Science and all that jazz

An anonymous reader, probably an adolescent, recently posted this comment on a posting from several months ago.

the comment i have about science is that some of the things are intresting and some aren’t. i think we should jazz the science classes up some more or at all.

Some people might dismiss this as the grumblings of a typical teen. But since I write for that age group, I understand what he or she is talking about.

The underlying theme of that comment is vitally important. It should lead us to ask what we can do to make science more appealing.

Compare that quoted reaction to what I suspect the same youngster would have said in elementary school. At that age, most students love science because it appeals to their curiosity. Classes focus on phenomena rather than methodology.

Then, somewhere around fourth grade, it is time to take the next step. Scientific vocabulary becomes important. Students learn about hypotheses and experiments. Lessons focus on a cookbook approach to the scientific method, so even hands-on experiences can be laden down with forms to fill out.

Teachers with little or no practical experience in a scientific environment don’t recognize what is missing. They do their best to teach an approach–a method without content, but they are often intimidated when students ask questions that go beyond the text or the experimental kit.

Sometimes those intimidated teachers subtly or overtly discourage such questions. That’s a natural human reaction.

It takes a special teacher to say, “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, but I have some ideas about how we can find out together.” That teacher understands that science is about the questions more than the answers or the method.

In my communication to young readers, I often say, “I hope you always follow your questions,” and my books usually take the same approach.

Perhaps that adolescent poster will read this and decide to comment on it. I would like to know what makes a subject interesting to him or her? I think it is partly the subject matter, but it is also the questions that arise and the opportunity to follow those questions.

Here’s a challenge to that youngster and to any of you. Go to a section of the library that contains books on a topic you don’t think you are interested in. Perhaps it is Swiss history or Australian geography or the rocks of Central Africa. Sample a few books until you find one where the author’s style is accessible. Then sit down to read that book.

You will discover that the author asks some very interesting questions, and you will find yourself appreciating why the author wrote the book. You still may not find the general topic interesting, but you probably won’t be bored.

Did the author “jazz it up” for you? Probably not, but the author connected with your natural human tendency to be curious.

Getting back to that young poster, it would be easy to blame the school, the teachers, or the curriculum for not making a subject interesting. Most people, including teachers, are not very inspirational. But it is still possible to find your own inspiration.

Here’s how. Don’t limit your mind to the fill-in-the-blank questions on tests or the blocks to fill in on your experimental report forms. Train yourself to ask your own questions and follow them, whether or not your teachers help.

Go to the library, browse the shelves, and pick out a few books just because they are about something new to you. You’ll love some, you’ll hate some, and you’ll learn a little bit from every one.

Soon you’ll realize that any subject can be interesting, even with an ordinary teacher and an ordinary curriculum, when you decide to approach and follow the questions and not to focus on just the answers.

1 thought on “Science and all that jazz”

  1. What a wonderful explanation of what we can do to make science more appealing! Another problematic area that is deeply intertwined with improving science education is that of improving mathematics education. Because American K-12 education does not in general provide a mechanism for significant practice and repetition in learning mathematics, math seems hard. (Practice and repetition are often discouraged in K-12 mathematics pedagogy because it is felt to “kill creativity.”) Imagine learning to play the guitar by studying only the theory! You’d soon think actually playing the guitar was very, very difficult. American kids don’t have that automaticity and comfort with math that only comes with practice.

    What this means is that as soon as kids hit something mathematical in their science-related work, it becomes “hard.” I feel very strongly that if math was taught in a fashion that built on the best features of the instruction used in many foreign countries, with plenty of automaticity built in, we wouldn’t lose so many students from science, and it wouldn’t be seen as such a terribly difficult discipline. I just can’t believe sometimes the difference in mathematics capabilities between my American-born and my foreign-born university-level engineering students. There is almost no comparison because the foreign-born kids are so far ahead, math-wise.

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