Monday, July 2, 2012

Developing students with attitude

"In a word, the great danger in teaching science, as in anything else, is to teach a perfect reliance upon human authority."
Francis W. Parker, Talks on Pedagogics

 A flat of basil I grew in class from seeds handpicked from last years fertilized flowers died over the weekend. I was careless.

For a week or two, dried basil flowers sat in the back of the classroom--any student at any time could walk over to the lab table and start separating the seeds from the flowers. Many of my students did not know that seeds could be found in dried flowerheads.

It's oddly satisfying picking tiny black seeds during from the remnants of summertime in a grey December classroom.

We planted the seeds, and they grew.

Many of us do not know a lot of things, and none of us know enough to live without the earth, the soil, and the sun.

Some of the students seemed confused by the simple directions--break apart the flower pod, and the seeds will be inside. Place the seeds on top of some peat, water, and the seeds will grow.

There had to be more to it!

If biology is the study of life, then we're not doing a very good job.

"A very good working definition of education is this:
the development of the attitude of the soul toward truth."
 Francis W. Parker, Talks on Pedagogics

I get less and less "attitude"--the immature displays of the powerless tearing up a class session--every year. I'm getting better at helping my lambs develop ways to work their way to what's true.

I remind them what they already know (but rarely protest): a lot of adults have varied reasons to lie to them, and they do. They need to recognize the lies.

It may be the lies of omission that matter most--we have constructed a world that relies on human authority, a world that will ultimately fail because of its "perfect reliance" on what's human.

Here's a lesson from the US Department of Energy--it talks about biomass and renewable energy. It praises ethanol as an alternative source of fuel:
"Ethanol is a renewable energy source often added to gasoline. In this country some gasoline blends contain 10% - 12% ethanol....The presence of ethanol in gasoline reduces the consumption of this nonrenewable resource."
What it does not mention is that we use more energy (in the form of petroleum) to grow the corn that the energy available in the ethanol we extract.

What it does not mention is that until this year, the Federal government has subsidized ethanol production to the tune of  $6 billion dollars a year.

We rarely speak of limits in our culture. We rarely seek out truth in the classroom. If we did, our schools would be very different.

(And yes, we grow corn in class, too. "It looks like grass!"--this surprises them.)


Mary Ann Reilly said...

I downloaded Talks on pedagogics. Thanks.

doyle said...

Dear Mary Ann,

Kate Tabor sent me her copy a year or two ago--and it's been near my side since.

Colonel Parker makes Arne et al. just look silly.

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

I'll have to have a look, too.

By the way, I heard the energy-to-produce-etOH-vs-energy-in-etOH reported on by NPR a year or two ago. Seems that the technology is NOW such that we get more out than we put in--can't say by how much. (Gets even better if we can use switchgrass instead of corn.) Of course, area under corn is area not available to most of the other 10 million-plus species we're crowding of the planet. And also of course we do this because corn is subsidized to production levels we simply can't keep up with by eating it--even after it out-competes much more healthful fare and makes waistlines bulge and lifespans decline. But we have to do SOMETHING with it until we really DO need it to help feed the world's burgeoning population.

doyle said...

Dear Jeffrey,

Switchgrass would be a lot more efficient than corn, true, and it looks like we're close to commercial success with it.

It may be possible to get get more calories out of the ground than we put in--heck, the Amish do it every year, and we did it before we became dependent on petroleum. Ethanol gives less mpg than gasoline, and we need some a reasonable return of oil to ethanol to make this make sense.

You're right that corn has been subsidized to ridiculous levels--the return for corn used for ethanol was higher than that used for feed (at least to those producing the ethanol). If we didn't subsidize the EtOH industry, though, I bet we'd've grown less corn.

Bottom line is we're living on borrowed time with petroleum--hundreds of millions of years of borrowed time that were burning quickly. I know you know this, but most of my lambs haven't a clue, and this will affect them more than me.

I'll be dead by then.