Science Week

Aims and Objectives? I have but one: see science as a source of wonder

This is to serve notice that I am changing the Aims and Objectives of my Leaving Cert Physics subject plan.
The existing plan was cobbled together at short notice by copying and pasting from other schools courtesy of some nifty google searching.
But it’s pretty bland and therefore not really fit for purpose.

So what are my objectives?
Actually, there are very few:
I simply want students to appreciate science as a source of wonder.
Science, to paraphrase Feynman, does not diminish our sense of wonder – it can only enhance it.

Feynman: wonder in ScienceI want students to see science as a cultural activity – it is an integral part of what it means to be human.

The awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable… to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.
Richard Dawkins

Science represents the best and worst of what humanity is capable of. We celebrate literature, poetry, art, dance, music as aspects of culture. We need to see Science in the same light.
And we need to stop portraying it as all good. Because it’s not. We’re on a one-way ride to global catastrophe as a result of global warming. It may well lead to the extinction of the human species in the not too distant future. And I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t have happened without Science and it’s hand-in-hand link with uncontrolled capitalilsm. But you’re not likely to see that in any school textbook.

Science tells us as much about where we have come from as it does about the world we inhabit. This must not be downplayed. In this context psychology is probably the most important of all the sciences and it is deeply unfortunate that psychology plays no part in traditional school science.

I want students to appreciate that Science not merely an accumulation of facts. The picture we portray of it in school is therefore not only incorrect but totally at odds with reality.
We should all apologise to our students for this.

Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks: but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house

Do I want my students to go on and become scientists?
Not in the slightest. If they do then good luck to them, and I will help them if I can, but it’s not a priority. Does anybody seriously think that being a scientist is somehow any more noble than being a writer or a poet, an accountant or a tax official? How about a lawyer? Or for that matter a teacher?
So why should I push them in a specific direction?

Do I want to re-dress the gender balance?
Not for its own sake, no. I would like as many students as possible to appreciate the wonder of science, but I can understand why lots of girls are reluctant to take on Physics and/or Applied Maths as they are currently presented and I can’t say I blame them. Sticking up posters of token female scientists isn’t going to have much of an effect either, so please stop sending them to me.
If I’m being very honest what matters most to me is that we have enough students to justify two physics classes and one Applied Maths every year.
We get on average 40 – 45 students taking on Physics and anywhere from 15 – 24 taking Applied Maths.
So I’m happy on that score.

Do I think my students are going to become better citizens, or more informed in relation to science controversies than students who don’t do Science?
Not a hope.

Am I interested in how the students do in the Leaving Cert exam?
Yes, but really only in the sense that it’s all a game. And it’s not even my game; it’s their game.
But if I want them to play my game then it’s only fair that I play their game.

So I take both the syllabus and the past-papers apart and base the main section of my notes just on these.
And then I go off on all sorts of tangents based loosely (sometimes very loosely) on the topic at hand. But then when I’ve finished I go back and cross-check what I’ve done against the syllabus and questions from past papers and pick up the pieces that way. And I teach it just about as well as I possibly can.
I do appreciate that there are students in my class who are looking for an A1 and I know that I need to facilitate them as part of my bread-and-butter duties. And I’m happy to do so.
But I don’t stress over it. Once the students walk out of my class for the last time in May I wish them well but then take the stance that my job is done. So I don’t look at their results. In fact I believe strongly that this is actually a dangerous thing for any teacher to do. I accept that I’m in a minority here but I don’t need to see the students’ leaving cert results to find out whether or not I’m doing a good job. There are any amount of ways to find that out throughout the year, and adapt accordingly.

So that’s it.
Those are my aims and objectives or whatever the buzz phrase is these days. I see no reason to change this just for inspection purposes. If that makes me a ‘bad’ teacher in some folks’ eyes well, I guess I can live with that too.

For more recent blogposts on wonder in science see this link



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:

I hate Science Week

I find it very difficult to get excited by Science Week.
In fact let me just come straight out and say it; I hate Science Week.

Why does it exist? Like so many other great ideas we have here in Ireland, it seems we have one because England has one.  And why does England have one? – for the same reason we have one; to let all our young folk know that science is fun. Obvious innit?

Well no actually. Irish students study three years of science at Junior Cert – surely this is enough time to convince anybody that science is fun (assuming  it  is).

But this is the point – Science as we teach it in school is definitely not fun. The science concepts which the department syllabus tells us must be covered could not be more mind-numbingly boring if we tried. Any hint of a concept which might be actually interesting has been very carefully removed.

How can you teach Biology without mentioning evolution?

How can you teach energy without mentioning the big bang?

How can we teach energy without explaining that it’s not just another chapter – it is the one concept which ties all others together?

How can you teach the atom without reference to the idea that the structure of the atom is such that we are all almost totally empty space?

How can we torture our students with graphs without ever expecting them to know why we use graphs?

How can we teach Ecology without mentioning global warming?

How can we teach reproduction without mentioning overpopulation or homosexuality?

How can we teach about food without mentioning obesity?

How can we teach genetics without mentioning forensic science – one of the few areas which has become ‘sexy’ of late?

How can we teach mass without mentioning that 90% of the mass of the universe is ‘missing’?

How can we teach about size without mentioning the incredible scale of the universe – from the very small to the very large? It’s incredible to think that there is absolutely no reference to astronomical or cosmological objects in any any science syllabus at secondary level – we might as well go back and tell that the Earth is the centre of the universe after all.
Check out this link for an interesting starting point to astronomy.

How can we mention time without giving reference to the incredible age of the earth?

How do we manage to avoid talking about extinction of species, radiation and cancer, the incredible complexity of the biological cell, the jiggling of atoms etc?

At the risk of being totally ridiculous could we not delve into psychology and look at the evidence which is there to suggest that we are very easy to manipulate and that almost all of us could be persuaded to do some very nasty things to our fellow humans given the right ‘persuasion’? Just because psychology didn’t exist when the first science syllabus was put together two hundred years ago is hardly justification for not including it today.

Obviously every teacher will have their own pet loves and hates, but underneath there must me a core set of ideas which are inherently interesting fascinating. Should we not be starting from this point and working out rather than the current approach which obviously doesn’t work?

Do we really need to focus on activities like measuring the density of a stone using an overflow can, plotting a graph of the extension of a stretched string or demonstrating the action of a digestive enzyme?

It’s one thing to blame ‘the system’ for not being able to change anything, but at this level we as teachers must surely have a strong voice, yet rarely if ever have I heard a teachers suggest that we should radically overhaul what we are teaching – indeed I suspect there would actually be considerable resistance to this at teacher level.

So forgive me if I don’t get excited by one more demonstration-lecture on exploding custard and water changing to wine. It’s just that the problem with science education is a bit deeper than this, and one week highlighting the so-called ‘fun’ in science does little more than remind us that for the rest of year it is as boring as dishwater and we’re doing a very poor job of rectifying this.