Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Science Education

I’ve been noticing a great deal of hoopla here and there on the web regarding the importance of science education, and the fact that a lot of jobs are going begging because companies can’t find adequately trained people to fill the positions they have available.

This, and the fact that I’ve encountered proposals recently that mentioned the idea of science education and Mindport in the same paragraph, have set me to thinking more about the subject and how Mindport fits there.

Over the last few years, especially since the advent of personal computers and the Internet, my interest in technology and science has evolved increasingly toward curiosity about the effect it has on us and what we’re doing with it. My curiosity is illuminated partially by the fact that I’ve known and worked with many scientists, so have had opportunity to observe first hand something of what science in the trenches is all about and how the character of scientific research has changed over the last fifty years.

Nowadays, when I encounter laments about the present state of science education, they usually take the form of worries expressed about companies not being able to find skilled employees, or that the United States is falling behind X other countries in training scientists, or that kids can’t pass exams in math or science, etc. In other words, science is usually presented as something that has to be learned in order that we can do something else, usually involving earning money or beating competition. In contrast to the frequently free spirit of scientific research before the mid 20th century, it’s rarely, if ever, presented as something that might be fascinating in itself, for no other reason than being a means to satisfy one’s craving for knowledge about the nature of the universe.

With that in mind, it becomes clear why science education is in such big trouble. Children, especially children, do not understand why they should learn something simply in order to attain some abstract carrot, like big bucks or high social station, that’s being dangled before them. Either they’re interested in something for its here-and-now reward, or they’re not. This implies that it’s important to present science to them not as: “science, which you have to learn so you can get into college and attain a high income working for a multi-national corporation,” but as knowledge about everyday things, which are right in front of your nose and easily explored.

My daughter has been telling me stories about my grandson, age two, who is fascinated with the fact that the sun rises and sets. He doesn’t even have enough language yet to explain his fascination with that, but he’s obviously attempting to “grok” the idea of the earth rotating and the sun only appearing to rise and set. This is a first attempt to “do” science. You see something akin to “scientific method” operating every time he explores some new facet of his environment. He plays with the handles on the wood cook-stove in our kitchen, attempting to fathom how they work and what they do. His exploration consists of manipulating them again and again, carefully observing what happens, as he does with many other mechanical things he encounters. He seems to have a built-in interest in what we call “science” . . . and it’s important to note that nobody discourages his exploration, hence inhibiting his “scientific” interests.

My point is, most children have built-in curiosity about what goes on around them, that is, until someone comes along and discourages their curiosity: “Don’t touch that.” “Stop asking so many questions.” “That’s wrong.” “That’s bad, etc. Later on, someone else comes along and tells them, oh, you gotta start leaning about science so you can get into college, get a job, make six figures, buy a house in suburbia (a thing of the past), and all that jazz. Then we wonder why they don’t want to study science and math. . . especially after they notice on TV that people seem to acquire whatever they want with scarcely any effort at all.

As a counterpoint to what I’ve just said, I also believe that when it comes to the formal study of science, it should be rooted in a matrix of meaning. In other words, to explore the world from a scientific point of view, it's desirable to be standing on some sort of firm base that relates your discoveries to a coherent world view or ethos. There must be a set of values in your background. Otherwise, discoveries float meaninglessly in limbo, as in, “Oh, that’s interesting, what can we do with it to make money?” For example, there have been controversial experiments done in England in which clones are created by crossing human and animal genes. Obviously, whoever is doing these experiments has given no thought to the sort of life and consciousness that might be the product of, say, human and pig genes being mixed, assuming that there was any product at all. It’s a little like purposefully causing a human to be born with genetic defects, just because you’re curious about what might be the result. Can you call such experiment ethical?

We’re all the time using science and technology to create new products, which are foisted on the public with NO examination of what the consequences might be. In fact, we’re living in a vast, chaotic sea of unanticipated consequences. We’re mired in them. Granted, you can’t anticipate every consequence of introducing some new technology, but you can at least give it a thought. The Amish, for example, carefully examine all technology before they adopt it. They live according to a certain set of firm beliefs, and they choose their technology consciously, with those beliefs in mind, and pay attention to the ways in which the technology in question might impinge on them.

In our country, there’s a large proportion of the populace who have never really examined what our culture is about, or examined the idea of culture in general. History is typically an unpopular subject in school. It certainly was for me, in large part, as I discovered later, because it was never taught in relation to a context I could relate to. Rather, it was presented as a series of (to me) abstract events whose dates I was expected to memorize. It wasn't until I was an adult and began to read history on my own that I discovered how scientific research and the adoption of various technologies has been driven by certain (unconscious) assumptions deep within our cultural history. For me, that was a pivotal discovery, one which I was never given an inkling of in school. It lead me to an understanding that science and technology are not value-neutral. They affect us powerfully, and are also a means by which others, notably corporations, gain power over us. We  need to know about that, and make decisions about which technologies should be adopted, how, and by whom.

What we’ve done instead is to adopt every sort of technology that has come along, willy-nilly, without a thought about the consequences, the main consideration being whether the technology in question can turn a profit. The consequence is chaos, and ultimately, a serious danger of collapse.

This gets me back to where I started, the subject of scientific education. I propose that before we even think about science education, we need education in the humanities, the arts, history, sociology. We’ve been running a blind sociology experiment for over 100 years and it’s time to take stock of where it’s lead us. Judging by the apparent unhappiness of many people around me, we seemed to have missed the boat somewhere. We need to generate a context in which we can live happily and comfortably, and THEN we can consider what sorts of technology will enhance and which sorts will muck it up.

To be realistic, it's unlikely that we'll make voluntary choices about how we adopt technology, but it is very likely our technology will impress on us some lessons we'd just as soon have avoided. We’ll learn the hard way that something we did didn’t work, and, while gathering seaweed for dinner, we can contemplate how best to start over without making the same mistakes.

Having said all this, what is my position on “scientific education?” First, it's desirable that young people be exposed to rich environments that inspire spontaneous interest in “scientific” exploration. Such explorations should be permitted to proceed freely, without being tempered by adult agendas involving considerations such as future jobs, fame, or money. Meanwhile formal and informal education in the arts, history, and sociology, would provide meaningful context for later formal scientific training.

It’s been my intention for Mindport to at least partially fulfill such conditions. We exhibit a collection of intriguing interactive exhibits, and have set them in an attractive physical space that also includes visual and three-dimensional artwork, many photographs relating to the natural world and human environments. We encourage adults and young people to explore, and if they have questions, we attempt to answer them. Or tell them where to find the answers. Or trust that they WILL find them if they’re sufficiently interested. We assume that if a project interests us enough to build it, that it will interest visitors enough to wonder how it works, where the idea came from, and possibly open up just a little spark of general curiosity. That is one way to foster a healthy and meaningfully-rooted curiosity about the universe in which we find ourselves, and an unselfconscious ability to employ logical thought in discovering its secrets, a process we culturally label as "doing science."

Kevin Jones

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