Monday, October 12, 2009

Right-brained science and disembodied facts

An article in last week's Education Week enthusiastically reports on an interactive science program in which scientists conducting research in the Phoenix Islands share their blogs entries, and correspond by email, with students in a marine biology class at a New Hampshire high school. The blog entries, says Education Week, provide:

--"first-person descriptions of topics they cover, such as coral-reef ecology and damage caused to them by pollution"

--"underwater photos and descriptions of abundant aquatic life—gray reef sharks, moray eels, giant clams, bohar snapper, and barracudas."

--"descriptions of scientific processes, like making observations and collecting data"

--"musings on life at sea: how to avoid the bends while diving, how to guard against infection, what the scientists are eating, and the researchers’ offhand reflections—on a rare species of bird or fish, or a glimpse of the Southern Cross in the night sky."

What could possibly be wrong with presenting such compelling material in such an interactive, real-time fashion? The problem is that this is a huge gamut of topics--from coral reef ecology to the bends--that emerged haphazardly in whatever order they happen to come up in blog entries and email mesages. Your typical high school student, meanwhile, is unlikely to have sufficient background knowledge to organize them systematically in long term memory.

Nor do the classroom follow-up activities appear to deepen students' systematic understanding. According to Education Week, their teacher, Ms. Mueller-Northcott, used the various blog entries to:

--"begin discussions and to prompt students to record journal observations about the scientists’ expedition. "

--"pose experimental-design questions to the teenagers: How could you study humans’ impact on coral reefs? Where would you do your research? What data and equipment would you need?

Journaling about a scientific expedition doesn't do much to deepen one's knowledge or conceptual understanding; as for experiemental design, this is something for experts, not novices, and involves questions far more subtle (and analytical) than desired location and equipment.

However, as Education Week reports, this particular venture is "just one of many aimed at connecting students through technology with scientists doing research in the field, an increasingly common practice in schools." The goals? To:

--"mak[e] scientific studies and careers more attractive to young people"

--"quash the stereotype of the scientist conducting obscure research in dreary isolation."

In other words:
The value for students does not come from scientists’ answering factual questions—that can be covered in class—but rather from the excitement of seeing a scientist at work: struggling, making breakthroughs, documenting joys and frustrations.

It's unfortunate that what the article brushes off in an easy aside--that facts "can be covered in class"--is happening less and less in today's classrooms.

But the real agenda of all of these interactive ventures isn't to teach scientific knowledge in any systematic way, but to promote science as anything but systematic (and analytical, and left-brained). As NASA engineer Heather Paul, a leading advocate for such programs puts it: “We need to work hard to dispel the myths.. [that] we’re brainiacs who sit in the lab all day... [In science] you have to be passionate about what you want to do. ... It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life.”

Like so many other well-intentioned but misguided right-brain fads in education, if only mere passion were all it took to make progress...

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