Monday, November 7, 2011

Science for non-science majors

If a child has an insatiable appetite to learn about the world, to pursue patterns and rhythms in the swirl of sensations slipping into her consciousness each day, then it makes sense to teach her the vocabulary of the trade.

If a child chases the rational world with her eyes alit, then it makes sense to teach her the finer points of microscopy, of calculus, of stoichiometry.

We all love those kids in our classes, because we glow in their light.

That's not why I teach science, though. She doesn't need me, she needs a real scientist. I'm just a teacher.

Most kids do not wake up in the morning yearning for more science. Most kids would not set their alarm clocks just to make sure they do not miss a single moment of class. Most kids are still more mammal than machine. These are the kids I teach.

We live in a fantasy world, a culture cocooned from reality by Zoloft, Zelda, and  Catherine Zeta-Jones, a culture where astrology rules over astronomy, where more people believe in Eva Lonoria than evolution.

So where do I start?

Start with a "miracle"--have a child plant a seed, see water fly from flame, listen to his own heart. Have a child stand at the sea's edge as the tide rises over her feet, an ancient arachnid creeping a few yards away from her. Have a child see the moon, see Jupiter, see a falling star.

Then tell science as it developed, stories of greed as humans tried to make gold but made urine glow instead, stories of wonder as humans tried to explain the light of stars and galaxies above, stories of power as humans realized that their models made accurate predictions possible.

Whatever you do, never let a class go by without a few moments of observation that defy intuition, without a story or two about what we thought then, what we think now.

Science is not all flash, but it is all wonder.

We really know nothing at all about what the all is all about. Recognize our children as the magnificent mammals they are,  and we'll have more scientists in this generation. Keep treating them as machines, well, we'll get more of what we have, faces reflected in screens, exchanging life, bit by bit, becoming the ghosts in the machine.

Pad baby by umpcportal, used under CC.

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