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Recollections of Good (and Less Good) Science Teaching

An excerpt from a December, 1999 email to Serendip:

A personal note re science education: I had a very good AP type science education in a working/lower-middle class suburb of Cleveland back in the early 60's. Chemistry class began with Mr. Reno giving each of us a sealed box in which was some object, and directing us to describe the object as fully as possible without opening the box. Needless to say, we were perplexed but did our best to comply. He then explained about model-building, and told us that science is operating the way we had just dealt with the box/object - you can't ever open the box and see what "reality" really is, but you can "query" the box/object system experimentally and get useful results.

Then we spent a month or two on the charge-cloud model of atoms and chemical interactions, at the end of which he announced we would now be studying the quantum model of the atom. When we inevitably asked him which model was correct, he smiled and said, "Depends on what you want to do with it." Same response to the "Is light a particle or a wave?" Models of molecular structure "resonate" - not the molecules, just our models of them. Science isn't finding "truth," it's building models which may be more or less useful depending on what you want to do with them.

That was also the year it was discovered that argon does, indeed, make compounds. The morning after it was announced on the news he walked into class under the scrutiny of twenty pairs of accusing eyes, and proclaimed to us, "That's science. Now that we know that it happens, we figure out how." He did have a plausible explanation using current theories, but the point was that there is no "truth" with a capital T in science.

The next year I took a competent but thoroughly memorization-oriented AP course in biology, where we were indoctrinated in the "Central dogma of DNA," thus totally confusing the ex-parochial school kids in the class who thought dogma was something that only occurred in religious contexts....


The writer, Rachel Heckert (heckertr@juno.com), is interested in complexity and chaos, computing, philosophy of science, ecology, cross-cultural and health psychology, cultural/medical anthropology, public health, and epidemiology, and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health program at CUNY/Brooklyn. Mr. Reno is Martin Reno, currently Professor of Physics and Computer Science and Director of Computers, Networks, and Information Technology at Heidelberg College, Tiffin, Ohio.

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