Science as an adventure story

“Our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives,” writes Brian Greene, a physics professor at Columbia in the New York Times.

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

Greene argues that science education focuses “on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details,” ignoring “the big questions,” such as:

Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”

Science should be taught as an adventure story, he writes.

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.

I am nearly tone deaf to science. I understand the scientific method, a few random details and that’s about it.

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Comments

  1. I have always thought that integrating the history of science and mathematics into the teaching of these subjects was a way to make science and math interesting. Learning facts and solving problems does not create much enthusiasm. Of course interesting lab work is also good too.

  2. If Green were to enter any number of today’s grade school science classes, he wouldn’t see a focus “on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.” Rather, he’d see a botched attempted to implement just what he suggests: integrating science into students’ lives; wowing them with the big questions; and “placing science aongside music, art, and literature”.

    As practiced in actual classrooms, this means things like having 5th graders read Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” choose something they care about as much as the Lorax does his trees, and give presentations in which they speak for that something, complete with colorful props and costumes.

    Perhaps if schools did focus more on science competency, students would be more interested in science, more filled with scientific wonder, and more able to take college and graduate level classes which tackle the big questions.

  3. KateCoe says:

    My daughter’s high school chem teacher is a genius–he assigns viewings of CSI. It’s science in action, and they love it.

  4. Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”

    The problem is that you have to practice your scales before you can ever learn to play the masterpieces. Otherwise you don’t have the fundamental ability to play them. High school (and even most college undergraduate) science is, by necessity, scale playing. It is basic facts and concepts. Moreover it is fundamental reasoning and problem solving. You can’t go straight to the origins of the universe because, among other things, the students don’t have the conceptual and mathematical background to understand what you’re showing them.

    I recall my high school pre-calculus teacher showing us a physics problem related to hitting a baseball and seeing if it was a home run. It was a trajectory equation in multiple dimensions with some additional things thrown in. At the time I could barely grasp it. It was too big and I was intimidated. By the time I finished my first year of college, I looked back on it and realized it was just a set of simultaneous equations. I’d wear out a notepad solving it by hand, but it wasn’t actually hard.

  5. Tracy W says:

    Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness?

    I thought science didn’t yet have the answer to these questions. Indeed, last time I checked, the scientific answer to “what happened a second before the Big Bang” was “that question is meaningless. Time started with the Big Bang”.

    And quite frankly, how many scientists spend their days playing around with those sorts of big questions? My friends who have done PhDs in the science subjects have spent their time on things like “Are streams of metorites random or do they have order?” or “Can I synthesis this naturally-occurring chemical in a lab?” or “How do bats interact with cultivated pine forests?”

    Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable

    Yeah right. Science is a mess. Every now and then someone has an insight that turns a bit more of life into being precise, predictive and reliable. But far more often, science just raises more questions. Sometimes science destroys understanding and replaces it with confusion. Who was the physcist who said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics you don’t understand it?

  6. It’s not important in this discussion, but yes, cosmologists are starting to get some hints about the time before the big bang. Cosmology has come an incredible way in the last dozen years. Here’s a (not very good) link:

    http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/070702_mm_big_bang.html

    All Greene is arguing for, I think, is a balance of theory, practice and wonder. The problem is the same with all education: you have to engage the student, not merely manage their time. Good teachers in science are just harder to find, I think, because they have to clear two hurdles: the difficulty of teaching well and the difficulty of mastering their subject domain (which is constantly changing in a way that math and literature, for example, are not).

    The above bit about CSI worries me, though. While CSI may use the scientific method, much of the actual science is just made-up crap. It’s good to show hot young people doing science, I suppose, but real crime scene investigators laugh out loud at the show.

  7. Tracy W says:

    Rob – thanks for the link.

    All Greene is arguing for, I think, is a balance of theory, practice and wonder.

    The trouble is I think in teaching wonder. He doesn’t lay out any process for how a teacher can induce wonder in their students.

  8. “Sometimes science destroys understanding and replaces it with confusion.”

    What an interesting statement. Didn’t the Red Queen say something like this?

  9. The trouble is I think in teaching wonder. He doesn’t lay out any process for how a teacher can induce wonder in their students.

    Simple. Tell the teacher what they’re doing now isn’t any good, until they change and students develop a sense of wonder. (A variant on the “beatings will continue until morale improves” idea).

    I suspect that a lot of modern societal trends (like the pressure to be “cool”) kind of works against students being induced to develop “wonder” if they don’t already have it.

    I don’t know…I tend to agree with Jeff the Baptist on this. It’s after I learn some of the basic facts about something that I tend to get to the “wonderment” part. When I’m still ignorant about it, either it’s hard for me to care, or else I’m so lost that wonderment makes no sense.

    And I am a scientist…

  10. It’s pretty clear that Greene isn’t a musician, because he puts forward a fundamental misunderstanding of learning music. Scales, rhythmic patterns, arpeggios, and tone exercises are all part of learning to play the masterpieces meaningfully.

    Speaking as someone with over 15 years of experience playing music, I’ve had the experience of playing the same piece of music several years apart at very different levels of skill, and each time I’ve gotten much more from playing it when I was more skilled and could bring the music to life.

    Now, I’m not sure the metaphor of music teaching transfers terribly well to science because of the amount of muscle memory involved in performing music, but even in science I’ve found that laying a groundwork of a few basic understandings is what leads to curiosity. Finding that groundwork and presenting it effectively is the challenge.

  11. Charles R. Williams says:

    A lot of these big questions take us to the boundaries between science and philosophy or theology. Especially questions about the origin of the universe and of life and the nature of the human mind. Few scientists – not to mention science teachers – are well equipped to deal with these questions.

    How do we integrate science into our lives? This is not really a scientific question but has to with the nature and purpose of human existence. It presupposes an answer to the question “How shall we live?”

    It sounds like Brian Greene is peddling some kind of materialist philosophy under the guise of science.

    Science is a way of life? I’m afraid not. What we call the scientific method is a powerful tool for answering a limited range of questions and they are not the most important questions. The scientists I know are no more successful as human beings than the plumbers that I know.

  12. Professor Greene’s column is interesting, but his main point seems to be that in the teaching of science we lose sight of the big picture in our efforts to attend to the details – not a new idea. I have just a few words about this at http://www.brianrude.com/blogspa.htm.