Tuesday, April 10, 2012

some thoughts on science and inspiration

Happy Easter Amy!

When I was in elementary school we had a day of fun every year called "high interest day" where you could sign up to take classes that would teach you to speak a different language, learn to juggle, weave a basket, etc. I never signed up for the chemistry session, but I remember learning after the fact that it was the coolest class ever. Apparently, there were explosions and polymers and color-changing experiments. Everyone got to bring back some slime that they created, probably made with borax and glue. Science was pretty cool that day.

I had a student last year who probably wouldn't have gone to college if it wasn't for his high school physics teacher. I had him in a general chemistry class, but he was planning on signing up for physics classes next year and eventually majoring in the subject. High school physics really made a difference for him.

I foresaw a problem, though. He wasn't very good at math. And his chemistry-related logical reasoning skills were a little slow. I may have counseled him to consider another discipline.

And that really cool chemistry high interest day? It was exciting and cool and memorable. But it wasn't really science. Because science isn't just following a procedure or blowing something up. Some people might think that they are doing science by making a fun polymer. That may be an application of science, but without any type of inquiry or explanation of the phenomenon, I don't really think it can be considered science.

If we want our children to aspire to become scientists, I think we do need to include some of those fun days of play. And it helps to have inspiring teachers who encourage us to apply for college and who show us how much fun science can be. But I think we also need to teach children to think like a scientist would think; to pose questions, to interpret information, and to problem solve. I also think it's important to help aspiring scientists to embrace academic rigor, at the same time that we encourage, inspire, and promote a love of the discipline. I saw too many students who thought they wanted to go into science or medicine as first-year students, but who did not have the academic skills to follow-through.

Inspiration is great. It's important. It's essential. But we also need to know what a discipline is really like in order to follow through. In knitting, I may be inspired to start a project. But if I have just started to knit and do not have the basics down, I probably won't be able to manage something with cables or color or shaping.

I may be inspired to become a chemist, but if I don't know what that discipline entails, or what work is required of me, I doubt I will go very far.

Clearly there has to be some balance, because science instructors have an equal capacity to suck all the joy and creativity and mystery out of science. But I wanted to share my musings. I think there is a misunderstanding among some people as to what constitutes science. I like to think that science is more about doing and thinking than about listing facts.

What do you think?


PS. We have now broken half of our kitchen chairs. I feel like there should be a recall on this furniture.

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