Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Clockwork Yellow

If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
Carl Sagan

I think clocks did as much to squash our spirits as anything else, but the history of time is fascinating, and surprisingly silent given its effects on our culture.

When the Prague Orloj astronomical clock was built, raw materials needed to be churned into the metal parts used to make the massive machine, some of which still exist today. People go to visit it, to take pictures, to, in a word, worship.

The beauty of the rhythm of the universe marked by the clock has been usurped by the idea of the clock itself. An abstract form that takes the concrete form of the clock has become another idol.

And we love idols.

What do we value in science classes? What does a child learn about the universe by Skyping with astronauts, by playing with remote telescopes via the internet, by doing simulations of labs on an iPad?

If a teacher does not have the wherewithal to teach about combustion using nothing more than a candle, a match, and a bell jar, an iPad will not help.

Teaching science simply can be stressful--there is simply no place to hide. I can teach about combustion using a chemical equation, balancing the reactants and products with flair, as though that's the point of chemistry, using animated demos to show various colorful molecules combining and breaking to form various new substances. And I used to do just that.

Now I start with water seemingly cast from a lit propane torch.

Which is the point, really--here is a piece of the universe, child, here's what we see. Let's figure out if we can find a pattern here.

Teaching combustion going to the equations first is like teaching someone how to look at a sunflower by analyzing Fibonacci spirals:

Until a child sees the beauty of the sunflower for itself, its powerful symmetry easily seen but not so easily defined without numbers, no sense pushing golden ratios.

The school awards the children who can manipulate the Fibonacci ratio. It's easily tested, and easily mastered even without seeing the symmetry in a flower head, should a child be so motivated. In school, we idolize the abstract.

A child could know the golden ratio without grasping the beauty seen in nature's symmetry, and do just fine in science class.

And so folks go to gawk at a clock in Europe, designed to reveal patterns discovered by humans hundreds of years ago, taking pictures of a machine with little machines, understanding how neither works, nor caring to. And they will show off their photos as we show off our clever students who spout off ratios, and wonder why we feel an ache in our chest as we drift to sleep, feeling that something is not quite right, that something is missing.

I keep a sundial by my classroom window.

Golden ratio image lifted from Sofluid here.
The sunflower is by lucapost released and borrowed under CC via Flickr.
Prague clock by Hector Zenil, via Wikipedia, used under CC.


Jerrid Kruse said...

You've given me a great idea for my preservice elementary teachers. How do you get the water to condense from the torch? What's your set up?

doyle said...

Dear Jerrid,

I do it two ways, one safe and easy, the other not quite so.

First way:

We have faucets all over the room, including one at our front desk. First I breathe on it, and it fogs up.

I ask the kids what they see, what they think it is, etc.

I then pass the flame from a propane torch quickly over a faucet--you get the same flash of fog.

(I'm careful not to tell them that it's water--I want them to convince themselves by looking at it and touching it.)

The dicier way is to use a cool glass beaker. Haven't had one break, but I do worry about it.

What I should do is just get a big metal bucket--I may try the bucket this afternoon when I'm testing out another demo. We still have almost two weeks to play here before the kids return.

@TRFletcher said...

I go in to a little more chemistry when doing our combustion lab - but really only for the benefit of those who can see the added chemical "proof" that can be offered. We have the students collect the vapor generated through anhydrous cobalt (II) chloride and watch for color changes. At the front of the room, I place vials of the anhydrous and the cobalt(II) chloride hexahydrate. The students who are able to "picture" molecules in their head at that point can make the connection that the color change they see is proof that water molecules (not bulk water) is hydrating the CoCl2. I am convinced one of the most important things we do is help students develop models - scientific and otherwise and do want them to be able to visualize molecules breaking and moving and getting trapped etc. Some are at a point where they can do that, others have a ways to go, but I do think it is our job to keep pushing them to imagine more and better.