November 02, 2007

Learning to think like scientists, and learning how to think about science

I meant to post earlier this week about Natalie Angier's most recent NYT "Basics" science column when it first appeared, but schoolwork and festivities got in the way. You can read the entire column here (registration is free); and here are some bits and pieces (emphases, as always, mine):
[Faye Cascio’s ninth-grade physical science] ... students can articulate their reasoning because, for one thing, they have no choice. One recent morning, Ms. Cascio asked several students in succession to explain the logic of their answer to the same question — and, “Uh, yeah, I agree with Yasamin and Josh” just wouldn’t do.

“It’s called dipsticking,” Ms. Cascio said. “It’s really important to make sure the kids are picking this information up, and so I ask, Is this clear to you? Do you really understand it? and I won’t go on until I get a positive, satisfying answer.”

A bigger reason the students seemed to wear the material comfortably emerged when they pulled from the classroom closet genuine items of clothing: white lab coats. The Academy of Science ["the almost sneakily rigorous high school magnet science program in Loudoun County, Va., of which Ms. Cascio’s physics class is a part"] is built on the principle of what its director, George Wolfe, calls inquiry-based learning. “I want them to learn to think like scientists*,” he said, “rather than regurgitate facts.” From the moment they enter the program, students do experiments, lots of experiments. Not canned experiments, either, of the sort found in the average “science is fun!” book that spell out every step. Here, the students must design experiments themselves, which means they must learn essential lessons like how to ask questions in an answerable way, what’s your error bar, and, will you please just give me some data already. ...

Ms. Cascio, 57, is a law of motion herself, a stylish dynamo whose voice retains the comforting vibrato of her natal Jersey City. As an undergraduate at Douglass College of Rutgers University, she studied molecular biology and planned to become a doctor, but while living in Greece she began teaching and fell in love with the profession, eventually earning master’s degrees in biology and education. With her decades of experience and a string of national teaching laurels, Ms. Cascio could easily have settled into rote mode, but instead she decided to join the fledgling Academy of Science, where, she admits, the pace can be grueling. “It takes a lot more time to teach inquiry than by plug and chug, by getting up in front of a class and lecturing by the book,” she said.

But how much more satisfying the nosy approach to knowing can be, and how amusing, too. In one biology class last year, for example, Ms. Cascio’s students acquainted themselves with the cell, the nucleus, DNA, proteins, evolution, taxonomy and other bold-faced biology concepts by analyzing meat and seafood products from the supermarket, discovering that, hey, the things that had been sold as scallops were actually pulverized trout pressed into scallop shapes.

Through its emphasis on Socratic parrying and creative laboratory work, the program could well serve as a model for remedying misconceptions. Nearly all scientists and educators agree that somehow, at some point during their pedagogical odyssey, most Americans get the wrong idea about what science is, and what it is not.

Science is, or should be, about the world, not about science,” said Eugene Levy, a professor of physics and astronomy and the provost of Rice University. “But for too many students, science has been presented as a large series of manipulations that they rarely understand or connect to the reality around them.” If there is a message that he wants his students to take from his introductory science class, he said, “it is to grasp that the world is in fact understandable, that rational inquiry can lead to understanding, and that there’s rarely an excuse to say understanding is beyond them.” ...
By the way, I read another article (from the Albany, NY Times Union) recently about teaching science, this one about teaching chemistry in the home, by home educating parent and "hands-on learning columnist" for Home Education Magazine, Kathy Ceceri, who writes, "I decided I wanted my kids to discover a little of that fun [with science experiments], too (within reason). What I learned, however, is that doing chemistry at home is a lot harder than it used to be." For anyone interested in the history of children's chemistry sets, and their sad demise over the past 40 years, you'll be interested to read the rest of the article.

One book Kathy recommends in her article is The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Monty L. Fetterolf, head of the Department of Physics and Chemistry at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, and his wife and fellow USC professor Cathy Cobb, who specializes in books on the history of science for lay readers (including this and this).

Reading to the end of the article, which includes a list of resources, I was pleased to find that last month Kathy has started a new blog, Home Chemistry; from her sidebar,
This is the year I have decided to finally tackle lab science with my homeschooled kids (14 and 11). Despite horrendous memories of my own experience in public high school chem (mostly centered around experiments that didn’t work and savvier classmates who made out their observation charts first, then invented the data to fit), I’m hoping that -- freed of state testing requirements and other barriers to having fun -- we'll all get to enjoy the excitement of science without the angst.
Lots of good stuff to read through.

* I'll put in yet another plug for one of our favorite science books, How to Think Like a Scientist: Answering Questions by the Scientific Method by Stephen P. Kramer with illustrations by Felicia ("If You Give a Mouse a Cookie") Bond

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