Science

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

science.ie 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.

Passion and Inspiration

Rule no. 1: Passion

I had only been teaching for about three years (mostly junior cert science and leaving cert maths) and was getting fed up with it. I would have liked to have been teaching Physics but there were already two physics teachers in the school so it wasn’t looking like that was going to happen any time soon. I reckoned a change of career was in order but had no idea what I wanted to do. When a colleague mentioned a masters program in science communication offered jointly by DCU and Queens I figured why not, so handed in my notice and bought a few homework copies.

I don’t remember much about the lectures in DCU – mostly they were to do with communication theory but the lectures were pretty boring (the irony wasn’t lost on me). There were two exceptions to this; one was the director of the program – Professor Kirk Junker, and the other was Professor Helena Sheehan. Kirk was an inspiration in that he was professionalism personified. I never once saw him get annoyed and every student was respected and treated as if they were the only student in his class. It was an example I have tried to follow ever since in my own teaching, but it is for others to decide how successful that has been.

Helena was most definitely a different kettle of fish. While she also had a deep respect for her students, the one word I would use to sum her up would be passion. I have never met anyone so passionate about their teaching and their subject matter.

For me it was a complete revelation. Apparently a teacher’s job is not to just impart knowledge to students – you can actually let them see how much the subject matter means to you as a teacher. And students won’t laugh at you as a result, in fact they will actually respect you a whole lot more. I can still remember sitting in her class and thinking that I have to get back into my own classroom and give this a go. If nothing else I owe it to my students. It has now become one of the first pieces of advice I would give to any new teacher – be passionate; if you find the subject matter to be fascinating then for God’s sake let the students in on it. No amount of technology can replace that gift.

It helped that I also found the subject matter of Helena’s lectures to be fascinating; philosophy of science? – I never knew such a thing existed. Science was just science, a disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and no proper scientist could be interested in dirty words like money or fame. How wrong I was, but that’s for another day (to get a feel for what Helena was teaching us just go to her web-page . To see a 25 min video of Helena in action click here for the 54 mg download or here for the 27 mg version (I don’t know why these aren’t just on YouTube – it’s powerful stuff).

This was all prompted by a wonderful post written by Helena as part of A University Blog: Diary of A University President

Helena finishes with the following words. They could only have been written by Helena.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’. I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.

Scientific Certainty; What’s in a Theory?

Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”

This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.

Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.

A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.

 

 

The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.

How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
Law
Principle
Dogma
Theory
Axiom
Hypothesis
Equation
Doctrine
Effect
Conjecture
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)

It’s been a pretty cool few days

After a number of months  of trying (off and on, mind), I finally managed to get the url for the blog changed to thinkforyourself.ie
Thanks to my colleagues at St. Columba’s College English department for the idea.

After putting in quite a bit of work into Young Scientist Projects for the first time this year, we have had four out of the eight submitted accepted for presentation next January. Busy times ahead. They’re almost all in Second Year, and when we spend time on it in class, those not preparing for the Young Scientist Exhibition will be preparing for the Scifest equivalent next May.

Then I got a phonecall on Saturday from Aoife O’Donoghue, who is the Tyndall Outreach Officer, to inform me that one of my leaving cert students won first prize in the senior category of Science Snaps, their Science Photography competition (Shhh . . . Shane doesn’t know yet).
Not that I that anything to do with it mind; I tried to promote an internal Science-Photo competition at the beginning of the year and had the grand total of three entries. So at least this should help in promoting it if it runs again next year. And Mary Mulvihill over at Science@Culture might even be impressed with the quality of the entries.

And then I came across this on Youtube, and I don’t know why but I cried. My wife thinks it might have been the beautiful music in the background.

Unusual resource for explaining Joule’s Law

An offshoot of Joules’ Law is that when transmitting electrical power, the current is kept as low as  possible in order to reduce energy losses associated with heat of the electrical cables. Because the power being transferred is the product of the voltage and the current, we can still get the same power transferred if we halve the current and double the voltage, or; make the current very, very small and make the voltage very, very big.

So power -lines transmit power at a voltage of up to 400,000 volts. Then, as the power gets closer to the home, the voltage is reduced in stages, and correspondingly the current gets increased. This occurs in appiances called transformers.

I came across a lovely interactive explanation of this when in honeymoon in Hong Kong.
I couldn’t resist.

Questioning Science Education

Starting with four basic questions (that you may be surprised to find you can’t answer), Jonathan Drori looks at the gaps in our knowledge — and specifically, what we don’t know about science that we might think we do.

 

So goes the blurb for the one of the latest talks on TED.  Drori asks four basic questions:
1. Where does the “stuff” in trees come from?
2. Can you light a torch bulb with a bulb, battery and a single piece of wire?
3. Why is it hotter in Summer than in Winter?
4. What is the shape of the planets’ orbits?

How many can you answer correctly?

Drori then refers to a couple of videos he was involved in producing a few years ago where graduates of MIT were recorded giving their answers to some of these questions, and surprise surprise, almost all were unable to answer any question correctly. There is a nice moment when one young woman, on finding that she is incapable of puting the electric circuit together, justifies her lack of knowledge by saying “I’m not an electrical engineer, I’m a mechanical engineer”.
Drori wasn’t able to use the clips in his presentation due to a technical hiccup, but I am assuming that these are the videos he is referring to. The first is entitled “Can we believe our eyes?”, while the second is “Lessons from thin air”.

I referred to these videos in a post last year, and mentioned that the answers given by graduates were very similar to those given by six year olds. What I didn’t realise is that, according to Drori, research shows that concepts like Magnetism and Gravity are better understood by children before they go to school than afterwards!

This is stunning, and a little difficult to believe. I would like to find out where he got his information here, but then again, just because it goes against common sense isn’t reason enough to disregard it.

Another question asked in the “Can we believe our eyes?” video goes something like this;
Imagine you are facing a mirror. If you want to see more of your body should you move towards the mirror, away from the mirror, or does it not make any difference?
The point being made here is that ‘hands-on’ experience is not necessarily very educational. They even received incorrect answers from the barbers who work with mirrors every day. It reminded me of the recent fascinating discovery that cattle and wild deer tend to align their bodies in a North-South direction when standing in a field (link). How could we not have noticed that before?

I guess if we are not directly interested in something (almost at an emotional level) then we are rather unlikely to notice or form a deep understanding of it, and the traditional teaching approach of simply repeating the class lesson is of little use in changing that.

I know myself that I learned bugger-all physics in six years of secondary school or four years of college. I did however learn more in one year of teaching Leaving Cert Physics than I did in all the others combined. This was obviously because I was no longer ‘learning’ to pass an exam, but rather I was learning to survive in a classroom where I knew  I would be taking questions from students who were expecting nothing less than an A1 in their Leaving Cert. I had taught in a previous school but had spent too many lessons ‘winging it’ and getting caught out, so for me this was a fresh start and therefore there was certainly an emotional motivation.

Which is why, if I find out that my students know less about magnetism and gravity now than they did before I taught them, I may just have to find a cold, dark room and lock myself in it for a long time.

Some cool science resources

Just got back from wonderful New Zealand yesterday and came across some of these impressive deals.

Digital calipers from aldi for €10, available from Sunday 13th (checkout blowtorch available also for €10). Why would anyone use the old-fashioned vernier calipers when you these cut out all the confusion. Ideal for ‘measuring the resistivity of wire’ experiment.

 

Dynamo torches from lidl for €10, available from Monday 14th. Use them at Junior Cert as an examle of energy conversions, and at Leaving Cert for demonstrating Electromagnetic Induction. I haven’t bought one yet but hopefully they can be taken apart to see the internal workings.

VHS to DVD converter for €168 from Maplin (Maplin doesn’t have an Irish website for some reason, but they do issue newsletters with their special deals). If, like me, you have a bank of VHS cassettes with numerous programs on each cassette, then is the ideal way to start afresh. This time around I use one DVD per program, and use an elecrtronic labeller (which I also got from lidl) to label each DVD. Our science department got one of these a couple of years ago but I reckon it was probably twice the price.
Maplin also currently have Infrared Thermometers for €33 and multimeters for €8 (I would check that ‘crocodile leads’ fit into these sockets before buying).

I was thrilled to see that Maplin have started stocking educational products from mutr. So many so-called ‘Science Toys’ that you see in toyshops look fantastic but are actually crap. Mutr (middlesex university teaching ressources) on the other hand are the business; I’m not even sure they do it for profit, certainly many of their products are unique and very reasonably priced.
Get your Christmas shopping done early this year