly ignorant of science, what it does, how it works. I often hear/see people expressing distrust of scientists much in the way we distrust lawyers or con artists - like there’s some “trick” to science. A friend of mine even said to me once, “Why should we believe these astronomers, telling us about things we can’t see with our eyes, instead of believing what the bible tells us?” (Yes, I almost dropped dead when she said that to me. I admit it.)
When I worked at Space Center Houston, I often had people ask me questions about the “anti-gravity room” (there isn’t one - gravity is a fact of life, yo - you can’t just flip a switch and turn it off) or other questions that a general knowledge of science would have already answered for them. I don’t mind answering science questions! I love answering them! But even back then, it disturbed me to realize how very, very ineffective our high school science curriculum is in terms of general education.
There are so many better ways to teach science and instill a curiosity and an appreciation for it without making it so specialized as to exclude those students who don’t intend to make science their career. Instead of Chemistry -> Biology -> Physics, why not make a requirement of general science seminars for those who don’t want to take the more specialized courses?
What exactly do I mean by general science seminars? That sounds very collegiate, doesn’t it? What I mean is, have a class where students are learning about science - about the methods, about the history, about the theories, but without the formulas and problems. Have them read science blogs. Have them read Galileo’s biography. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. Marie Curie’s biography. Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think?. Carl Sagan’s Comet. Dava Sobel’s Longitude.
I could make a reading list that would give students more exposure to science, more curiosity and inspiration, than they will ever get in chemistry lab. I learned more about science reading those and other books than I ever did in high school physics. Part of the reason is because I didn’t have any passion for numbers or formulas or E=mc^2. You know what made me passionate about math and numbers and inspired me to take calculus classes and start working on a B.S. in physics? Carl Sagan’s Contact. It’s a novel, it’s fiction, but it connects the reader so deeply to the idea of beauty in mathematics that suddenly those things you learned in high school physics become romantic and wonder-filled.
After reading Elegant Universe, my heart still beats faster at the thought of the massive gap in our knowledge where relativity and quantum mechanics is concerned. If you don’t know what I mean, read his book. Your life will never, ever be the same, I promise you.
And here’s the thing. None of these books I’ve mentioned (among so many, many others) require a student to have a working knowledge of the science that they talk about. These books are written for the lay person, someone who has no scientific background. They are written purposefully to explain the wonder of science, the why of it. In other words, these books and others like them are perfect for a general science seminar.
Science is cool. Science is beautiful and dangerous and wondrous. So why, why, WHY do we send our young students into learning chemical formulas and physics equations without first giving them a reason to care, without first grounding them in the momentous human experience that is our history of science?
If I were teaching a general science course (and oh, now I want to, more than anything! who will let me teach them?), I would assign general readings, and I would have the students go out and read about any science-y thing that interested them. They would come back and teach the class (and me, perhaps!) what they discovered in their own little science nook. We would read history. We would watch broadcasts from CERN. We wouldn’t memorize formulas or work equations - we would read Einstein’s letters and learn why those equations were important and how they came to be.
If I’d had such a course to take before diving into chemistry and physics in high school, I might have had a better idea of what, really, I was doing there. When we do science, we truly do stand on the shoulders of all the other generations of scientists before us. But how can we know all of that without a solid course of reading in science history? All I remember of science history is little blurbs in the side margins of my school books. (Guess what I liked best to read in those books!) We’re doing it all wrong - don’t expect the science student to have naturally come to an appreciation of science. Let’s instill that and make science education mean something more than equations on a chalkboard.