science week

My contribution to Science Week – I thought I might teach some physics

At 40 mins long it’s not going to go viral anytime soon. It’s the middle 40 minutes of a double class but in it we managed to learn about some of the following:

The structure of the atom.

We, and everything around us, are mostly empty space.

We discovered that the appearance of  ‘solidness’ is an illusion – which lead to a  discussion about how light works.
We learned that there is a cultural aspect to what we see (and you definitely won’t find that in physics textbooks) and that Newton himself was subject to this and it resulted in him making a boo-boo that still goes uncorrected right up to today.

We discovered that electrons are constantly cascading down along everything we see in a seemingly never-ending avalanche, powered by energy from incoming light (so when this power source disappears, the electrons no longer have energy to jump up or fall back down, otherwise known as darkness).

We learned why things feel solid – all to do with the force of repulsion between electrons at the surface.

We developed a deeper understanding of Newton’s Third Law.

We discussed the fallacy of language – know the word for something (like gravity) and understanding what gravity actually is are two very different things, and shouldn’t be confused with each other.

We discovered that physics teachers don’t have all the answers, and should never pretend otherwise.

We were reminded that because almost none of the above is in the syllabus, the syllabus is a disgrace. It’s no wonder students don’t see the point of it.
There were 22 students in that class and the discussion could have gone on and on – I had to kick them out the door.  One can only imagine the conversations they must have had over the dinner table that evening.

If only all those who make such a fuss over Science Week could put a fraction of that effort into making the school syllabus a source of wonder and curiosity instead of what it is – a series of dull as dishwater facts which are to be merely learned off by heart.

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Why does Science Week bug me so much?

What is it about Science Week that gets under my skin so much?

It seems to be the one week in the year where we are supposed to go out of our way to make science interesting; the corollary being that for the rest of the year we concentrate on ‘normal science’ which isn’t interesting. We go back to ‘the study’ and our drive for ‘good results’.

This idea is reinforced when we look at the various syllabii that are in play. There is nothing in the preamble or the main section of any of these about emphasing the wonder in the subject or indeed even encouraging a sense of curiousity – which is what Science Week is all about.
I have written about this before and penned the following few lines to sum up my frustration.

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called Science and distil it until all the wonder has been removed and we are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this drivel into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time.
And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.

How about if, when drawing up a new syllabus, we use WONDER as our central idea? It would probably mean that when teaching biology we would actually have to discuss evolution (the word doesn’t exist on the current junior cert syllabus – can you believe that?). It would mean having to teach about topics in cosmology – this currently doesn’t feature at either junior cert or leaving cert physics level, despite it being one of the main sources of interest to students of all ages, and also a prominent feature of every Science Week.
In fact in just about every topic at both JC and LC level the content could and should be build around instilling a sense of awe rather than consisting of a series of dry facts.
I am currently teaching The Electron to leaving cert physics students. In an earlier topic we proved that light was a wave by demonstrating interference of light waves. In this topic we prove that it is particle-like in nature by demonstrating the photoelectric effect. Both of these demonstrations need to be known for exam purposes and presumably most ‘good’ students learn them without thinking much about them. To read about these in either the textbooks or the syllabus you’d think that there was nothing of particular interest here when in fact these two contradictory phenomena are cornerstones in possibly the greatest movement in physics of all time: what is now known as quantum physics. Quite simply, you can’t have something which is both a particle (being in one specific place) and also a wave (being spread out) – yet that’s exactly what we find light to be. To quote Einstein “The more successful quantum physics gets, the sillier it looks”. But then if you’re reading this far you probably already know quite a bit about quantum physics and how utterly wonderful it all is. So you’ll know why I am baffled as to why all the fun has been ignored.

We could do the same for almost any topic on either the junior cert or the leaving cert course. But then that would be a bit radical. Best to leave all the boring stuff in and leave the fun stuff for Science Week. The word ‘wonder’ has most likely never featured in any science syllabus over the past four hundred years, any where in the world, so why change now?

What also bugs me is why so few other teachers seem to care about this. I know many of them introduce the wonder associated with the concepts as they teach it, but many others unfortunately don’t. And if we look at the number of students who drop Physics and Chemistry at the first opportunity it may be that the latter category of teacher represents the majority. What’s particularly puzzling is that if you go to any teacher conference they will usually have these ‘interesting lectures’ as part and parcel of the day, and no surprise for guessing that these are the best attended. So why don’t these same teachers make more noise about including interesting material on the formal syllabus? How can a biology teacher stand over a junior cert biology syllabus that doesn’t include the word ‘evolution’?

This is just the latest of my rants about the lack of wonder in Science education – for more see There’s that word again . . . WONDER

For a gentle introduction to wave/particle duality see the following: