wonder

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
Poincare

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

antimatter

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Why do we remove Wonder from Science Education?

If it’s possible to dedicate blogposts to individuals then I choose to dedicate this to my aunt; Sr Cathy. Like many religious folk I know, her passion for Science may well surpass her passion for her religion. Or maybe she’s just passionate about everything. Either way, I’m looking forward to meeting up with her over the Easter break as part of a big extended family celebration.

Wonder is a theme we return to again in again in this blog. More specifically the theme is one of frustration that we have deliberately removed all reference in our science textbooks and syllabi to concepts that evoke a sense of wonder. And it doesn’t help that it seems to bother so few other people. Which is why every time I come across somebody else expressing the same frustration I move to wrap the up in cotton wool and store in away in s0 that I can return to it anytime I need reassurance that it’s not just me. And where better to store it than here?

Students today are often immersed in an environment where what they learn is subjects that have truth and beauty embedded in them but the way they’re taught is compartmentalised and it’s drawn down to the point where the truth and beauty are not always evident.
It’s almost like that old recipe for chicken soup where you boil the chicken until the flavour is just . . . gone.

The speaker, David Bolinsky, is famous for having created an incredible animation on the private life of cells. I have watched that video many, many times (it’s a beauty in it’s own right) but it was only when I watched its Bolinsky talk about it on TED that I zoned in on his quote above.

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. . . . It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary.

That was from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

That was courtesy of well known columnist George Monbiot

The way I was taught science made it feel like nothing more than a series of disconnected facts – the eureka moments of long dead scientists. My knowledge of Einstein’s work by the time I went to university was E=mc2; something like the Einstein-Silárd letter was completely absent from my education. I learned more about the history of nuclear physics from the play Copenhagen than I ever did from a school discussion.

Andrew Holding

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called Science and distil it again and again until all the wonder has been removed! 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.

That one’s mine.

It’s really such a shame that the wonder of Science only seems to be spoken about by artists, poets and writers. Why do scientists (and science teachers, and in particular those who are responsible for drafting the science syllabi) hide from it so much?

Anyway, the reason for this particular post is that it’s time to add the opinion of the author of what is for me the greatest book ever written in the Popular Science genre; Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything.
I’ll paste in the short quote first, but to understand the context it deserves to be read in its entirety so I’ll follow with that (and anyway, reading Bryson could hardly be termed a chore).

It was as if he [a science textbook author] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

Here is the full context:

My own starting point, for what it is worth, was a school science book that I had when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook – battered, unloved, grimly hefty – but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cutaway diagram showing the Earth’s interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when I had not seen such an illustration before, but evidently I had not for I clearly remember being transfixed. I suspect, in  honesty, my initial interest was based on a private image of streams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over the edge of a sudden four-thousand-mile-high cliff running between Central America and the North Pole, but gradually my attention did turn in a more scholarly manner to the scientific import of the drawing and the realization that the Earth consisted of discrete layers, ending in the centre with a glowing sphere of iron and nickel, which was as hot as the surface of the Sun, according to the caption, and I remember thinking with real wonder: ‘How do they know that?’
I didn’t doubt the correctness of the information for an instant – I still tend to trust the pronouncements of scientists in the way I trust those of surgeons, plumbers, and other possessors of arcane and ¬ privileged information – but I couldn’t for the life of me conceive how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye had ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of. To me that was just a ¬ miracle. That has been my position with science ever since.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before ¬ dinner – an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was all right – and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here’s the thing. It wasn’t exciting at all. It wasn’t actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it didn’t answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal enquiring mind: How did we end up with a Sun in the ¬ middle of our planet and how do they know how hot it is? And if it is burning away down there, why isn’t the ground under our feet hot to the touch? And why isn’t the rest of the interior melting – or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sinkhole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure it out?
But the author was strangely silent on such details – indeed, silent on everything but anticlines, synclines, axial faults and the like. It was as if he wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying – universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose – Timothy Ferris, Richard Fortey and Tim Flannery are three that jump out from a single station of the alphabet (and that’s not even to mention the late but godlike Richard Feynman) – but, sadly, none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the  children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a  section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.

 

Everything a Primary School teacher (or student) needs to know about gravity. And then some.

This post is in the context of a question posed by a primary teacher on a forum recently. Rather than reply there I thought it safer to do so where I could offer a more comprehensive answer.

We tend to associate the concept of gravity with the English scientist Isaac Newton who lived in the seventeenth century.
But he didn’t ‘invent’ gravity; objects were falling to earth long before Newton arrived on the scene, so what exactly did he do?

1.
He did what so many other kids do; he asked asked a silly question. ‘Why do things fall down?’
It does seem like a silly question, which is why nobody took it seriously before, but when you think about it it’s actually quite profound; how does the apple in an appletree ‘know’ which way to fall? How does the earth ‘know’ (if it pulls the apple down) that the apple is there in the first place ? Newton was never able to answer that question. He famously said  “Hypotheses non fingo” (Latin for “I feign [frame] no hypotheses,” or in other words, “I haven’t a clue why this works the way it does”). It’s not like there’s a string connecting the two objects, but yet the apple acts as though there were indeed an invisible string pulling it downwards.
What form does that invisible string take?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that scientists haven’t fully worked it out yet either.
It has been suggested that all objects exchange particles called ‘gravitons’ and it is as part of this exchange process that the objects come together. The problem is that these gravitons have never been detected.

Another possibility is gravitational waves. These were postulated by Einstein in his Theory of General Relativity. There has been some indirect evidence for these but again they haven’t yet been detected directly. We know we don’t know all there is to know about gravity, and to suggest otherwise would be to do a disservice to your students. In fact the same holds for a lot of science. Gravity does seem to be a little like magnetism, yet the rules which govern gravity don’t work for magnetism and vice versa. The holy grail of physics is to show how the rules that govern the motion of very large objects like planets is connected to the rules that govern the operation of very small objects like atoms. And there’s absolutely no reason why one of your students can’t be the one to make this connection and win their very own Nobel Prize (with a bit of luck they will acknowledge  you  in their acceptance speech as the spark which ignited their passion for Science).
Matthew is a former student of mine and is currently doing a PhD with NASA on this topic. I asked him to explain it to me:

“In the Einsteinian framework, however, gravity is not a force but a curve in space-time. So any object with mass induces a curve in the spacetime around it. Any other object no longer travels along a flat spacetime, but along a curved path. That’s essentially what’s happening to the apple. Instead of hovering at the end of the branch as it would in a flat spacetime, the ‘forward direction’ of spacetime is curved due to the Earth, so the apple just follows that curve, which in three spatial dimensions is just a straight line down.”

Watch the following clip for a wonderful demonstration of a curving space-time –  imagine doing this with your kids in class: you can tell them you are studying Einstein and doing Rocket Science.

But while Newton couldn’t say why gravity worked, he was able to quantify the force of gravity, i.e. he was able to devise a formula which now enables us to say how big the force of attraction will be between any two objects. It depends on how big the objects are (or more specifically their masses) and the distance between them.

It turns out that any two objects will exert a gravitational pull on each other. Now this is mad. It means that there is a force of attraction between you and your biro, and if it was just the two of you floating in space with no other objects or planets in existence, that force of attraction would result in the biro moving towards you and you moving towards the biro. Similarly there is a force of attraction beween each student and the student next to them (cue lots of giggles) and the bigger the size (or mass) of either student, the bigger will be the force.

2.
Newton also established that the force that kept the planets in orbit around the sun was the same force as that which pulled the apple to earth. This idea was a big, big deal at the time. It meant that the planets followed the same laws of physics as objects on earth. Prior to this ‘the heavens’ were thought to be the realm of the gods or God and therefore not subject to our analysis but after Newton they were seen as fair game for anybody to study. I don’t think there’s any way we can really appreciate how big a deal this was. And while Newton wasn’t the very first to realise this, he was the first to demonstrate it mathematically.

The following is a nice video which outlines the significance of Newton and Einstein to our understanding of gravity. You only need the first ten minutes.

The bottom line for me is that you have an incredible audience who will lap this stuff up. Please, please don’t play down the mystery or the wonder. That, unfortunately, is what happens at second level and I have been trying to get teachers to fight it my entire professional career, with very limited success (it doesn’t seem to bother many other teachers, but I have it bad).

Don’t allow your lack of technical knowledge to put you off engaging with the material. Remember when it comes to Science nobody, and I mean nobody, has all the answers. If we’re looking to turn some of these kids into scientists then what they need more than anything else is curiosity and a good old-fashioned sense of wonder. If you can help develop that then everything else will follow.

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.

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:

There’s that word again . . . WONDER

Students today are often immersed in an environment where what they learn is subjects that have truth and beauty embedded in them but the way they’re taught is compartmentalised and it’s drawn down to the point where the truth and beauty are not always evident.

It’s almost like that old recipe for chicken soup where you boil the chicken until the flavour is just . . . gone.

I have this video numerous times but it was only when I watched its creator David Bolinsky talk about it on TED that I heard that powerful word again: Wonder.

Here’s another take on it, this time from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. . . . It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary

Or how about George Monbiot:

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

This one is mine – maybe we should form our own society!

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.

It’s really such a shame that the wonder of Science only seems to be spoken about by artists, poets and writers. Why do scientists (and science teachers, and in particular those who are responsible for drafting the science syllabi) hide from it so much?

Would they not accept that by acknowledging the Wonder that lies at the heart of the subject we might actually engage the students a little more? Maybe it goes right back to the origins of Science.  Adam Smith once wrote that “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition” and the philosophy behind the world’s first scientific society was to discover knowledge, not by force of argument or flowery speech, but rather as a result of cold, objective facts (hence the gradual removal of the use of the first person singular when describing experiments and the move towards the more impersonal ‘the experiment was set up as seen in the diagram’).

What a disservice we do to our students.

Imagine if the key-word in the Leaving Cert Physics syllabus was ‘wonder’

This is an image, courtesy of Wordle.net, of the current Leaving Certificate Physics syllabus. Wordle is a program that gives the most common words the largest font size:

This is a similar image of the proposed new syllabus.

Notice the new focus on the words ‘learners’ and ‘learning’.

Imagine if a syllabus had as its most common words the following:

Engage

Passion

Awe

Curiousity

Inspire

Un-nerve

Emotion

Story

Creativity

Wonder

If any of this was a priority then chances are that Particle Physics wouldn’t have been removed (and with it Pair Annihilation, Anti-matter, Neutrinos, Fundamental Forces, etc.).

Chances are that Cosmology would also feature strongly in the new syllabus (Black Holes, Quasars, Pulsars, Big Bang, Neutrinos (again), Dark Matter, Alien Life, etc. etc.). It doesn’t.

Maybe it’s just me.