Teaching and public understanding of science (bit of a rant)

Mood:  lazy
Now Playing: Making Love Out of Nothing At All (Air Supply) – Live Edition – doesn’t sound so good
Topic: Seminars

So, went to this seminar on Thursday which was organised by the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) which was held in the Berill Building at 6pm. We had sandwiches when we arrived – which was good. Met and talked to someone from Rothamsted (I think) who was part of the media arm of Rothamsted. So, we talked a bit about agriculture and her experiences in Brazil. Looked up who it might be and I think she was perhaps Susannah Bolton (but not quite certain).

Anyway, there were three presentations, one by Bob Kibble from Edinburgh University on science education in primary/secondary schools. His presentation was very good – I enjoyed it immensely. One of the questions he was contemplating was why should we teach science as most of the students were not likely to go into sciences. His argument is that we should if not to learn science, but to learn the skills of science of using analytical skills and of things being repeatable, and for letting students being explorative. He, however, laments the fact that the exploratory science that students do during the primary school are most effectively ‘killed’ because of needing to learn the curriculum and getting a grade. I think what is he’s trying to say that students perhaps have adopting a surface or strategic approach to science rather than it being deep. He sort of wants science to be more holistic in its approach i.e. integrated rather than separate.

Peter Atkins who did the next presentation on science in Higher Education. I was a impressed with him until he started speaking. After all, I did use his book during undergrad! But, his approach or outlook of teaching is too traditionalistic and he has some archaic ideas. He is still living in the era that students who opt to do sciences must be the cream of the crop. Which in fact may not be true (well I don’t think so) – most students these days are strategic thinkers they are doing subjects that are easy for them to get the grade they want to enter university and get their degree no matter what it is in (a bachelors is one entrance to the business place) – as long as it is easy to get. Therefore students who are science inclined and find it easy (that doesn’t make them bright!) – will choose the sciences and students who find the languages easy will do that. I tell you being straight up front – that I did sciences because they were easy – but some of those courses in social sciences are hard especially those that require analysing speech and words – nothing harder in the world than that and making sure it is a logical argument too! As for languages – I’m not good at them, so whilst the languages people are admiring the science students – I’m admiring them right back.

Atkins dared to imply that the only ‘real’ science there might be is ‘chemistry’! He considered biology nothing more that a nature walk until biochemistry popped up (DNA discovery). Well, it is from biology is where the naturalistic research methodology developed, but I think this is where real exploration begins rather than with the scientific method. Indeed it is a method to make sure things are logical – I think in some cases it has a place – but the truth is – it really constricts a researcher in exploring. Instead all they do is change one variable at a time (which is scientifically correct) – but to consider it original research, these researchers keep changing the ranges of these variables to check out different things – now that’s making it easy. There is no original thoughts – there is nothing enjoyable in that – and I can see why students are moving away from the profession. Where is the excitement?

I remembered that was what disillusioned me the most during the research methodology course in UWI – I couldn’t begin to think that is what research had come to i.e. no real exploration of new ideas but copying of other people’s ideas and only if someone was radically to contest someone else’s work were there any real theories coming out. I think that’s then I started to explore Kuhn’s work – its too bad I only browsed it a bit rather than going into it. I think James will be horrified – I just read that Popper was a critic of Kuhn :D!

Anyway, I did pose a comment/ question to Atkins, in that I explained to him that I did thermodynamics during undergrad in both chemistry and physics, and how is it can a student integrate this as I’ve maintained in my mind two separate thermodynamics. I’m not certain if I was articulate as I should be … but Atkins said it is right for Chemistry and Physics to teach this separately as they are different concepts from the different subjects. But truth in fact they’re not – it is the same concept – and that is why a student is having fragmented learning – there is no way of providing far transfer of knowledge in the student.

Atkins (did get me a bit peeved – but he also made me laugh – because I was laughing with incredibility with the extent of his lack of new educational perspectives – he reminded me of grandpa his views of girls – if an equivalent should be made) – anyway, he was considering that the sciences were hard because they had to do maths and the truth is the maths he was considering they were doing were mechanical mathematics – it is just the application of a formula, this is surface learning and a near transfer skill. When Bob explained that in exams he want the majority of marks to be where the student is explaining how something might occur (like why shouldn’t you put butter on a burn – i remember that question from a CXC biology exam – I loved those questions – they required me to explore and think) – that is using the students making a logical argument through words instead, Atkins thought that was cheating and perhaps easier?? (well my interpretation of his expression and what he said etc). Although, I think doing a discussion on something is much harder and it requires a lot more skills on the part of the student, this is actually getting the student to show that they may have had some kind of deep surface learning. Applying maths is a cinch, there is nothing hard about that. Once you get the concept that’s it … do the same problem over and over and over and over.

Well … John Zarnecki’s presentation was interesting, he spoke about the media and science. He was talking about how the media tends to dramatized science to make it seem appealing to the public and also twist it to suit their needs. Nothing controversial here.

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2 comments

  1. Monday, 27 March 2006 – 11:26 AM GMT

    Name: Tony
    Home Page: http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/blog
    E-Mail: a.j.hirst@open.ac.uk

    Re:
    “… I explained to him that I did thermodynamics during undergrad in both chemistry and physics, and how is it can a student integrate this as I’ve maintained in my mind two separate thermodynamics. I’m not certain if I was articulate as I should be … but Atkins said it is right for Chemistry and Physics to teach this separately as they are different concepts from the different subjects. But truth in fact they’re not – it is the same concept – and that is why a student is having fragmented learning – there is no way of providing far transfer of knowledge in the student.”

    I completely agree – some of Atkins’ views did seem to be very old fashioned (although I thought I caught the odd twinkle in his eye, at times!) – and the thought that students should NOT be encouraged to develop a coherent model that can accommodate the interpretations that physics and chemistry find useful is very short-sighted, if not harmful.

    On the other hand, borrowing an idea from (particulalry open source) software development, I suppose you could argue that the mathematical physics and chemistry interpretations of thermodynamics /forked/, and that you do have to treat them separately?

    But then I guess there is value in clarifying the point where they did fork, and what advantages the path each approach has come to follow offers over the other approach in terms of how it supports explanations in these two different disciplines?

    tony

    PS I thought John Z was wonderful, too, in the way he managed to weave references to OU personailites and programes into his talk! 😉

  2. Monday, 27 March 2006 – 7:31 PM GMT

    Name: Anesa Hosein

    Its a bit disconcerting to find someone who was at a lecture as me … and they were able to read my rant … because sometimes it may be inaccurate and not altogether complimentary 🙂

    I have to agree John’s presentation was wonderful. I did like the interweaving of stories even though he claimed there wasn’t a strcuture there seem to be an overall story to his little references.

    I guess you could argue that the physics and chemistry thermodynamics interpretations do forked – although to what extent that requires them to be treated separately is debatable! There could be more specificity in chemistry or physics’s treatment of it, but I think the general understanding of how it relates between both subject areas is necessary. And I think the same argument could apply to other topics such as the wave equation (quantum mechanics).

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