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On Questions and High School Science

Posted Feb 19 2009 6:25pm
I firmly believe that questions are the fabric of science. The process of science is best described as "scientific inquiry" as opposed to the scientific method. Scientific inquiry demands asking questions and determining ways and means to go about answering those questions. Generally, having its grounds in repeatable action that can be tested time and time again, scientific questions focus on the "How"s of the world and on less of the "Why"s. "Why" questions seem to be best approximated by various models that have different strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, not all "Why" questions can be answered with scientific models.

Yet high school science seems less about the questions than it is about the answers. Pick up virtually any high school science textbook. I'm willing to bet that the book has between 30 and 40 chapters of information, designed to be covered at a rate of one chapter per week. Look at just about any scientific classroom, high school or early undergraduate, and it seems to be dominated by teacher-driven information transmission through lecture. From my vantage point, it seems more important in today's society to quote Newton's Third Law than to realize two objects are required for an interaction. It seems more important to compute numbers from the ideal gas laws than to realize the magnitude of approximations that exist to term a substance an ideal gas or what those numbers really mean anyway. It seems more important that students can identify the 4 bases of DNA without appreciation for how DNA structures the living world. It seems more important that students know the famous scientists that went before than the creation of new questions of relevance to our societies today.

Yet we're caught in an ideological battle over standards that have much less to do with the principles of scientific investigation and much more with preserving the sociopolitical ends of divergent camps. We turn students off of science before we give them insights about what does it mean to be a scientist. We make bold declarative statements about how Newton and Darwin are absolutely essential to understanding the field, opting for a system that values factual recall over asking questions that contain the first fruits of an exciting career experience in science. Both physics and biology seemingly undergo lots of political posturing before students' very eyes before they even get started: a) girls don't do physics because it's all about advanced math and b) people of faith keep your hands off biology. Questioning the place of math in the physics curriculum will get you thrown out on the street pretty quickly. And asking a question about some of the mechanisms of evolution seemingly promises a good, swift tongue-lashing.

I've taught physics. And I try to articulate to students that mathematics provides an amazing tool to model physical systems and quantities. I question the role of mathematics every day because I wonder if it functions the way it's supposed to in our curriculum. Are higher order mathematical concepts the only way to articulate some of these models or do we find extremely powerful models through algebra and geometry? Newton invented calculus to explain what he was seeing in physics, but he also lacked a lot of vector representations. How can geometric analysis of triangles help students visualize the components of motion and conduct sophisticated understandings of the motion of objects?

I appreciate the complexity of living systems. I enjoy thinking about human responsibility to the world around us, both animate and inanimate. Yet I've never once had a conversation with a biologist on these topics that went well. Currently I'm considering a specialization within my graduate program but it requires taking some courses within the biology department. And I find myself looking for alternate options because of experiences I had when I tried to ask questions of various biology teachers and people trained in biology over the last several years. I would love for a biologist to engage me in a respectful conversation about why evolution is so important in the field because I hear this claim made over and over again without much explanation. Having someone go "EVOLUTION IS ABSOLUTELY PIVOTAL IN UNDERSTANDING BIOLOGY!!!!!" and considering their duty done does not help me understand how biology depends on evolution.

I've literally had my students tell me that forces need to be equal and opposite "because Newton said so." They refused to engage in the lab activity. Moreover, once I finally banned the name of Newton from our discussion so that they would gather evidence about Newton's claim, the force sensors in my lab went haywire. Wound up pulling out spring scales to show the point and then tried to engage my students in a discussion about why our fancy technology force sensors gave us different results than our spring scales.

I really care about empowering people to use science to explore various phenomena in their world. I know that there is a lot of information out there about how things work and happen that a) is not able to be investigated, b) riddled with errors, c) unintentionally misleading, and d) out of date. Within the realm of plausible investigation, I think we have a lot to learn from various approaches. Diversity of thought in science helps us ask an array of questions that really flesh out different models of the how. Yet students always need assistance in separating the wheat from the chaff. They need to know how and why to discount pieces of "evidence" and "information."

So yeah, I'm an engineer who's spent some time teaching high school physics. I can tell you honestly that I took a lot of flack for trying to emphasize the questions. Yet I still firmly believe I was doing my best to teach science.
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