Re: [asa] science education

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Tue Jun 02 2009 - 16:44:04 EDT


Thanks for this clarification. I see now that you weren't contradicting me
on many points.

Regarding high school students:

1. Yes, I've certainly known a number of them who don't like being made to
think. And I don't want to leave the impression that I'm one of these
dreamers who think that if teachers just come up with more stimulating
methods of teaching, all 14-year-olds will suddenly "live up to their
potential" of becoming Nobel-Prize-winning scientists. I'm quite certain
that most students are not destined to become scientists and that no
teaching methods, however creative, are going to turn someone with no talent
for science into a scientist. In fact, I'd say that of all subjects. In
fact, I'm of the view that we have too many people going on for academic
education now, and that more people should be diverted to community
colleges, polytechnics and apprenticeships in economically useful skills.
The universities these days are filled with undergraduates who have no
academic talent. And the only reason we keep half of these young people in
school for so long is that we have no good-paying jobs for unskilled or
semi-skilled people any more, and we don't know what to do with them, so we
prolong the educational process artificially. The number of people
graduating every year with a useless Sociology B.A. (no offense intended,
Greg!) is staggering. Fifty years ago most of those people would not have
gone to university at all, but would have entered the work force after high
school and found decent-paying jobs. But what can they do now? There are
no jobs any more, so they go to higher education. And not being good at
languages, math, or science, and not being cut out for the rigorous analysis
required for philosophy, history or literary criticism (i.e., the
humanities), what else can they major in but the social sciences? So we
have a surplus of sociology and psychology majors, doing the easiest
academic path for the academically non-talented. And to augment the options
for such people, universities have creatively added women's studies, film
studies, cultural studies, Afro-Caribbean studies, peace studies, gender
studies, etc. And some "soft" science options such as dietician, etc.

2. Still, there are many high school students bright enough to do science,
and those students are often taught a deadening view of science, one which
is often continued into university. My own experience was that science up
to high school was very badly taught (which I made up for by reading science
stuff that was actually interesting outside of school), that high school
science was a mix of good and indifferent teaching, and that first year
undergrad science was deadly boring and mechanical, my university professors
of science being much worse -- as teachers, that is -- than my high school

3. Regarding your comment that students often come away from experiments
feeling that they didn't get the right answer, that was certainly the
feeling I had in my first-year labs in chemistry and physics. And the grad
students who marked the labs contributed to that feeling, as follows. I
would perform the given experiment, faithfully recording what actually
happened, as a good scientist should. Often the results would be hash,
nowhere near the theory. Other students in the lab often had similar
results. They all, being practical (many desiring to get to med school),
simply changed their results to match the theory, and handed them in. I
stubbornly left my results as they were, and handed in the hash. I would
regularly get a low grade on my lab, and the students who adjusted the
results got high grades. What lesson does that teach undergrads about the
integrity of science?

4. I know the word "constructivism" but I don't know what it means. Is it
any relation to "pragmatism"?

5. I've read some of Heidegger's essays on science, a couple of which are
lucid and insightful, but his general philosophy is extremely difficult and
his writing is extremely difficult, so I would hesitate to base any academic
study of science or of anything else on his view of things. (And that's
aside from the moral and religious revulsion I have for Heidegger and
everyone influenced by him, e.g., Derrida.)

Certainly I am not sure what it would mean for a science student to "become
authentic"? Do you mean, to be actually interested in the study of nature
for its own sake, as opposed to doing it to pass tests or get into med
school? The answer to that is found in fixing our disastrous social
environment. When it becomes possible to get a good job without having to
feign an interest in academic studies, most students will gravitate away
from academic studies towards polytechnics, community colleges and
apprenticeship programs, or will go directly from high school into the work
force. As it is, students find that they have no hope of doing anything but
flipping hamburgers without university degrees, so they go on to higher
education, including science, even though they have no personal natural
curiosity about nature, history, literature, social behaviour, etc. Thus,
the whole society is set up to produce inauthenticity, so we can hardly
blame the students for being inauthentic, pursuing scientific or academic
studies for which they have no aptitude, and taking courses with big fat
books to read when they hate reading. In the past, students could have gone
on to become very "authentic" shoemakers, typewriter repairmen, blueprint
machine operators, stenographers, short-story writers, milkmen (remember
them?), farmers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, small-business
proprietors, etc. But the technological economy has wiped out all of these
jobs, or greatly reduced them in number.

The ideal situation you want to create is one where students who have
natural interest in any field (science, history, etc.) can find stimulating
teachers who have a genuine interest in guiding them. So in science you
have to have teachers that actually enjoy the study of science themselves,
from elementary school on up. And you have to have university science
teachers who are convinced that undergraduate teaching is just as important
an activity as writing up lucrative grant proposals and publishing 20
articles per year. So some adjustments have to be made regarding the hiring
of elementary teachers -- finding ones who don't dread but enjoy science as
a subject -- and at the other end, regarding the "publish or perish" reward
system at the universities, which puts undergrad teaching at the bottom of
the professors' priority list. (Of course, I'm speaking of the big secular
universities, not of small Christian institutions, where the ethos may be
quite different.) The question is, how many scientists, reared on the
grant-driven system, are willing to change their ways and spend a great deal
more time thinking about the art of teaching, the ends of science education,
the ends of education generally, etc.? Their whole training, the incentive
system that has made them what they are -- narrow specialists of high
competence, but low on reflectiveness and self-criticism -- militates
against such re-thinking. It's a tough problem.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Bill Powers" <>
To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>; "asa" <>
Sent: Tuesday, June 02, 2009 9:46 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] science education

> Cameron:
> I am about to begin "serious" (who can tell how serious) discussions on
> the
> structure and content of such a course so these conversations are of much
> interest to me at present.
> I would recommend a review of such courses at
> Regarding your comments, permit me to comment on them within the text of
> your
> comments. There's a lot to cover here.
> Cameron Wybrow <> said:
>> Bill:
>> I was surprised at your response to my suggested experiment. In fact,
>> your
>> response made no sense to me at all. But then I read your reply to Merv,
>> and your discussion of Heidegger, and realized that you had larger
>> philosophical concerns in mind. Still, it's unclear to me from your
> remarks
>> to Merv whether your goal in employing "Heideggerian" insights is to aid
>> students in better understanding and practicing modern science, or to act
> as
>> a fifth column within modern science education and tempt students to try
>> to
>> restore ancient science. Perhaps you could clarify. Are you suggesting
>> that you want students to re-open the question whether Aristotle or
>> Descartes was right about nature? If not, what are you suggesting?
> Keep in mind that what all of us are suggesting, I think, is not something
> that would replace traditional science classes, but rather an important
> supplement intended for all students, science majors or otherwise.
> Heidegger's insights are relevant here for the following reasons. First,
> we
> all live in the world (he would say our being is in the world, and we have
> none outside of it). This is a world that provides meaning, place, and
> practice for us. Normal science, as Kuhn means it, is pretty much what a
> student is introduced to. Traditional science classes teach something of
> the
> language and presumptions of science. We learn paradigmatic science and
> the
> paradigms of science (classical experiments). They show us how to get
> about
> and think. This is a world ready-to-hand. It is a world that, while at
> first alien, becomes familiar. We have no other "science" world. Perhaps
> that is not quite correct. Some studies have indicated that we are all
> natural Aristotelians.
> The intent of this course work, as I understand it, is to step outside
> this
> familiar world (hermeneutically, of course) that we might return to it
> wiser.
> In one sense we could imagine the coursework to be something like the
> Kuhnian
> experience of a scientific revolution. Suddenly nothing makes sense, we
> are
> scrambling for cover and something to hold on to, looking for guidance and
> something to right the ship again.
> In this regard, it is worth asking whether the student can do this in the
> same way as the scientist? In both cases, the familiar becomes alien.
> For
> the scientist, however, the familiar is "normal" science. For the student
> is
> something akin to folk psychology. The student too thought that he was
> familiar with his or her world. He is being asked to ask questions that
> never occurred to him. He doesn't know how to proceed. He's hoping that
> you
> will just tell him what to think and do. He must decide not only what to
> ask
> but how to ask, and what might be an appropriate answer. What is the
> objective. How do we know we are making progress? These are not merely
> science questions, but philosophy questions.
> I think it is important for a student at some point in their "mindless"
> careers to be confronted with such a situation. I know this sound
> constructivist, a term I presume with which you are familiar. When I
> first
> heard of constructivisim some 20 years ago, I was adamantly opposed to it.
> I
> can only say that I am not proposing that all education become
> constructivist
> (teacher more a guide).
> How far ought we to follow Heidegger? Can we think that in part the goal
> of
> the project is a kind of attempt for the student to become authentic? To
> do
> so he must experience dread and anxiety. She must disassociate herself
> from
> the familiar (home) in order to rediscover her own self and relationship
> with
> the familiar.
>> My suggestion was based on something less radical, i.e., teaching modern
>> science in a more interesting way, and in a way that makes students much
>> more methodologically conscious. So let me defend my example for a bit,
> and
>> let me know your response.
>> First, why is it "not doing science" to confirm by repetition an
>> experiment
>> that has already been done? Scientists are always preaching loudly about
>> how "repeatability of the experiment" is central to science. (Though
>> curiously they are very quiet about that "absolute requirement" of
>> science
>> when it comes to Darwinian evolution.) The point of demanding a
>> repeatable
>> experiment is that if, on repetition, the same result is not obtained,
> maybe
>> the first experimenters made a mistake. Thus, the person who confirms
>> the
>> experimental result is doing just as important a service to science as
>> the
>> person who first reports it. So even if the students get exactly the
>> same
>> result repeating the experiment that everyone else has, they are learning
> to
>> be good practicing scientists by taking the duty of confirmation
>> seriously.
> As I've tried to say above, I agree with this. It teaches normal science
> in
> part and the paradigms of science: what an experiment should look like,
> what
> kinds of questions to ask, and how they should be answered. However, I
> think
> most students come away with the sense that maybe they didn't get the
> "right"
> answer. They are checking nothing.
>> Further on this, if science teaching adopted your argument against
>> dropping
>> the balls -- that it's an unnecessary duplication of effort to learn a
> truth
>> already known --the vast majority of lab experiments currently performed
>> in
>> high school and university would have to be scrapped, because they are
>> all
>> merely confirming results that have been confirmed thousands of times
>> before -- burning splints with hydrogen gas, etc. By your logic, since
>> the
>> students are not going to be capable of designing experiments that
>> actually
>> prove something *new* in science until they are in graduate school, they
>> might as well just learn theory until they get to the required
>> intellectual
>> level to think up something new. But I don't think you are arguing for
> that
>> conclusion, so I'm left a bit puzzled what you think the point of having
>> students do experiments is. Certainly it can't be to discover new truths
>> about nature, so what, then?
> As I said above, I am not suggesting replacing current curriculum. This
> is
> intended to be supplemental.
>> Second, I hope you are not assuming that Galileo actually performed the
>> experiment with the balls. There is no mention of any such experiment
> until
>> 50 years or more after the event, and it is now generally accepted by
>> historians of science that Galileo never did it. See Lane Cooper's
> detailed
>> study on Aristotle, Galileo, and Tower of Pisa episode.
> Yes, I am well aware of this bit of history. Galileo was not so much a
> good
> empiricist. He was working under the presumption that experiments more or
> less confirmed what what already well formulated theoretically. The world
> was presumed well ordered (as geometry). We merely had to get close with
> experiments to confirm the underlying order. In this view experiments
> would
> have to be quite contrary to theory in order for theory to be
> disconfirmed.
> Do you think this view is common today? I think it is the established
> procedure of "normal" science.
>> Third, you seem to be assuming that if students perform the experiment,
> they
>> will get the result they are supposed to get. In fact, or so I am told,
>> it
>> is only in a vacuum that the balls hit the earth at the same time; in
>> real
>> life they actually hit the earth at different times! This does not
>> square
>> with the theory which popular historians of science claim that Galileo
>> "proved" with his legendary experiment. Empirical evidence, then, would
>> appear to show that Galileo was *wrong*! A good science teacher would
>> use
>> that as a teaching moment, and ask students to suggest reasons why the
>> experiment does not bear out the theory. Is it that the theory is wrong?
>> Is it that the experiment was badly performed? Or is there another
>> reason?
>> This would lay the groundwork for a broader discussion of ideal Newtonian
>> conditions versus real-world observations. And Lane Cooper suggests an
>> interesting variation on the experiment: what would happen if one
>> dropped
>> two balls of unequal weight in a tank full of water? Would they hit the
>> bottom at the same time? The students could be asked to predict if the
>> result would be the same in water as in air. And if the result in water
>> is
>> different from the result in the air, what principles are involved in
>> explaining the difference? And again, students could drop two balls of
>> exactly the same diameter, one made of metal and one made of wood, to see
> if
>> that makes a difference. The students would then have to consider more
> than
>> one variable: diameter as well as mass. There are many pedagogical
>> possibilities in the ball-dropping notion, limited only by the
>> imagination
>> of the science teacher and the students.
> Yes. I think that this was an important part of the "new" science.
> Instead
> of viewing the world as it is, it intends to describe an ideal world, one
> that can only be approached. It is a science that adds effects to the
> ideal
> to obtain the actual. Aristotelian approaches began with the real world
> and
> never succeeded in making much progress. Perhaps it is representative of
> a
> return to an atomism. I think what you suggest is a good idea. The trick
> is
> to be able to provide hints to the student without providing explicit
> answers. Your suggestion is an attempt to describe and teach how modern
> science proceeds to solve problems.
>> Fourth, remember that I was speaking about young teenagers, 15-year olds
> who
>> find learning "by doing" more interesting than sitting at a desk and
> copying
>> down the teacher's notes, even if the teacher's notes are wonderful.
>> Plus,
>> climbing up on the roof, against the protestations of janitors, and
> dropping
>> balls off a roof, has a sort of scofflaw flavour to it that would strike
>> some of them, especially the boys, as "way cool", to use an expression
>> that
>> was current among teens in the 1990s (though it may be out of date now).
>> What do you object to in my reasoning here?
> I wasn't so much thinking of what we would call high school students.
> Most
> high school students would be wholly unprepared for my suggestions, I
> think.
> I've tried some of this with my children. It didn't go very well. Most
> high
> school students hate to think. I went to a science high school in NYC.
> The
> situation would be different there.
> I think or trust that a well structured discovery can be developed. I
> have
> not taught high school science, but it reminds me of medical school: one
> long
> list of nonsense words to remember.
> bill
>> Cameron.
>> ----- Original Message -----
>> From: "Bill Powers" <>
>> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
>> Cc: <>
>> Sent: Sunday, May 31, 2009 5:25 PM
>> Subject: Re: [asa] science education
>> > Cameron:
>> >
>> > I have some comments regarding what you have said here.
>> >
>> > 1) The problem with taking students up on top of buildings to drop
>> > balls
>> > of unequal mass is that all they are doing is duplicating something
>> > that
>> > has already been conceived and done. They are not doing science.
>> > Rather
>> > they are merely modeling the duplication and memorization typical of
>> > most
>> > education.
>> >
>> > They must at least start with confusion. What problem are they trying
>> > to
>> > address by doing the experiment. At the time of Galileo the
>> > distinction
>> > between mass and weight was confused. There were conflicting theories
>> > as
>> > to why the balls fall to the earth at all (a property of the earth, of
> the
>> > balls, or some kind of mutual attraction). Galileo, as I understand
>> > it,
>> > was decidedly non-metaphysical. He was merely interested in measuring
> and
>> > quantitatively treating the phenomenon. Would a student grasp the
> context
>> > of such an attitude. While we may not be able to place the student in
>> > Galileo's context of discovery, can we place the student in their own
>> > context. Why would they ever want to do such an experiment unless a
>> > teacher told them to do it, and perhaps it was cute to drop balls from
>> > a
>> > tall building.
>> >
>> > 2) The Michelson-Morely experiment is an interesting case study. Did
>> > it
>> > really "settle" the issue about the ether? Or did it paint more
>> > clearly
>> > the alternatives. How does science choose amongst alternatives? Why
>> > did
>> > conventionalism arise in this context? If a student could glimpse
>> > this,
>> > they will have, I think, of come to a deeper understanding of science
> than
>> > most scientists.
>> >
>> > 3) There have been programs that at least make available courses
>> > relating
>> > science, philosophy, and history. Ted Davis has taught one. An entire
>> > journal is dedicated to it (Science & Education). A famous one was
>> > established in the 70s at Harvard (Harvard Project Physics Course).
>> > But,
>> > as far as I know, none of have been fully integrated into long term
>> > programs.
>> >
>> > I am at this time working with some to develop such a class at South
>> > Dakota State University, a most unlikely place to try to do so. But it
>> > happens that it is here that I am, along with some others that are
>> > interested.
>> >
>> > What is interesting, I find, is that for the most part the content of
>> > the
>> > philosophy of science is most strongly associated with physics, and
>> > very
>> > poorly with other sciences. There is some work in psychology
>> > (associated
>> > with the problem of the mind), some in biology, and very little in
>> > chemistry.
>> >
>> > 4) Finally, I support the idea. But I think you will find little
>> > support
>> > from science departments. Some may even find it threatening.
>> >
>> > bill
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Received on Tue Jun 2 16:46:05 2009

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