Science – for all your Science toys/Xmas pressies

If you haven’t yet bought your Christmas pressies, you could do a lot worse than consider as your one-stop shop.

I have been using it for years; it’s a fantastic source for science ‘toys’ for your lab, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use it to stock up on presents for the little ones in your life – ideally they won’t have started secondary school yet so will still be fascinated by Science.
In fact this year I pointed the site out to my first and second-years and they have actually used it themselves to order presents. And it’s all Science!
Their two hottest items are the fun fly-stick and this, their most recent item – the air swimmer

One tip: if you opt for the express delivery (via UPS) it’s not only more expensive but you will also be caught for customs duty. Beware!

Military sponsoring Science: let’s just keep that out of our textbooks shall we?

I like to use the following cartoon as an introduction to discussing what science is about.

As for the answer to how science really works – I simply tell students I don’t know, and I’m not sure anybody does.

I’m not even sure we could agree on on a definition of what Science is.

However I think we can agree that military aims has (right from the very beginning) been a strong factor in the advancement of science (but no I can’t quantify the word ‘strong’). Consider the following:

America’s budget crisis is prompting tough discussions about its defence spending, which, at nearly $700 billion, is bigger than that of the next 17 countries combined.

A more important concept that needs to be recognised is why textbooks coveniently ignore this dark side and persist in painting a picture of science that is at odds with reality (disinterested quest for knowledge, great scientists of  the past were pargons of virtue and all that lark).

Actually why the history of science was first portrayed in this idealised light is a fascinating study, but possibly for another day.

This school picture obviously contradicts what we know now. We as teachers should be demanding a more accurate portrayal of our subject (a human endeavour, warts and all) and not to acknowledge this is to do our students a disservice.

We are beginning to row back at least  from presenting science as a font of absolute knowledge and I think that’s where the ‘How Science Works’ theme kicks in, but there is still the murky patronage, both past and present, which needs to be acknowledged.

Did you know that you won the lottery?

We have always assumed that ‘we’ will be around forever; not only that but we wonder how long it will be before we can colonise other planets and solar systems. We conveniently ignore the fact that our being here in the first place may be nothing more that the fortutitous result of an incredible set of conincidences.

Do you believe that your existence is preordained?
I’m not sure what the postion of the mainstream religions is on this (or even if they have a position) but think about it;  when your mom and dad had sex nine months before you were born that one single ejaculation from your father (I do hope you’re not reading this over your morning cornflakes) contained probably two million healthy sperm – and only one of them got to combine with your mother’s egg.
(Apparently the total number of spermatozoa in the ejaculate should be at least 40 million, but it is quite surprising how many dead and abnormal sperm can be present in a ‘normal’ sample.)

And this combination lead to you. Now if any of those other two million sperm got there ahead of yours then it wouldn’t be you reading this right now – it would be a brother or sister – and you wouldn’t exist! So if your folks had decided to wait until Eastenders was over instead of rushing upstairs in a mad fit of passion then you would not be you – you would be your brother (or sister)! I’m telling you – this stuff is mad. Why had nobody told you this before?

So next time you rip up your lottery ticket and complain that you never win anything just think about this – you’ve already won the lottery, and it couldn’t have been a bigger prize!

I mention this every time I teach human reproduction and challenge students to find a flaw in the argument and if not they they are no longer allowed whine about how hard they have it. I was reminded of it recently when reading The Frog Blog’s recent post on putting the  wonder back into science education.
I have spoken about the concept of wonder before and mentioned that you don’t find wonder in science textbooks or syllabi and as a result it may not be found at all in the science classroom. For this to change those of us who believe it to important need first of all to develop a voice. Are we in a very small minority and if so should we just shut up, or are there others who believe that Science should be about more than merely learning off trivia, all of which could be found at the end of a smartphone in 30 seconds?  
How do we find out who’s with us?
Is twitter the way to go?
Which is more difficult – changing a political system in the Middle East or changing our system of education here in the West?

Harry Chapin – Flowers are red

Criticising our education system is not new – why would it be when it’s like shooting fish in a barrel? One of the better known recent commentaries came from Sir Ken Robinson at a TED conference a few years back who made a very convincing argument for changing our focus away from the  academic subjects and instead develop a greater emphasis on the arts as part of our students’ formal education.

Sometimes the best critiques come not from ‘experts’ but from those well outside the academic circle. Harry Chapin’s Flowers are red  always been one of my favourite songs in this regard. It really doesn’t require anything more to be said. Listen for yourselves and if you’re a science teacher ask yourself which teacher you want to be like.
And then try to answer honestly which of the  two teachers your students would match you with.

Remember almost every student comes into secondary school with a deep sense of wonder which is all you should need to succeed in Science. Few leave with this passion still in good working order. We must at least allow for the possibility that we teachers are part of the problem.

Aims and Objectives won’t get us out of this one.

Please put SPACE on our Science syllabus is currently hosting a survey of readers to find out what they consider to be the greatest mystery in Science. The leader by quite some way is “How did the universe begin?”

The theme for this year’s Science Week is “Our place in space“, and no doubt thousands of students will spend an hour or two attending special lectures which highlight this wonderful concept.

Then we all go back to our classrooms and never again hear about space, never mind the Big Bang.

If we want to grab students and hold onto them then while ScienceWeek is a nice resource, it is certainly not the answer. Why are we not telling students about the Big Bang, Quasars, Neutron Stars, Pulsars, Black Holes and all manner of other exotic phenomena as part of their science education? Because it’s not on either the Junior Science or Leaving Cert Physics syllabus (although the Big Bang does make an appearance in the Leaving Cert Religion syllabus).
And it’s never going to be on these syllabi unless we kick up a fuss. For that to happen there would first need to be a recognition of the problem. Why can’t Chris Horn and all those other commentators from the business world take an hour or two to look at our syllabi and then ask themselves – ‘would I want to study this for either three or six years?’

I don’t know if other teachers feel the same because there is so little communication between us, but that bone of contention is for another day.

This is just to serve as advance notice – next time you hear an ‘expert’ on the national airwaves bemoaning the low numbers of students taking up Physics or Chemistry, listen our to see if there is any evidence to indicate that the speaker is actually familiar with either syllabus. And listen very carefully for the one word that never gets mentioned by these business folk: wonder.

Science and Religion with Mr. Diety

Pretty much self-explanatory.
This one is about the somewhat tricky concept of how to create both matter and time.

Mind you I’m not sure Science is doing much better at an explanation, but we tend to hide that little fact behind a barrage of highly technical and long-winded sentences so it’s not so obvious.

And then there’s the wonderful Michael Shermer – skeptic extraordinaire – appearing rather sheepish when he realises that backed the wrong horse:

Check out the related videos on the side panel.

And now for something completely different:

A science-teacher’s apology

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 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.

I would like to attribute that to somebody famous, but I can’t, ‘cos it’s mine. Which brings me to my apology.

I would like to apologise to students of secondary-school science everywhere – past, present and future, for having to put you through this process.

I would like to apologise for being a little cog in this horrible machine.

I would like to apologise for doing so little to change this, or even to raise it as an issue before now.

In my own little way I will do what I can to repair some of the damage, and show what science is like when the wonder is put back in.