16 May 2008

Science questions

On another blog a few interesting questions were asked of scientists by a school board member. My responses are below. I'd love to see others' thoughts, whether responses to the original questions, or what you think of mine.

1. What or who sparked your interest in science?
If I had to say a person, it'd be my Dad - an electrical engineer who encouraged me to take VCRs apart and always told me I could do anything I wanted to do. If I had to say an event, it was going to an observatory in CT (I grew up in NYC) at age 12 and seeing Saturn through a telescope.

But more realistically, it was a process that took years throughout high school in which I realized that I enjoyed it and was good at it. I also enjoyed Latin and Art, but I wasn't as good at them (and there's no money in the fields). I was also good at Math but didn't enjoy it. It was when I took Physics that every thing clicked - I finally understood why Math had been invented.

2. What does the word "science" mean to you?
a) A process of inquiry in which one asks questions and gathers physical evidence to attempt to find an answer based in physical reality. Sometimes the Scientific Method is used, but while it is the most famous description of the process, it is not the only one.
b) A set of "facts" about the physical universe, which are frequently updated as humanity learns more.

3. What scientific skills do you most often use in your work?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am currently a community college faculty member, not a research scientist, however these skills come to me through my scientific background. The most important skill I have is to take a set of isolated facts, internalize and process them, and recombine them into a coherent picture of reality that I can then communicate to others. Communication skills are high on my list - I have often been praised for my writing ability and my attention to detail, in addition to oral communication (of course, as a teacher).

4. What do you think makes a good science teacher?
Nowadays K-12 science teachers need to have excellent critical thinking skills and be able to distinguish between pseudoscience (such as astrology, creationism/ID, mercury/autism, Moon Hoax conspiracy theory) and actual science (the real things being astronomy, evolution, vaccinations, space exploration).

5. Do you think children have enough science preparation for today's world?
No. Science standards are being continually eroded through the introduction of deceptive "teach the controversy" rules (when there isn't any controversy at all in the scientific subject). Students are encouraged to have poor critical thinking skills, and to alternately fear and mock science and scientific thought. I especially worry about the fate of girls in science - middle school is where we tend to lose them to social pressures.

6. If there was one science concept that you could ensure all children learn, what would it be?
Content: Evolution. (And I'm a physicist.) Without understanding evolution, there's no way they can understand humanity, let alone medicine.
Process: Critical Thinking.
Second choice on content would be alternative energy sources and conservationism in general - and that's also interdisciplinary.

7. What are some of teh science trends you predict for the future?
* International sanctions against the US for our carbon emissions - oops, that's political!
* The continued decoding of the genome will lead to leaps and bounds in medicine.
* The definition of "planet" will be revised yet again when the International Astronomical Union meets next in 2009. The New Horizons mission to Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects will reach Pluto in 2015 and I'm not sure when after that it will get to other Kuiper Belt Objects. Expect Pluto and the definition of planet to stay in the news until at least 2020.

8. What can teachers do to encourage more women/minorities to consider science careers?
* Bring in women scientists to give speeches
* Hang posters of women scientists in classrooms/halls
* Feature women scientists in class, such as Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and the Harvard College Observatory women.
* Start after school activities targeting girls in science - many colleges and universities run these programs partnering with area K-12 schools, and organizations such as the NSF and NIH offer grants to both K-12 schools and higher ed organizations for them.
* Hire and support teachers and administrators who will aggressively pursue and follow through such grants and collaborations.
* Hire teachers with both education and science backgrounds - either without the other won't do as much good as having both.

1 comment:

Allison said...

1. What or who sparked your interest in science?
I think my interest in science was sparked by those "Usborne" educational books that my parents bought me many of. The "World of the Future" series was one of my favorites, it dared to suggest greener cities, safer roads, cleaner power, traveling to other planets, feeding the world through genetic engineering, etc. All apparently nonsense, of course :(

2. What does the word "science" mean to you?
Broadly, the process of trying to understand the world in a logical, consistent, evidence-based manner.

3. What scientific skills do you most often use in your work?
I'm a research technician, so the skills I use most often are logical problem-solving skills, along the lines of how to acquire a certain type of results given a particular starting point, and how to keep progressing in the face of things not working the way they should.

I'll have to leave the rest for another time, but I totally agree that children specifically need to be taught evolution, since it is fundamental to understanding the rest of biology. And of course because it is also a "wedge" that religion uses to try and derail understanding of science.