Friday, October 29, 2010

Thoughts on high school science education...

I took yesterday and today off to be with my family the last day of their Fall Break.  We went to Chicago, a little more than 3 hrs away.  This morning we were at the Museum of Science and Industry.  I had the same feeling I've had for a while now.

We are a nation that makes fun of smart kids.  The general populace not only feels comfortable questioning things overwhelmingly assumed by scientists.  They villify them for it (e.g., the so called global warming conspiracy). We are increasingly a nation that doesn't want our government taking any of our money to invest in general scientific investigation.  With our rhetoric against "earmarks" we are almost relegating the advance of science to things companies can make an immediate profit on or the government can protect or kill with (and you can imagine what this does for the arts that keep us human). In short, I worry about the long term prospects. 

As for my idea... After what we have done at the new seminary to integrate Bible, theology, and church history with the practice of ministry, it is hard to look at the way we teach math and science in high school the same.  First, there is just so much more to learn than thirty years ago when I started high school.  I had a hilarious conversation recently with a college math professor who didn't like the fact they were teaching geometry and things so early.  Her complaint was that a child's brain was not yet developed enough to get the abstractions accurately. 

I laughed because her approach--don't teach it until they can get everything accurately--consigns math and science to almost no one.  We have to start as early as possible, even if it involves imperfection (after all, Newtonian physics is imperfect).  You can often learn something more quickly by learning it first a little wrongly and then perfecting your understanding later, like chiseling at a block of marble.  You "learn it wrong to learn it right."

I wish I knew math and science well enough to integrate the teaching the way we have tried to integrate Bible, theology, and church history.  Students from the earliest ages would work on various problems and learn the math and science to solve them.  They would not learn some individual math or science item and then do an example about that one thing.  They would learn it all in a bundle by constructing things, learn science by building things.  They would create Tesla coils, launch projectiles, blow up things, and learn calculus, chemistry, and physics by doing it, in order to do it.  It would be the "engineering project" that would dictate the interlocking items in math and science to learn.

To teach this way would require informed pedagogues mapping practical projects to a mega-list of math and science outcomes--individual bits to learn distributed among countless science projects.  Then in college they could do it the traditional way, learning isolated and specialized disciplines in depth.  But they would learn what science can do in middle and high school.  They would do engineering type things in school and whet their appetite.  No more abstract and seemingly irrelevant math and scientific theory.  All of it would be integrated with the practice of science in high school.  Then the depth stuff would come in college for those who go forward, which would be more than now because they would see what it can do.

By the way, getting college credit for AP is something you should only do if you don't plan on going on in that area.  High school chemistry AP, for example, even if you get a 5 on the exam, is simply not adequate to go forward with a chemistry major.  You need to start from the beginning again with university chemistry.  High school chemistry won't carry you straight into analytical chemistry very well.

My thoughts...


::athada:: said...

At times, it seems one way to refuse/deny the outcomes of the scientific process is to generate (& exaggerate) controversy that may not be there, or may be very small. I appreciate that my h.s. science teacher was respectful about conservative religious view on evolution, but at the same time, my teachers danced around it and failed, I think, to really help us work through the scientific conclusions.

Ben Stein and others are trying to get the right to "teach the controversy" on evolution, but the only controversy is in public opinion, not in refereed scientific circles (not unlike global warming). They should teach what the fields are saying and discovering (likewise in social studies, literature, etc), not parrot the cultural/political mood of the school district, although that too has to be considered.

Let the culture interact with the truth, not cover it up.

::athada:: said...

And just to clarify: there isn't massive disagreement about Darwin's theory of evolution among scientists. However, there is disagreement among scientists whether a God/gods exist. I see different numbers, but for every atheist, there seems to be about one believer in the field. And this is a subject, IMHO, which scientists can not speak authoritatively on - it is beyond the tools and methods of their field.

Nate & Maria said...

I love this article and fully agree with it. I was having a conversation the other day with someone about the way education has changed since I was there only a decade ago. Teaching to tests instead of teaching to learn and grow one's understanding of the world made a strong case for homeschooling (even though I am not sure about my position on it). I would love to see our education transformed into the integrating/cooperating sort of system that you describe, just not sure if that is a reality. I will remain hopeful!

I do have an issue with your global warming statement. First, I think we must be careful throwing out that term. It means different things to different people. If by global warming we mean that the earth has been on a warming pattern over the last couple decades, then yes I agree there is a general consensus on that. If we mean by global warming that some sort of eminent crisis is forming and that humans are primarily responsible for it, then no, I don't think there is consensus on that.