Science Education - Getting Started

Paul Grobstein's picture
Finding New Ways to Think about Science Education
 
During the summer of 2008, Paul Grobstein, Luisana Taveras, a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, and Julia Lewis, a rising senior majoring in Chemistry and Bryn Mawr College, will be thinking about science education and trying out ideas in a summer institute program with K-12 teachers. These forums are a place for ongoing thinking by the three of them, and any one else interested. To contribute your thoughts, use the forum entry form at the bottom of this and other forum pages. Postings will be checked to prevent spam and so may be delayed in appearing.  An updated list of all forums in this series is available here.
 
Getting Started

Starting with what one has - what has worked/not worked in one's own life?
New directions from neurobiology?

And elsewhere ...

jrlewis's picture

Curriculum Designed to Unite Art and Science

I found the title of Natalie Angier's article somewhat disturbing, yet many of theories presented were appealing. I agree that the gulf between the arts, humanities, and the sciences is too broad. This divorce is counter productive both within academia and general society. People use this polarization to justify a lack of literacy in science. However, everyone needs some basic scientific skills to participate actively in medicine, society, and technology. Scientific literacy is every bit as valuable as the more traditional type of literacy. I consider scientific literacy to the ability to interpret scientific information. It is important to be able to comprehend the context of facts and observations. The ability to assess the applicability and worth of research results. Without these skills, people are unable to fully understand scientific information. Interpretation of information is requisite for any discipline, art, history, or science. Therefore, education should focus on developing these skills.
Despite the similarities and methodologies, I think that science and art differ with respect to the human intent, or aims, that motivate them. They should be taught as separate autonomous disciplines. However, that is not say that collaboration would not be productive. It would be very interesting to see a common topic discussed in both artistic and scientific styles. This would result in a more complete portrayal of the issue.
Paul Grobstein's picture

science/art as a "bunch of rules"?

Its an interesting thought that both the teaching of both science and art suffers from the same "getting everyone to the same place" attitude/problem. So maybe we really do need to talk more about diversity and its implications, as on line for next week? And then, perhaps, come back to the question of "scientific literacy", what we mean by that, how to acquire it, and how all that relates to art (and similar issues in that realm?)? And then think more about whether/why art and science need/don't need to be "separate autonomous disciplines"?
Laura Cyckowski's picture

science & (fine) art

I'm interested in the topic of science and art being discussed. Even though art (and music) is treated differently in schools (art as an elective or extracurricular), my guess is art education at both primary and higher levels could be improved with the rest of the educational system for the same reasons... Fine arts seems to be viewed as a good outlet for creativity, yet it seems to be subject to the same "getting everyone to the same place" attitude. At least in my HS, and I think in many art schools/ateliers, achieving realism was the ~"right answer" and we were taught a bunch of rules about what made good art, rather than coming up with our own rules or letting us explore different ways to represent "reality" or really "express" ourselves (~ make our own "stories", share our own perspectives, etc). There was always the possibility of doing something right and wrong. So, art would seem to benefit from science in that respect. And also from neurobiology-- There's a link somewhere on Serendip to a "Brain based visual education" program at a state university ( http://www.public.iastate.edu/~design/ART/NAB/bbased.html ), which seems to be all about recognizing how the brain perceives the world and exploiting subconscious processes. It's similar to the Betty Edwards series "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". See also maybe the page on Serendip about Howard Hoffman, both an artist and psychologist... http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exhibitions/hoffman/about.html .
Paul Grobstein's picture

getting started on thinking about science education

Some themes from our various conversations this week that I want to keep in mind:

  • similarities/differences between teacher/student, therapist/client/, doctor/patient relationships?
  • similarities/differences between cats/horses/humans in teaching/learning/inquiring?
  • similarities/differences between science/art/humanities (and history)?
  • implications of all of the above for getting "less wrong" in teaching science
jrlewis's picture

This is slightly

This is slightly tangential, but would it be useful to consider what is meant by the phrase "the art of medicine?" The portrayal of medical knowledge to the patient considered to be a work of art? Is the practice of medicine expression of a theory by the doctor (artist) to the patient (audience)?

Or is medincine more complex?

"Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille" (Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson)

Is the doctor an artist using their patient as a piece of artwork? Who is the audiance for this work? What is being expressed? An ideal of life or lifestyle? What does this model imply about patient rights and agency?

What about "the art of teaching?" Both descriptions seem to fit.

Paul Grobstein's picture

art, medicine, teaching, science, life

I don't think this is tangential at all. I think its moving us toward a number of critical issues, apparent not only in science education but in other contexts as well. Maybe both doctors and patients need to take more seriously the "art of medicine", both students and teachers the "art of teaching", and both scientists and artists the "art of life"?
Laura Cyckowski's picture

What is an "art"?

Still interested in the comparisons between scientists/and "artists" (of all kinds). When I think of some process being described as an "art", I think of it as acting in a way that relies most heavily on intuition (or subconcious processes) gained from experience. So, the practice of medicine by a doctor would not necessarily/only be a conscious "expression of a theory by the doctor (artist)". Even though medical school involves a lot of "content" learning in the preclinical curriculum, when doctors are making decisions about a treatment, or a cause of disease X, a lot of times they're relying in part on gut instincts based on previous experience. Similarly, many artists describe being in a "zone" when they're working, tapping into subconscious knowledge and instincts; most experienced artists, for example, can't verbally express human anatomical expressions, they've just developed intuitions about the human form from experience. And the same for scientists...? It seems that even if many times we believe that predictions we make about things are rationally based, this just seems to be an explanation for the feeling/intuition we get about something (much like a lot of what Antonio Damasion describes). And for "the art of teaching"? So, if intuitions developed from experience are in fact important then, with respect to teaching, that would give support to the argument that teacher education should involve more practice and less "classroom theory"? And the same for all general areas of learning?
jrlewis's picture

Applications of Neuroscientific Findings

Kalina Christoff's article summarizes recent neurobiological findings by Immordino-Yang. She discusses the implivations of Immordino-Yang's research results. While emphasizing their significance, she also voices concerns about the potential for abuse and inappropriate uses.

How should theories of neurological plasticity be incorporated into pedagogy? The community of teachers of writing have embraced a process centered approach with some sucess. However, science teachers have not followed in their exact foot steps. A process-centered approach to science education does not currently consider a diversity of problem solving strategies. At least, this has not been my experience in science courses. Often times, my attempt to solve a problem has been deemed completely incorrect or unintelligible by my professors.

Paul Grobstein's picture

chemistry: what sticks and why

Did the chemistry teacher do something or, perhaps, did you? What was different about helium from the "massive amounts of material ... not retained after either the course or evaluation are completed"? Could that time be better spent in other ways in chemistry courses? If not, why not? If so, why isn't it? What's the relation between that and a disinclination to entertain a "diversity of problem solving strategies"?
jrlewis's picture

mind control by a chemistry teacher?

In our discussion of the periodic table, she taught us to consider why the elements were placed where they were. She encouraged us to look for and understand trends across row and down groups. This provided me with the a good strategy for figuring out where helium belonged in the periodic table. Independent of rote memorization.

I guess my real question is how did I acess the information my teacher taught me. I should have been able to acess my mother's name more easily. Is there something about brain processes, that it is easier to think analytically after suffering brain damage than to recall simple facts?  Or do I have a deeper emotional connection to chemistry than my mother?  (not impossible)

jrlewis's picture

Role of Emotion in Education According to Neuroscience

Immordino-Yang and Damasio’s article “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: the Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education” discusses the function that emotion plays in learning and thinking. The authors argue that cognitive activity can not be divorced from emotional influence. They place their explanations in an anthropological and evolutionary context.

I am curious about how to apply these theories to a science curriculum. One issue that is common in chemistry courses is massive amounts of material must be memorized by the student. This material is often no retained after either the course or evaluation are completed. Based on the information presented in the article, is it possible to enhance student retention of material by accessing or treating the emotional component of learning differently? Is there a reason why students are able to remember their friends phone numbers better than academic facts? Does my intense interest in chemistry explain why I was able to tell my neurologist that helium was the second element in the periodic table after suffering a severe concussion? What did my chemistry teacher do to ingrain the material so deeply in my mind? For reference, I was unable to remember my birthday or mother’s name.

jrlewis's picture

Education and the Brain

I found the portion of the piece pertaining to open-ended transactional inquiry was relevant to my own theories about horse training. There are two basic classes of riders: amateurs and professionals. Professional riders are people who accept money for training and showing other's horses. Amateurs are riders who have less experience, skill, and sometimes talent; they do not accept money for their riding. In the equestrian discipline of hunters, professionals spend a significant portion of time training young horses. They make use of their skill and judgement to provide the horse with consistent guidance and instruction in how to perform. The young or inexperienced hunter prospect, horse, develops proficiency with specific tasks. This training by appropriate professionals results in horses with predictable skills present at predetermined ages. However, when an amateur trains a horse, the process is fundamentally different. An amateur is not capable of providing a highly structured learning environment for the horse; they do not possess a well developed judgement or set of skills. Amateurs are inconsistent and commit a variety of mistakes. Despite this multiplicity of
hindrances, amateurs are sometimes successful in training their own horses.
The amateur must apply an assortment of training strategies that differ significantly from the professional. The horse-rider relationship between an amateur and their horse is significantly different than the one between a professional and their mount. The amateur must acknowledge their capacity for making mistakes by adopting a non-authoritative posture. The amateur is forming a partnership with their horse, where the judgements or opinions of both partners will be considered. Similar to the recommended for a teacher encouraging transactional inquiry. As the students take an active role in their education, so does the horse, by exploring their own interpretation of the tasks set and problems to be solved. Whether or not a horse that is trained by an amateur has the exact same set of skills as a professional horse is difficult to evaluate. However, it would be interesting to investigate how the analytical and critical thinking skills of horses trained by amateurs compare. This information might bare some relevance to the topic of experiential learning.
As a non-neurobiologist, I am uncertain about the similarities and differences between horse and human brains. I wonder whether equine neurobiology implies anything different about horse training or education?
LuisanaT's picture

Why not have more teachers?

Going off on the nature of the student-teacher relationship, the most experienced is generally also the most desired teacher for a class, but that level of expertise is not achieved from the bottom down; every tenured teacher starts off as a beginner, meaning at least one class during the year is subject to being the teacher’s guinea pig. Although giving these students the best educational experience is top priority, the greater probability a recently certified teacher has in being ineffectiveness in the classroom is difficult to have to deal with.
Supplementing the new teacher with a more experienced one in the classroom is a good attempt at reducing the amount of mistakes the amateur can make and provides support that is greatly appreciated when, more often than not, the class size is particularly large. But this simultaneously limits the possibility of generating ideas that may be completely new and beneficial to incorporate into the methodologies currently used in education because of the untrained, less conventional approach the new teacher may be more inclined to make.
Paul Grobstein's picture

"professional" vs "amateur" education

I'm intrigued by the issues this particular parallel raises. Yes, "professionals" may have more consistent success at producing "predictable skills present at predetermined ages". The question it seems to me we're coming to is whether that is or is not the objective of education, either of horses or of people.

If the objective is actually to enhance inquiry sophistication, then it may depend fundamentally on "amateurs", not in the sense of people with less experience but instead in the sense of people who are engaged with individual cases rather than with "standard" achievement. And this, of course, may depend on having more experience with individual variation than that of "professionals".

LuisanaT's picture

Question

Just to clarify, are you claiming that "professionals" are inconsiderate of case-specific instances and more concerned with the "standard," average amount of success made? (i.e. ,how many students "pass" the SATs?) In terms of school education, would this be a result of teachers spending so much time working with large groups of students as oppose to smaller ones and one-on-ones, that they have grown to neglect those that deviate from experiencing the common classroom experience? Or is this mentality/behavior, what I feel is the case, forced into these teachers (this has to exclude amateurs because they have just stepped into this professional realm) by the educational system’s high expectations (perfect scores on examinations) given low resources (time constraints, small budget, etc.) for their student’s education?
jrlewis's picture

For Happy Horses and Humans

I think that most professionals are concerned with finding horses that have the potential to perform a desired set of tasks and then teaching them the necessary skills. This is a very limited education. To translate as exactly as possible into the classroom... The professional teacher's goal would be acheiving high SAT scores. With students who have basic analytical ability, and a specific amount of time and resources a professional could produce a class in which every student scores over 1200. This is an extremely limiting and narrow education. The students are only minimally prepared to deal with situations other than the SATs. They might not even be able to score well on the ACT!

However, this model is simple and embraces objective goals and time frames. Whether or not it is a good education is a different question.

LuisanaT's picture

The brain and the truth

I would like to argue that the very first statement Professor Grobstein proposes in his Education and the Brain: New Challenges and New Direction piece only holds true in retrospect. He himself has said that the goal of science is to get the answers about life, the definitive description of reality, less wrong. So with each successful attempt at reaching that goal, of that closer approximation of the “truth,” we are temporarily picturing the factuality of this world. What I believe Professor Grobstien is trying to suggest is that at no point can we come to a single, definitive, absolute, and complete depiction of different aspects of the world, which I completely agree with.

The reevaluation of a student’s misconceptions about science holds the biggest impact on the students learning especially when the misconception comes from their previous educational experiences like with the concept of the scientific method. This, I have to admit, was one of the biggest, for the lack of a better word, revelations I experienced while undertaking Professor Grobstein’s Bio 103 course last year. Because for a certain time saying the “hypothesis is true” remained peacefully in the back of our minds and now that we aware of the fact that it does not satisfy our more accurate understanding of science students such as myself are finally taking a more active, more conscious role in what gets established in the classroom.

Looking at the way in which Gorstein’s reevaluate the definitiveness of the scientific method closely, exhibits a good example for which a class discussion should be conducted. Rather than feeding the student the question meant to be answered by the end of the class, usually posed in the Aim or hypothesis, the students should be introduced to a summary of related observations and be given the opportunity to derive a certain question to see whether that sum remains consistent. Because the summary itself is always subject to change, the certainty of the uncertain outcome should help to work as a driving force, motivating the students to come to a general conclusion that either rejects or supports the assumption from the question made.

If what I believe to be the distinction between science and art to remain true, where science is more focused on persuading its audience of a certain claim, than steering away from “dry” scientific stories would be most logical. Admitting to and interweaving more humane components (i.e. fallibility) into scientific stories like records and models renders the findings to be more realistic and therefore believable to the audience. But at the same time I can see how complications may arise in the classroom setting because it will allow the students to potentially be more sympathetic to the scientific situation I suppose, releasing them from their analytical stare of the less “objective” science story.

Just as an interesting little tidbit to end this post, when I finished the last words on the separation between the body and mind by Mary Midgley, “source of habit,” I mistakenly read force of habit and instantly thought back to the similarly deep separations between Art and Science I posed in a previous post.

 

LuisanaT's picture

I concur, I concur

I came to a similar understanding that it has now become a matter of getting the science as story less subjective (as oppose to more objective).

The fact that there is an aspiration to eliminate individual human perspective and therefore influence on/filtration of science discovery and its representation only helps to encourage the need for diversity in group settings. For the different peoples are more likely to carry distinctly contrasting ideals because of their different backgrounds, pre-existing knowledge and experience, all of which is helping to challenge all of it logic and human particularities. (i.e. being racist, sexist, etc.) in current claims. This type of environment promotes the process of narrowing down the science by separating what makes sense in the world that affects us all from what only affects/interest/etc. the individual, coming to a closer approximation of understandings that are less wrong.

LuisanaT's picture

Art and Science

I thoroughly enjoy Natalie Angier’s idea of demystifying science by looking at it in a non-conventional way. Historically speaking, the image that comes to mind when thinking about Scientists is the typical tall, white man in his white lab coat and glasses maybe with some wild hair and an assortment of pens in his breast pocket working diligently in a laboratory. This idea has changed profoundly over time to a more complicated and universally applicable to any individual. Now if one were to juxtapose that timeline with that of the image of the Artists and their stereotype of being a male and a creative genius, there would be distinct similarities between the two.

For one thing, the intent found behind Artist and Scientist seems to be the same. Because while a main component driving the progression of Science, as well as technology, is for the sake of increasing the likelihood of human survival, let alone the comfort of living, the driving force continuing Art in humans, for one thing, has been for the emotional expression and therefore relief it provides. With this in mind, one reason why art was originally taught to people in the first place as oppose to just picked up was to practice apprenticeship, guaranteeing the artistic methods, techniques, and craft mastered by one individual are carried down to the apprentice of the next generation. In the same way, presumably, the motive behind educating others about science was to ensure scientific knowledge was preserved long after.

One of the only things separating Science and Art is the use in what either one produces. I would argue that the products of science are geared more towards supporting and solidifying a certain idea while that of Art functions more as an expression of creative thought. Science I feel represents its claims about our understandings of the world in a persuasive manner while its counterpart, art, displays a more provocative representation of the world.

But now is this discrepancy enough to justify how both play out in this world? For instance, why are children provided with things such as coloring books and paint sets, promoting their artistic ability but not “scientific tools” like a magnifying glass or ruler to exercise their observation skills? Are children’s toys socially constructed to perpetuate the distinction that science is performed at a given time in a given place while art is a free-ranged activity? What does that say about society’s expectations of either practice? Could, what society considered art really is practiced in the classroom setting admirably, at least as much as science? Could, what they would call science possibly be conducted in the playground and still be regarded as inspiring and ingenious as art? Is there some underlying truth about raising children? Are toys only meant for creative exercise? Are there even “scientific” toys? Can the slinky, with its different reactions to the forces of gravity be considered one? Or do toys function for something else entirely, that being for pure entertainment? How much cognitive engagement and therefore learning would that involve then, if any?

For the same reason, whatever that may be, that young children are supplied with toys for artistic exercise, students are generally offered more art history courses and socio-artistic related fields of study than science history and socio-scientific related fields of study as well as majors and professions. On that same note, elementary school teachers composed of two sets of teachers; one that educates students in the fields of math, history, English, and science while the other educates specifically in the area of paint, another solely in music. Once again, what is this uneven representation prevalent in all levels of education instilling in the people of this society?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Science/art: persuasion vs provocation?

Interesting way to think about it. And lots more interesting examples of how science and art are treated differently in our culture. Which further contributes to thinking about whether they should be?
LuisanaT's picture

Feeling and Learning

The way in which the processes of learning and emotion cross paths is a compelling approach to explaining the social neuroscience affect on individual actions. Taking the literal sense of a phrase like “I feel like ripping someone head’s off” is a good indication of what the individual potentially will/want to do as a result of a feeling they have. I completely agree with the idea that emotion is simply a branch of applying what the body has interpreted and internalized and as a result allows them to handle different situations appropriately. One good example of this is through the behavior empathy. On an evolutionary standpoint, a human beings ability to be empathetic to another increases his/her reaction time and actual reaction to the individual they are feeling empathetic towards. For example, a caring mother will not only feel empathetic to their daughter going through labor but will immediately be prepared to handle the situation with the proper supplies and steps necessary to facilitate the delivering process. In the case of education, this sort of quality can definitely be beneficial for the teachers when assessing the students genuine understanding of the material or lack there of. Being empathetic towards the struggling student can put the teacher in the best position to immediately understand exactly where the student is coming from, making the entire communicative exchange run much more smoothly and comfortably, isolating and resolving the problem much more quickly.

jrlewis's picture

Has Anyone Else Heard This?

Someone told me that teachers teach in the style in which they learn best. Might this be a case of unconcious empathy on the part of the teacher? This perspective does favor teacher based education, unfortunately.
Paul Grobstein's picture

education and empathy

There's a connection between science education and therapy inherent in this that I suspect would make some science educators uncomfortable.
LuisanaT's picture

From what I remember....

The education I have gained leading up to college has consisted of temporarily ingraining the information established in a classroom into my brain for its immediate regurgitation and even more immediate disposal. This thought process like those of many students, I argue, is ineffective for learning because it fails to form a solid foundation of knowledge to build upon and continue learning from. For once the exam on say ecosystems is over with, all-relevant information is forgotten about, allowing the succeeding topic in the curriculum take impermanent home in my brain.

The little knowledge I did gain throughout my pre-college education can be well summed up in the phrase “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Acknowledging that, I’d like to argue that educational potential is contingent on the teachers involved. Students can only excel as far as their teacher’s allow them to go within the restraints of the classroom and more importantly the repertoire of knowledge they themselves have to offer. As a second grade teacher from Overbrook elementary once told me, teaching is like being a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Elementary school teachers in particular are given what I feel an unfair amount of responsibility when, on top of being a second mother for the students, are expected to teach the them all of the major subjects in academia (language arts, science, mathematics, and history). One should not expect a student to automatically gain an aptitude in a certain aspect of science if their teacher can’t.

Whenever I look back on the education I have received, I feel as though the years that have gone by could very easily be abridged simply by excising all of the time spent re-teaching the material and teaching things that were not geared towards aptitude examinations. For the only things I took with me after coming out of elementary school included the three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic, three things of which were not even at mediocre standards after so many years. Thinking about this reminds me of a stand-up performance about educational retention I had seen in the education class on Math and Science Pedagogy I took this past semester. It brings up the idea of creating and enrolling into a “Five-minute University” and gaining the same amount of factual knowledge one would still possess five years after graduating from a more conventional institution. Please follow the link provided below to watch this short skit.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=kO8x8eoU3L4

My educational experience really has been very much of a blur, the main reason to account for this is the fact that the teachers were not prepared to handle students of all different learning levels properly, forcing the class to progress only as fast as the most difficult or sacrifice other teacher’s and student’s time to cover the same material to the class the following year. The actual internalization of the material discussed is vitally important for a student to form a malleable tool to tackle real world applications when in the classroom and more importantly when in the actual real world.


Whenever I hear the phrase real-world applications or applications for that matter I automatically think about a pen and paper, there being a exam going on, and the student being tested on their ability to understand and apply a certain concept. What many people do not readily associate “real-world applications” with is the real world. I would argue that schools do a poor job at making solid links between the lessons learned in school and its influence on the student/environment/etc once the notebook is put away. Science in particular is rarely seen as a round-the-clock, subconscious human behavior just like breathing. But instead, most of society believes that science is confined to the four walls that make up a science classroom or laboratory. (As a small aside, simply using the world laboratory perpetuates the idea that science can only be conducted properly within a designated area.) Although students are not equipped with the same rulers or triple balance beam once outside the school building, they are still capable of making observations and forming criticisms and questions in respect to that, furthering there understanding on the world around them.

After finaly stepping into the completely different realm that is a college introductory science course, I realized that personally I do not have to know all of the science there is in order to accept, understand and, most importantly, enjoy it. The particular course is Professor Grobstein’s Biology 103 Basic Concepts, which did not include a textbook, to learn from or a traditional biology midterm and final to test how much information was retained and thoroughly understood. The most interesting thing I found in the class was the fact that you can use the pre-existing knowledge you have about the world-the science you have gathered throughout life-to make sense of the different aspects of life on your own. Not to get this confused with the inadequate amount of science being learned and actually understood in the lower levels of education, I came to terms with the fact that science is continually transforming, becoming something more, something different as time goes on. This scientific freedom has sparked my interest in its history, evolution, practice, and representation rather than my direct participation in it. To a certain extent, conducting the science is not what I want to be tested on and is why I will not pursue many more hardcore science courses in the future.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Science courses and the real world

"What many people do not readily associate “real-world applications” with is the real world."

Very interesting, very general, important point.

Also very interesting to think more about the differences between Bio 103 and "hard core science courses" ... what works/doesn't work for whom and why. Is the issue simply memorization, or "conducting the science", or being tested, or something more?

jrlewis's picture

I think your elementary

I think your elementary education experience was very similar to mine. I remember learning or memorizing important pieces of information, that were supposed to be beneficial later in life. Despite memorizing the position of all fifty states in the union, I still can not travel from Philadelphia to Boston, by car, without getting terribly lost. Perhaps a more effective pedagogy would have involved teaching map reading and navigation, instead of rote memorization of certain places.

I think that a better elementary education would have included more tools for making sense of myself and my environment. Interpretation is a task that is performed by people every moment every day. It might not be forgotten so easily because it would actually be constructuve and informative!

Paul Grobstein's picture

learning information versus acquiring inquiry skills

So the task isn't to learn information but rather to acquire inquiry skills? Getting wide spread agreement on that point would be a MAJOR revolution. One argument against it is that teaching inquiry skills takes lots of time, but maybe, as Lusiana points out, there's lots of time wasted in classrooms that might be put to more productive use.
jrlewis's picture

art and science

My thought for the day is that science can be reduced to a combination or unification of curiosity and skepticism as exemplified by my kitten, Roady. When placed in a new room, Roady will almost immediately begin to explore, investigate, and interact with her surroundings. She will develop and test hypotheses based on some sort of observation, such as "the chair leg is inanimate." She may bat, paw, and pounce on the chair leg to determine whether or not it may be induced to move. Based on the results of her experiments, she may draw some conclusions about the nature of the chair leg.

Maybe I am reading too much into my kitten's antics or personifying her, or something. However, if you watch Roady for an hour, I think she will prove to you just what a good scientist she is! If you accept Roadie as a scientist, then you must accept all humans as scientists.

Making science accessable to all humans will require significant changes in science education and practice. In our currant society, many elements of science are elitist and exclude the majority. Is it consistent with our definition or description of science to make the discipline available to all? Or must the accepted account of science be altered first? If so, how? It is important to consider whether or not there are any prerequisites for participating in science. Analytical ability is necessary to interpret new observations and evaluate their relationship to various theories. How much does an individual's education affect or develop their critical thinking? Does an individual's intelligence correspond to their ability to contribute to scientific progress? How should an individual's capacity for participating in science be evaluated? Should it be? Are there levels of participation in science?

One of the aspects of being a chemistry major in college that I have found most challenging is explaining and justifying my scientific interests to my friends. Many of the people I have encountered perceive science as an abstract and elite discipline, disconnected from their interests and experiences. They consider themselves to be incapable of either comprehending or participating in science. They emphasize the above average intelligence of scientists and their disengagement with the rest of humanity. However, these criticisms are not unique to science and scientists. Art and artists are subject to the exact same criticisms. As someone who finds both art and science appealing I am interested in finding responses to these complaints.

I think it is important to note that I have never observed my kitten being involved in an artistic activity. It is entirely possible that my kitten does produce artistic projects that I merely do not recognize. Or it may be inferred that art is a uniquely human pursuit. This second idea might provide criteria for distinguishing between art and science in terms of psychology and neurobiology.
My education has provided me a few interesting thoughts about art and science.

At my small, all girls, college preparatory school, science was given great value. Three science courses were required and many more were offered. However, only one art course was necessary for graduation. This uneven distribution of requirements implies a prejudice in favor of science. This potential partiality may be resolved by examining the strength and number of programs provided by my high school for practical experience in the arts. This arrangement of curriculum and requirements suggests that there are two different strategies favored for art and science education. What is it about the nature of these two subjects that signifies the need for such divergent approaches? Is this style of education effective? Higher education's treatment of art and science raises additional concerns. Simply looking at a list of possible majors reveals interesting attitudes, the existence of an art history major and not a science history major. Why is the study of the history of art considered rewarding and the history of science not? Was this opinion always held?

Last semester I took a course about the philosophy of science. One of the topics that was discussed consistently throughout the semester was the demarcation issue. In class discussion we spent a significant amount of time trying to describe and determine what exactly science is. Our class found it interesting to compare and contrast art and science. Art and science are traditionally perceived as two distinct activities that each appeal to certain people. However, I am not convinced that a rigorous study of the two disciplines, their aims and methodologies would confirm this stereotype. I am interested in using my background in philosophy to pursue an exploration about the relationship between art and science. I would like to apply my insights to the area of science education.

bronstein's picture

Art v. science

I've noticed that many physics teachers are also into art in some form: Singing, dancing, photography, or even painting. This would indicate that there is a connection between art & science, not a disconnection. I would also hold that these physicists appreciate the art on more levels than the science-phobe.
LuisanaT's picture

Computer scientists like to sing too

The institute for Computer Science Education at Haverford College that took place two weeks ago ended with one very interesting workshop integrating music with concepts of computer science. The computer science teacher, JD Doughtery, has actually composed a few cute songs that relate to computer science that he performs in his class. Some of JD's music has contributed to professor Walter Smith's, a physics professor at Haverford College and radio engineer, website of science songs http://www.haverford.edu/physics-astro/songs/

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Paul Grobstein's picture

science, cats, and art

"If you accept Roadie [a cat] as a scientist, then you must accept all humans as scientists."

Intriguing/pretty compelling description/interpretation of cat behavior. Is there a problem with accepting either Roadie or "all humans" as scientists? For more along the latter lines see What is Science? and Revisiting Science in Culture.

The science/art divide?

Some intriguing different thoughts are on an old issue. To talk more about. In the meanwhile, some relevant materials ...

 

jrlewis's picture

my own experience

I can tell you about the day, month, and year that I fell in love with science. It was the first day of honors chemistry, my sophomore year of high school. The teacher began class by reading an account of the discovery of teflon by a young researcher at DuPont. She emphasized the role of curiosity and skepticism in how the research was conducted. She argued that a good scientist is conscientious, observant, and applies rigorous analysis to every problem or situation. She then went on to explain that the techniques and terminology of science were important only as much as they facilitate the culture, expression, and progress of science. I found this characterization of science very appealing. Its characterization of a good scientist corresponded closely with my idea of an interesting person. The idea of adventure and exploration being extended to everyday experiences for the scientist in the lab. For the first time, the practice of science was attractive to me. Since then, I have pursued a career in science.

In the course of my studies of chemistry, I have been discouraged and disappointed many times. Sometimes I have considered changing my major or my career plans. The feature of my life that kept me most focused was summoning up the lessons I learned in my first chemistry course. That depiction of a scientist, I keep like a photograph of a loved one in my wallet. It is my encouragement. As are the rare and treasured conversations I still have with my high school chemistry teacher. Her continued support has kept the picture shiny, smooth, and striking.

It the end of my freshmen year of college, I had completed organic chemistry and was wondering about what courses to take the following semester. I was well aware of my college's requirements for a chemistry major, which include two semesters of physics, and three semesters of calculus, in addition to a variety of chemistry courses. One afternoon in town, I met a biology professor from my college, who recognized my face among many in my college's science building. After ascertaining that I was a chemistry major, she launched into a long animated lecture about how unreasonable it was that biology majors are required to take four semesters of chemistry courses and chemistry majors are not required to take any biology courses. She argued that it is equally valuable for a science major to learn about the applications of their discipline as the theories underlying it. Nature has developed much more sophisticated systems than humans have, they are incredibly complex and effective at performing a variety of functions. The professor spoke with such conviction and passion that I was mesmerized. At the end of her speech, I found myself agreeing to take four semesters of biology. I have found the first three of the promised semesters as rewarding as she predicted.

It occurs to me, that my education has been significantly influenced by certain teachers. These teachers possessed the quality of charisma. They were capable of influencing my development, interests, and personal thoughts with only their words. Their recommendations were interesting, unorthodox, and ultimately beneficial to my education. I am greatly indebted to these unique individuals who appear to be the great man figures of history. I would like to explore the applications of the great man theory to education. I am also interested in the psychological and neurological connections.

As I reflect on my education, many contradictions and uncertainties come to mind. The traits that I have found valuable in my past teachers do not uniquely constitute a good teacher. Unorthodox behaviors may have either a positive or negative effects on students. The formation of close student teacher connections lead to intensely good or intensely bad relationships. The nature of student-teacher relationships may have critical consequences for student learning. Therefore, caution in creating connections between students and teachers must be exercised.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Great (wo)man theory, in education and ...

I think it would be very much worth looking into both charisma and the usefulness/problems of great (wo)man approach to education. And into how those might relate/not relate to similar issues in history and science. The book I've been recently reading that this brings to mind is Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist by Dean Keith Simonton.