Science is the most powerful force on earth. Science and science alone can move mountains, cure disease, land on the moon, and explain who we are and where we came from. Not love, not religion, not Zen meditation, not new age crystals, only science actually gets the job done. So why do students so often find their science class to be the most boring one of the day?
Science is an undeniable force for good in the world. It's easy to forget sometimes just how bad things were before science, and how bad they could get again if science falls by the wayside in the ebb and flow of civilizations. (And don't think for a minute that it can't happen. Assuming science will always be there is like assuming the housing market will never go down. The ancient Greeks knew the earth went around the sun; how long did it take for Kepler to rediscover that?)
If you have recently not died of a bacterial infection, and you want your children to enjoy the same freedom to not die of simple infections, you need to support robust, hands-on science education at every level, but particularly in middle and high school when students are forming ideas about what they want to do with their lives. This whole civilization thing only keeps going if every new generation grows up willing, able, and interested enough to do their part.
By robust, I mean science taught by scientists for students who want to be scientists when they grow up, or at least be people with a deep knowledge and appreciation of science.
By hands-on, I mean classes where students confront and engage the real stuff of science — chemicals, rockets, lasers, spectroscopes, and vats of goo — up close and personal.
Science is not primarily about facts, formulas, and figures. It's a physical skill, something you need to wrap your brain around with lots of practice. Teaching science exclusively with lectures and books is no more sensible than teaching music or gymnastics out of a book. You've got to get out and do it.
Students find typical science classes boring because they are boring. How could a class not be boring when it concentrates on all the trivial details instead of what matters? At the secondary school level, science should be taught in the lab or out in the field learning about how the world works.
There is a place, and ultimately an absolute requirement, for extended, deep study of mathematics, physics, and all the marvelous formulas that have been worked out over the centuries. They are what distinguish science from speculation, and mathematics is, of course, ultimately the only way to truly understand the workings of the universe. But that place comes after the student has gained an intuitive understanding of the phenomena they will be learning to describe mathematically.
Watch Richard Feynman explain nearly anything. He starts by describing an imaginary scene, perhaps a bug floating on the water, or a ball with hair on it. Once you know the answer because you can visualize what the bug would experience, or how the hair would lie on the ball, then and only then are you ready to start writing down the math, because only then will you be able to understand what it really means.
All of science is like that. It is absolutely pointless to talk about Newton's laws if you have not yet gotten a firm visceral grasp on what happens when you throw things, or swing them, or drop them, or shoot them up in a rocket. And once you are faced with a problem, like getting a rocket or cannonball to go where you want it to go, no one needs to convince you of the value of Newton's laws, or pressure you to learn them.
As discussed in yesterday's post, there is a great dearth of hands-on science in schools. What can be done about this? In the spirit of the Earth Island Institute's list of "50 Really Hard Things You Can Do to Save the Earth," here is my list.
First, there needs to be a radical rethinking of teacher education and certification. A professional teacher generically trained to teach by a school of education is not qualified to teach science. Laws and funding levels should be fixed to encourage people with real scientific qualifications to take up teaching, or at least to be available for enrichment programs. Perhaps when China sends the first man to Mars we'll get another Sputnik effect, but should it really be necessary for us to experience a shock to do the right thing?
Second, we need to overcome the liability issues that come with doing lab work in school. My suggestion? Make the best science classes optional and competitive, the same way being on the football team is. Set up a class with a really good teacher, and lay out the curriculum: First week we're going to study redox reactions, particularly the aluminothermic reductions of iron and titanium. Second week we'll learn how to make gunpowder, then try to understand its complex chemistry. Third week, how the heck are we going to get that brick to land on the far side of the football field using only seven sticks and a freshman?
Students would clamor to get in, and their parents would sign the release forms, just as they do for numerous other potentially hazardous childhood activities, from rock climbing to summer camp. Some would just be tourists, but those students would be weeded out by the rigorous study required to succeed in these hard-core classes.
Actually what I'm describing isn't pie in the sky, it exists in quite a few places in the form of, for example, robotics competition clubs, where students work for months together with professional scientists and engineers to build robots that battle each other out in a national competition.
But there's just nowhere near enough of this kind of thing going on, and nearly all of it is outside of school. There are six or more hours a day of time being wasted on half-baked education; let's not restrict the real stuff to after school programs available only to a few privileged kids. There need to be classes like this in every public school, especially in the poorer districts where students have few other opportunities. How many billions of dollars would this cost? I don't know, but it would be a drop in the bucket compared to just about any federal expenditure you might choose to compare it to.
It was great to hear the President just a few weeks ago articulate a commitment to fixing science education. Hopefully new money and new enthusiasm will be forthcoming. But it's going to take a lot more than a couple of speeches.
Everyone involved in the enterprise of science can do their part to help shape public opinion in favor of better science education. I do my part by writing for Popular Science magazine with a relentlessly pro-science attitude, and publishing the occasional volume of science porn, like my most recent book, The Elements (which I believe has given at least a few non-scientists a new appreciation for the beauty of the periodic table).
Public education and science education is in poor shape, but if we work together, in a few generations we might be able to turn this thing around, so let's get to work.