Monday, October 20, 2014

The pendulum of science engagement swings back and forth

I saw this article in the Sydney Morning Herald and just had to have my say!

I disagree with the engaging students with the Miley Cyrus wrecking ball pendulum idea! In the same way that i disagree that the TV show The Big Bang Theory teaches science, It doesn't! At best it starts a discussion about science that includes more people. I would never use TBBT or wrecking ball to teach physics in class, but I would use it to talk about issues in science.

My answer to how we make science engaging, is to do real science, and stay true to what that is. As soon as we water it down (or my most disliked version of that ’dumb it down’) we change what science is. We can not get people interested in science if we tell them what we think they want to hear and then change it once they are engaged.

Students are smart, as soon as you start trying to teach them things using stuff that they think is cool, it is instantly, by definition, uncool and therefore even less engaging!

We do this in High school and it frustrates me so much. We give students band 6 in science, then when they get to uni, they think they are good at (hey, we gave them a band 6!!) but they figure out that science is very different to what they thought it was! No wonder they’re disengaged!

It’s the academic equivalent of asking a kid if they want ice-cream, then when they say yes, we give them a block of frozen cream (which is interesting, but in a different way).

We have to teach science to be what science is! Not an explosion filled, super entertaining bonanza…cos it isn’t that. Sometimes science is not fun. When an explosion happens in science, it is generally the wrong thing, in fact we spend a lot of time trying to stop or at least control explosions. Science is challenging, in the good way. People ask me all the time, is physics hard with all the maths? and my answer is Yes! it is, but it’s a lot harder without it!

I’ve know some great teachers that are engaging their students by being passionate about something and sharing that with their students. One guy has doubled his year 11 science class size in 2 years and NONE of them have dropped for year 12, simply by teaching something that he really likes. By the way it’s a girls school, and he is getting them to rebuild a mini, and run a car show!

One of the best science experiments I saw from a student (a VERY disengaged year 9 student) was she asked her family/friends to do the learner driver exam and she compared the results of younger people with older people. It was an excellent project. Her conclusion was younger people are better drivers (they scored better on the test). This is where the learning happened, we discussed if you could make that conclusion from the data, which you can not. Not only did she learn something about the scientific process/variables/validity etc, but she also told me how she could do the experiment again to get better results! AMAZING! She didn’t go on to do Physics in year 11, but she certainly didn’t hate science after that! I would say that is a successful engagement!

The other cool example is this year when I ran a ”How to be a physicist” session where the students DO science, another disengaged girl said to me in her best year 9 voice. “Thanks, I hated physics before this, but I don’t mind it so much, thanks.” I think you’ll agree, reluctant approval from a teenage student is amongst the highest praise one can be given!

What we should be trying to do is increase the number of people in our ‘club’ not by changing what we’re about, but by inviting others in. The wrecking ball is NOT about simple harmonic motion, so don’t pretend that it is. Like Craig Cormick says in the article, as fan-boys and fan-girls of science we are having a ball doing science, so lets share that excitement and engagement by doing it more, not by doing something else, calling it science and pretending to have fun!

I agree, scientists can be elitist! But so can poetry professors, or politicians, or parents, or plumbers (enough alliteration there??) or anyone! (people!)

If you're after songs that engage people with science, watch any of the clips by the band "OK GO"

Lastly, the point of your article is lost when after the entire speel about scientists being elitist, the last paragraph points out the inaccuracies in the wrecking ball clip, in a very elitist way!

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