Friday, February 18, 2011

Science Today

First I want to hand out a big CONGRATS to IBM and the Watson team!  Way to go on the QandA development for Watson.  I don't get (what channel is Jeopardy! on anyway?) well, I don't get that channel, but I loved watching Jeopardy! as a kid.  I used to race my mom and occasionally my grandma to the correct answer.  Teen and Celebrity Jeopardy were always easiest.  I thought someday I might try out, but I've fallen behind on my trivia and never have bothered.  Still it was great to see the Nova about Watson.

It disheartened me a little to hear so many people today comment about how it's not a big deal that Watson won, after all he had all that information, he could get the question faster, etc.  Obviously, these people have never tried to teach a computer anything!  You see I've always had this dream about making a smart house system (not too incredibly dissimilar from Sarah on Eureka actually), except mine is named Callisto and he is more of a Jeeves butler type.  Of course other than some sketches and progression ideas, Callisto doesn't exist.

Wow, that took a lot more space than I thought.  Anyway, with the congrats out of the way what I'd really like to address is science, especially as it's taught to kids in the school system, and this wonderful article:
NOVA education: Explaining the Scientific Process: "One teacher on our Facebook page asked, “Could you explain the scientific process? There seems to be tremendous difficulty for my 3rd grader..."
In which NOVA asks  Dr. William McComas what exactly it is that teachers need to be teaching.

First, please be aware the failings of teaching science especially at the elementary school level is a very tender subject for me.  Not only did I suffer from uneducated teachers propagating false material (and I'm not talking about origin of the species stuff, we're talking chemistry, biology, and physics) that not only caused me to be confused in high school and college classes, but also made me look the fool when I tried to share what I thought was my impressive knowledge with local experts.  I've also always been drawn to science, especially biology.  Like most kids I had an intense interest in the world around me.  I had numerous teachers try to discourage this interest, because it left their areas of expertise and because they felt I needed to expand my interests and avoid specializing. 

Last summer I received the incredible opportunity to teach science classes to my daughters and my friend's two children of the same ages (so two 5 year olds and two 3 year olds).  I'm not a trained teacher, and until I was posted as the nursery coordinator at our church I really was intimidated by other people's kids. I mean my kids are fine, but other people's kids don't know me or how I expect things to go.  It really turned out to be great though.  I decided that we needed to start with the basic ideas of science.  I started by telling the kids that science is asking questions, in particular asking; what, why, and how.  For the most part the where's and who's are more incidental in science, at least in my opinion.  Then I did what every teacher I'd had in my entire life did or attempted to do.  I tried to recall that script of the scientific method that outside of the lab lecture on the topic we never really used in college.  I mean yeah, it was in class on the exam and all that, but in reality grant writing was more important.

I wish I'd learned from Dr. McComas.  Then someone would have told me how the strict method all schools have drilled into innumerable kids is more suggestions than law.  I mean sure I know that in practice, but the science I'm educated in is more public policy management than true science.  Sure you can go on to do real science, but mostly you're expected to manipulate human behavior, and hopefully get to do some science on the side.  So while it's optional for my branch of science, I didn't realize it was optional for the rest.  Boy do I feel relieved I had the hardest time trying to get the concepts across as an order of events.  The kids got observation, they got experiments, they even were quite good at making hypotheses.  We spent two lessons on recording observations/drawing nature, which was loads of fun.

You know what they did learn?  They learned what Dr. McComas suggests:
The Tools and Products of Science

1)    Science produces, demands and relies on empirical evidence
2)   Knowledge production in science shares many common factors and shared habits of mind, norms, logical thinking and methods such as careful observation and data recording, truth­fulness in reporting, etc. The shared aspects of scientific methodology include the following:
·                Experiments are not the only route to knowledge
·                Science uses both inductive reasoning and hypothetico-deductive testing
·                Scientists make observations and produce inferences
·                There is no single step-wise scientific method by which all science is done
3)    Laws and theories are related but distinct kinds of scientific knowledge. Hypotheses are special, but general kinds of scientific knowledge.
 4)  There are two types of scientific questions.  Questions of the relationship type are "laws" and question of why such relationships exist are "theory type" question.  

Science and the Human Aspects of Science

5)    Science has a creative component
6)    Observations, ideas and conclusions in science are not entirely objective.  This subjective (sometimes called ‘‘theory-laden”) aspect of science plays both positive and negative roles in scientific investigation
7)    Historical, cultural and social influences impact the practice and direction of science

Scientific Knowledge and its Limitations

8)    Science and technology impact each other, but they are not the same
9)    Scientific knowledge is tentative, durable and self-correcting. (This means that science cannotprove anything but scientific conclusions are valuable and long lasting because of the way in which they are developed; errors will be discovered and corrected as standard part of the scientific process)
10) Science and its methods cannot answer all questions. In other words, there are limits on the kinds of questions that can and should be asked within a scientific framework
Ok, they didn't learn all of that, but they clearly got the foundation!  They learned that science is about whatever they are interested in.  That science is all around them and that they just need to ask questions and think about what they need to get an answer, whether that's sitting quietly and watching, looking closely and observing, maybe with the help of a microscope, or designing an experiment to see what happens.  They know that if they see something that doesn't work with their hypothesis that it needs to change and they can adjust it.  And they know how to draw what they see so they can share it with others.  Oh yeah and we talked about research, but since no one was reading yet, that mostly involved asking Mom, lol.

Science is serious stuff, but it's also loads and loads of fun.  If more educators spent time learning more science, then our kids would be wizzes on all things science, their math scores would improve because they'd have to actually use the techniques they are learning (after all it was my forestry econ class that made calculus make sense).  They'd be amazing readers, because they'd have fun researching things they like and are interested in.  Science reading doesn't have to be boring, and isn't if you really are interested in the subject (and you skip the boring bits ;) ).  Plus, the life skill of reading to learn is an even more invaluable lesson than reading and science put together!

Kudos to Dr. McComas and NOVA.  Thank you for putting this out there for all educators!  It is this interest and connection in the future scientists that have led NOVA and other PBS shows to inspire the scientists of today, myself included.  Society would be immensely poorer without them, and I do know they are on the chopping block now.  I also know that many people object to the blatent evolution messages in shows like NOVA.  Yes, NOVA has an evolution agenda, and sometimes it's almost laughable how they sneak it in to pretty much every episode, but it's nothing you can't talk to your kids about.  I personally find the good and the enjoyment and helpful knowledge I get way outweighs this issue.  If you do as well, there are lots of ways you can get involved.  I recommend this group, but there are many many others trying to save public broadcasting.  In my case it's all the live media we have access to outside of the internet.

I hope you all have a great Friday!  Personally, we will be doing computer programming and working on our science fair project in our house this weekend.  Americans, please enjoy your long weekend if you get it!

1 comment:

  1. Watching Watson (on youtube) compete against humans and win was amazing, but also a bit disconcerting. I also went on yesterday, and the "description" of the deal of the day dealt with the Watson phenomena as well. I never thought about using the same technology for a smart house. Hearing about a real world application for the technology brought it home to me (pun intended!). Have a great weekend.
    SC Relative


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