Science Education for the (n-1)th Generation

13Jul06

Anabelle Gurwitch, a comic actress/writer, has an audio commentary on NPR with a proposed solution to the nation’s declining number of science students: educate parents. How can we expect our children to pursue science, she asks, if their parents are generally uneducated in science?

Meanwhile, our most respected professions–doctors, lawyers, NBA players–tend to shy away from sciences. Sure, one might think that doctors, who study the canon of physics, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, etc. required for medicine, are especially scientific. In fact, their day-to-day occupation is one of rational problem solving. However, any graduate student in physics who has had to TA a “Physics for Pre-Meds” class (freshman-level physics that’s just rigorous enough to teach MCAT material) knows very well that most of these future-doctors neither enjoy nor care about physics (or organic chemistry) to encourage their children to consider the natural sciences. I can’t tell you how many times in the past year that I’ve had doctors tell me how much they hated physics in college. (Given the context in which I was talking to these doctors, I decided not to tell them how much their TA’s probably hated them, too.)

*–two poignant counter examples: One student in a “sophomore college” enrichment physics course I TA’d at Stanford was proud to have taken the “physics for scientists and engineers” freshman sequence, saying that students who want to be doctors should be ashamed of themselves for opting for the easy (and grade-inflated) path. Also, I should note that Lakers second-year center (10th overall pick in the 2005 draft) Andrew Bynum has said that his favorite subject in high school was physics.

Encouraging parents to be science-saavy, impractical as it may be, may be a step in the right direction. However, there’s far more to science outreach than science being discussed at home. It’s one thing to be able to discuss cold fusion at the dinner table, but it’s quite another thing to spark a fascination about doing science.

In terms of what I would expect out of a “productive” dinner conversation about science:

  • Good: (Address ideas.) Discussing hot topics in science, such as cold fusion.
  • Better: (Provide context.) Discussing how fusion differs from fission, how these topics are intertwined with the larger picture of alternate sources of energy.
  • Even better: (Think critically.) Discussing how to achieve cold fusion, technological problems, etc. These discussions don’t need to be factually correct (excited kids will learn everything they care to learn on the internet after dinner, anyway), but they should follow an honest, rational thought process where ideas build upon one another in a logical progression. For example: given a basic understanding of atoms and E=mc^2, what process might be involved in fusion? (What are the possible beginning and ending products?) How do we get atoms (do we know which atoms?) to fuse? Etc.

While I applaud Gurwitch for addressing the need for better science education, I must note that she suffers from “Jeopardy syndrome,” where she mistakes science with facts about science.

Let’s get this much straight: Science is not about facts. It’s about inquiry.

You don’t need to know facts about science to do science. The best anecdotes for this are Richard Feynman’s memories of his father (as published in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman). In one section he talks about how is father would take him on nature walks and they would discuss, for example, different kinds of birds. His father would note that different birds had differently-shaped beaks and asked young Feynman why he thought this was so. They would discuss possibilities, eventually deciding that this was related to the different things the birds eat. When the mothers of Feynman’s friends found out about this, they encouraged their husbands to also take their kids on similar nature walks. However, unlike the elder Feynman, they would focus on the taxonomy of the birds–the name of this bird rather than that bird. There’s no science to that!

The best part? Feynman’s father wasn’t a scientist. He was a uniform salesman. You don’t have to be a scientist to teach science.



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