There was a great op-ed in the NYTimes this past Sunday called “Put A Little Science in Your Life“. The author, Brian Greene, is a professor of physics, and he makes a compelling argument that we could be doing a little better in teaching science. Specifically, teaching it in a way that helps the students retain their natural sense of wonder at all this neat stuff, rather than boiling it all down to some really dry numbers and making sure you follow the exact proper procedure for everything. Is there really a reason that science can only be interesting during elementary school and then not again until you reach high level independent research?
Some excerpts, although of course you should go read the whole thing:
When we consider the ubiquity of cellphones, iPods, personal computers and the Internet, it’s easy to see how science (and the technology to which it leads) is woven into the fabric of our day-to-day activities. When we benefit from CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers and arterial stents, we can immediately appreciate how science affects the quality of our lives. When we assess the state of the world, and identify looming challenges like climate change, global pandemics, security threats and diminishing resources, we don’t hesitate in turning to science to gauge the problems and find solutions.
And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there’s simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future.
These are the standard — and enormously important — reasons many would give in explaining why science matters.
But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. 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.
As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don’t have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up as I’ve told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I’ve spoken with high school dropouts who’ve stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we’re all a part.
It’s 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 sometimes 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 it’s a profound loss.
A great many studies have focused on this problem, identifying important opportunities for improving science education. Recommendations have ranged from increasing the level of training for science teachers to curriculum reforms.
But most of these studies (and their suggestions) avoid 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.
In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: 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?”
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, it’s a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities — solving this equation, balancing that reaction, grasping the discrete parts of the cell — the verticality of science is unassailable.
But science is so 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; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts 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.
Er, well, I ended up excerpting almost the entire thing, but I suppose that’s a hallmark of a well-written piece, that it all flows together so well that you feel like you can’t really leave out very much of it or you’ll lose the context for the bits that really spoke. Anyway, this piece certainly spoke to me, because I have a long-standing desire to learn physics from a class that utilizes MacGyver episodes and emphasizes the coolness of the universe, rather than the class I did have in high school, where a math teacher in disguise taught us calculus before any of us had ever actually gotten to that point in the math curriculum and told us it was physics. Which definitely left me feeling like the actual physics-ness of the physics had all been taken away. Oh, yes, and I learned biology from a teacher who didn’t believe in evolution. And my first introduction to chemistry was by a teacher who made us first take a spelling test of the names of all the lab equipment (before we’d even been told what it was for.)
For this reason, I am grateful to Mr. Greene, and all the other scientists and science writers out there who take the time to try to explain the general public why they think science is so cool. I may not have been very satisfied by my classroom science experiences, but there’s still so much that I can learn about, and so much to wonder at. (Hence my previous excited post about the ScienceBlogs book club.) I actually know a person who got an undergraduate degree specializing in the history of science, and I was really jealous to find out that was even possible. That seems to be an area where the sense of wonder is preserved, because we tend to be looking back in awe at these people who discovered what are now considered absolutely essential concepts, but which hadn’t been truly understood/accepted before that.
I also really appreciate Mr. Greene’s insistence that “science is a perspective,” a way of thinking and understanding things, because it’s certainly true, and I think most of us here at Geek Buffet found ourselves nodding in total agreement to his very clear way of stating that view. How this perspective has come to be seen lately as so hostile and threatening is something I’ll probably never really understand, but wouldn’t it be great if we could reintroduce that sense of wonder to general science education and overcome such ridiculous sentiments?
I’ll be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on these issues.
-posted by Dana
Past book reviews of science books:
- 4/2/2007: Soul Made Flesh: A Tale of Neurology
- 6/6/2007: Galileo: Scientific Crusader, Father
- 6/25/2007: Remembering why the planets are so cool
- and the book review that never got written but should have was for the other Dava Sobel book, Longitude