Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More artsy science and science appreciation

This year's World Science Fair, as in its previous incarnations, once again assumes that the best way to make science interesting to lay people is through celebrity art.

Festival highlights included Broadway veterans performing a song about galaxies and calculus, and the Orchestra of St. Lukes performing a Philip Glass piece while actor John Lithgow narrated a dramatization of a children's book by physicist Brian Greene about a boy who flies to a black hole.

In the process, however, as David Zax observes in his opinion piece in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, "precious little science had actually been communicated."

Instead, in an eery reflection of today's k12 science classes, the festival's goal seems to be science appreciation. As Brian Green put it when Zax asked him about the performances, "I think it's a powerful way of experiencing science, and I think the audience felt that."

But what does scientific appreciation amount to in the absence of scientific content--especially in a country in which, as Zax reports, less than half the population knows that atoms are larger than electrons?


1crosbycat said...

For me, the key word is Content. Content is barely an afterthought in education today. The focus on new thinking (e.g. "21st Century Skills") has overridden the basic requirement to learn substance, to learn facts, skills etc. Its not about learning, its about learning how to learn, how to think, etc.

stark. raving. mad. mommy. said...

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Glen said...

Generating excitement about science is valuable, too. When I was a kid, the U.S. was all abuzz with the excitement of the space program, which didn't teach much science but made science seem so exciting that a lot of us were willing to do what it took to become scientists.

Fortunately, our schools then provided us with a lot of the necessary training. Without it, regardless of our "affect", we couldn't have become scientists.

These days, I'm afraid, the schools have decided to cut back on the real training and spend more time working on the affect. I have some sympathy for them because they don't get the same cultural support, so they may feel they have to spend more school time trying to drum up the needed enthusiasm. I strongly suspect that if they just taught more, a growing sense of competence would be more motivating for many kids than anything else a teacher could do, but in any case, where are kids with their improved affect supposed to go for the actual training if the school doesn't provide it?

Programs like this star-studded "Science Fair" are a faint shadow of the cultural influences we had, but I'm grateful for it. I'm glad they're doing it. I hope it succeeds and spreads like wildfire.

But I can't help wondering what is supposed to happen if it succeeds in getting kids excited about becoming scientists. It's like a successful marketing campaign for a product that has been discontinued.

GPC said...

Science in and of itself is fascinating. There really is no need to do this kind of thing. A good teacher can generate excitement and amazement and teach real indepth content at the same time.

With our modern education system, these teachers aren't really wanted anymore. What is wanted now is not teachers but facilitators of learning who will implement techniques like Discovery Learning, even though decades of research has found that these methods don't work.

Not suprisingly, according to projections, America will have a serious shortage of scientists in the future. How can we remain an economic superpower when modern economies are based so much on math, science and technology?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Real science fairs, like Intels' International Science and Engineering Fair ( do a lot to generate the enthusiasm---by focusing on the content. They also encourage kids to put in the time it takes to actually do some engineering. (Winning science fair entries are almost always about engineering, not science.)