Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Posts Tagged ‘Education

Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do

While performing monotonous, brainless tasks at work, I’ve begun the habit of listening to podcasts.  And let my friends tell you: have I been listening to WNYC’s Radiolab or what?  (I feel like I recommend an episode to someone every few days.)  The other morning, I got completely stuck on a 2-minute clip from the episode “Time” (~29 min – 31 min).  The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, had just been speaking with theoretical physicist and author Brian Greene about the theory of relativity and how, well, time is relative.

Jad asks the question: “What do you with this information? … I know this is what science tells me, but my common sense tells me that that is COMPLETELY WRONG.”

Text cannot do Radiolab justice; listen to the 2-minute clip below:

The key quote here is from Brian Greene:

This is one of the great conundrums, it seems to me, that what you learn in science is so different than what you feel in your regular life!  How do you live between those two worlds when what you know and what you feel are so different?

To be honest, this is not something I had thought about too hard before.  I grew up immersed in science.  Any facts that exist that I couldn’t reconcile with experience, I just chalked up to the limitations of my senses or even my brain’s ability to conceptualize (the latter usually reserved for when I’m dealing with astrophysics).  But if you aren’t well-versed in how science works and perhaps the basics, this stuff sounds completely insane!  I mean, reread Brian Greene again:

When I look at the tabletop, I delight in the fact that I can, in my mind, picture the atoms and molecules and the interactions between them and the mostly empty space that’s in there.  And that when my hand touches the tabletop, I see the electrons of the outer surface of my hand pushing against the electrons in the outer surface of the table.  I’m not really touching the table!  My hand never comes into contact with the table!  What’s happening is the electrons are getting really close together and they’re repelling each other.  And I love the fact that I am, in essence, deforming the surface of the table by making my electrons come really close to it.  That enriches my experience.

Because I have a basic understanding of atomic physics, I understand what he’s talking about.  I certainly don’t think about electron repulsion when I touch an object (although maybe now I will…), but I understand from where he’s coming.  But imagine you don’t have that basic knowledge, or you never fully grasped its meaning?  What he’s saying sounds nuts!  “What do you mean I’m not touching the table?  I AM TOUCHING IT!  I CAN FEEL IT!” etc.

“That enriches my experience,” he says.  And I agree with him.  The ability to exist in two worlds at once – the experiential and the unseen scientific –  provides me with a great deal of satisfaction, as if, by just thinking, I can fill in historical details of the world around me.  But how do you get to that point?  How can you get to a place where you can see the world through a scientific lens in the first place?  And then, how do you integrate this worldview with the one you know?  Where, although you cannot physically sense it, you can still experience science in your every day life?

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to think in equations all the time (as in the Abstruse Goose comic above); some things can be left to the scientists.  But really understanding science – developing a real scientific literacy, if you will – is hard!  It takes a fundamental reorganization of the way one thinks about the world and, in turn, experiences the world.  It places you in a larger context: instead of living as if it’s you, an individual, against the immediate world, science can give you a sense of the whole of life and how you fit in.

So it’s no real wonder that the two most frequently denied scientific subjects (well, at least as the media presents it) are evolution and climate change – two areas that involve slow change that an individual cannot experience.  It’s not that these people are stupid!  (I’m talking about your average, everyday deniers here; not sure what to say about the big-time activists.)  They just don’t have the mindset to reconcile the science with their experience.  This is why I am regularly horrified by the way evolution or climate deniers are approached.  They are not idiots; beating them upon the head with facts is not the way to teach them.  They do not only need facts, but also a way to make the facts relevant in their lives.  And that may be something that they can be guided toward, but need to discover for themselves.

And what they  need to know to form that framework isn’t straight facts, anyway, but more like the scientific method.  The two pillars of a scientific worldview, as I’ve thought it out, are:

  1. The ability to ask questions about the world around you.
  2. The ability to find and evaluate answers to those questions

What can educators and science communicators do to provide guidance to a scientific worldview?  I am a huge proponent of science and environmental education for children and agree with Rachel Carson that childhood is the best time to plant the seeds to encourage a “sense of wonder” about the world.  Unfortunately, the current guidelines for many schools do not encourage students to ask questions, but rather to memorize this list of facts so they can pass their test: nothing more.  (See more thoughts I have on this here.)

How do we engage adults?  This is where science writers and communicators come in: it’s our job to communicate science in such a way that it hits upon larger questions about the world and forces the reader to ask these questions about his/her own world.  This follows very closely with John Pavlus’s recent post about rehabilitating awesome.  The bottom two tiers of writing are news bites that provide cool facts about science, but are memorable “only in the way that an ice cream cone or a fart” is.

Instead, we need to aim for AWESOME, Pavlus writes.  In AWESOME stories,

Something about this material connects you to who you ARE (or want to be), above and beyond what you notice, feel, want, and do. This is inspiration and terror; the stuff that can change lives, or worlds — inner and outer.

I really feel this level of writing and communicating is what we need to develop a scientific worldview for more people.  Even if they didn’t grow up with science and thus feel alienated, by telling engrossing stories that celebrate the science of our daily lives, we can cause a small revolution in the way a person sees the world.  And that small revolution can lead to more questions, more inquiry, and, maybe eventually, someone who can see a tabletop for its atoms.

I’ll leave you now with this quote from Carl Sagan:

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything—new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.

Written by Hanner

November 18, 2010 at 10:01 am

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.

Written by Hanner

December 22, 2009 at 1:07 am

Posted in Education

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