Friday, January 28, 2005

Science is Taught Wrong

I have reached a point where I realize that I was taught Science completely the wrong way. And, frankly, I'm a little bent about it.

My junior high science teacher, Mr. Hiroshi, taught us some basics on how protons and electrons always come in equal proportions in an atom, and how neutrons can make the atomic weight greater. But there was some symmetry in the math that was interesting, but overall, there was not much relevance to the topic. I now know that this is part of the Quantum theory, albeit hugely simplified. But what we learned was not deep. It was shallow. The curriculum was tired, and dumbed down. But far worse was that it was not relevant to the world of an eighth grader.

I don't think that Mr. Hiroshi was the problem; he was actually one of the more engaging teachers at Joseph George middle school. But I don't think he was provided a good curriculum, nor a way to connect this strange subject to its grand significance to our existence.

Now, my highschool biology teacher was miserable. And the way we learned biology was also miserable. That experience made me avoid taking science courses in college. While I took interest in the findings of science--something my parents instilled in me at an early age--public school curriculum established in my mind that science classes are tedious.

If I could design a high school biology curriculum, the first thing I would teach in the program would be about viruses. What these simple genetic programs do is amazing. They invade cells and hijack the DNA replicating machinery within to make copies of themselves. They hijack other cellular machinery to create protein casings for the replicants, and those casings provide the mechanism for invading yet other cells. The weirdest thing is that viruses are by and large considered to be inanimate: Scientific American recently ran a cover story called "Are viruses alive?"

This first subject of viruses opens up several exploration paths. One of immediate interest for kicking off the course is that viruses are relevant. HIV is, in fact, very relevant to high school children. Influenza is, too, for that matter. The latter example is something they can connect to. And it could increase the impact of talking about the former. But, they also give a mechanism to talk about what biology is--the study of life--by introducing whether viruses are alive or not.

Viruses as an early subject also gets immediate practical examples of how evolution works, introducing the subject on the small-scale, where it is manageable, immediately evident, and proveable with real-world examples. Some call this "micro-evolution." So be it. Save the big implications of evolution for later. Get the fundamentals of the theory in place first.

Virus as an intro also sets you up to teach about sex very naturally. Through viruses, you've covered how cells work. From that point on, you can get into cellular reproduction at any time.

Viruses do present a problem as a first subject, though. How do you introduce the subject without having to explain a mass of other concepts. For examples, the concept of cells isn't necessarily known to students at that age. So, what are these "cell" things that viruses use? Nevertheless, I think this problem can easily be solved. Perhaps start with how computer viruses spread (they're short programs that tell machines to reproduce the short programs, and most first world students would get the concept).

You could devise some in-class excercises, too. You could start by giving every student a blank sheet of paper, except one, who gets a sheet that says, "Tell two people to write down this exact sentence on their sheet of paper." It would spread through the room, even though you never gave verbal instruction to do so. Example shown: It doesn't take much instruction to get machinery working for a virus. At the end of the copying, you could grab students' attention by telling them that you planted a virus on one of the sheets of paper. Subject begun; attention grabbed. There's probably even a clever teaching angle you could get with the couple of kids who try to thwart the activity by not cooperating or changing the sentence text. (Copying infidelities are mutations; non-cooperation is actually resistance to the infection!)

Why shouldn't learning science be made fun?

Perhaps a part of what holds back biology classes from really excelling is U.S. cultural resistance to evolution. You cannot discuss how biology really works without a grasp of evolutionary theory. [Aside: The implications to how we teach sex education would be enormous if we could just show how human behavior is part of such a larger system.]

I have not heard about how great biology (or any other sub-discipline of science) classes are in other countries, so maybe this is a worldwide phenomenon.


Blogger htmJanice said...

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11:40 AM  
Blogger htmJanice said...

Well, Reverend Ted, I must agree with you about the dismal state of teaching science in the schools. The problem, however, as one who fairly recently supervised student teachers in high schools and middle schools, is that it is not just science that doesn't engage students, it is also English and History and Mathematics and the list goes on. You asked a pertinent question: what are other countries doing in their schools? Why is the United States far behind other nations in Math, Science, and Reading and Writing?
Now, I have a larger and more important (well, not more important than your astute comments of course) question to ask our reading audience. How do we get innovative change to occur in the schools? Who is listening? The change needs to come from the top down, not from the schools themselves. We need to wake up the professors who are teaching these teachers to teach; we need to have them see that engaging students, not just to make them feel happy and good about learning, is actually challenge and should be and often is difficult. Okay, that sounded wierd! Let me explain. You mention, Reverenc, that by introducint the concept of computer viruses and their omnipresence in our computer-driven world students will better comprehend the notion of a complex system in science such as viruses. They can then explore the idea that there are no easy answers, no guesses, just informed questions, and then more informed questions. But again, science is a field of study, not a show that can be turned off and on with the click of a remote. Their minds are used to blazing scenes flashing across their view, one after another.
Does any anyone care enough to make learning so fascinating, so full of unknowns, answers to be sought after, studying to be done, that turning off the television and saying no to shopping at the mall is an easy act? Our nation is fast becoming a nation of followers. Where do we start to change this? What has to happen to alter our present course of teaching?

11:44 AM  

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