How to convince students that “there is nothing in science that isn’t worth being excited about.”
From Bill Bryson’s interview in the New Scientist about his new book:
Science classes are almost always taught, in my experience, as if they are trying to produce the next generation of scientists. Of course, that is a vital function. But there is no recognition that a very large proportion of people are not going to become scientists.
What always disappointed me about science lessons was how the teacher would, almost as soon as they got through the door, turn around and start writing equations on the blackboard. This meant I was quickly out of my depth; I don’t have a brain that is comfortable dealing with mathematics and algebra.
In fact, there is nothing in science that isn’t worth being excited about. Unfortunately, the place you are least likely to find excitement, in my view, is in schools, when that is the precise place you should be handing it out to people.
Bryson’s treatment of science teachers is a little harsh, as oftentimes their material is prescribed and not up to them. However — he is right about the fact that science is cool and exciting, and that oftentimes classes let those who aren’t already interested in science slip through.
I believe that the main obstacle in gaining student interest is the skill set required to study science. All fields require a skill set — for English, you have to learn how to think critically, compare, and write; for art, it’s painting or drawing, photography, or even a certain eye for viewing the world aesthetically. These skill sets perhaps seem more organic: a natural development that is part interest or inbred talent, that becomes more complex as you study more.
Science also requires reading comprehension and writing. But, to study modern science, a great deal of fact-learning is also necessary, which is a deterrent in itself. It makes science seem less artistic or creative; the required effort can seem like a drag or a waste of time. As if science is for people who can’t think for themselves, just memorize facts. P’shaw!
My roommate and I love to stare at the ceiling and ramble on about all the things that amaze us about the world. And in a way, we speak slightly different languages: she studies philosophy and writing, while I study biology. But we are actually asking the same questions. We are simply trying to make sense of our worlds; we just go about it in a slightly different way.
And this is what I think is key. We can’t get students interested in science by just telling them that it’s important to know, that being a geek is cool, that science teachers are more fun to be around (Filming them in simulated space to get their students’ attention? Please, no.), or encouraging them to be on the “cutting edge.”
Science needs to be presented as another language used to put order to our world — just like literature or art. It’s not a field that is better than any other, or worse. It is a creative force that is constantly being reinvented, despite the common misconception that it is set in stone. Scientists aren’t some sort of unsociable, labcoat-clad army, but just normal people trying learn as much as they can about the world in order to help each of us understand why we are the way we are.