Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I am not a MATH and SCIENCE Person

I am not a MATH and SCIENCE Person

"Science is a way of thinking, much more
than it is a body of knowledge."
                                                                                    -Carl Sagan-

According to a recent recent test of 250,000 fifteen year olds from forty-one industrialized nations the United States ranks 27th in science skills.  The country responsible for light bulbs, television, putting a man on the moon, microwave ovens, the computer revolution and the clapper, is in a free fall from the top of the pedestal of scientific discovery.

My science colleagues and I have had a long running joke about providing badges of honor to the teachers we meet who proudly claim that they are not math and science people.  And yet, heaven forbid a science teacher who does not know what a sonnet is (a 14 line poem based upon a single thought or expression in one or more rhyming schemes), or when the War of the Roses was fought (the civil wars of England fought from 1455-1485).   
Introducing myself as a chemistry  educator, I invariably have to field the question, "Do you still have students memorize the periodic table?" as if the only thing you need to do in chemistry is first memorize and second know the atomic number, mass symbol and name of the first 20 elements in order to know chemistry. 

Too often in today's educational landscape science education suffers because the foundations are not set early in the elementary or junior high levels.  Typically, because the grammar school teachers are liberal arts majors who have little or no background in the field of science and therefore transmit their discomfort to their students.  Now don't get me wrong. There some amazing science teachers and science programs throughout the country.  But after music and art are diminished due to budget cuts, and PE is decreased so that more time can be spent preparing students for standardized tests, the next subject to suffer, is science.  Funding issues, lab materials, complexity of lab set up, and teacher discomfort lead to Science becoming a perfunctory exercise in reading the text and answering the questions at the end of the chapter. 

I have volunteered my time during the last several years to assist middle school and junior high teachers in developing a more hands on science curriculum.  These teachers have a desire to enhance their curriculum with more labs and activities.  Their classrooms are equipped with wonderful science kits paid for by the district to coordinate with their text.  However, they are paralyzed by the fear of the unfamiliar and doing something wrong. I do not blame these teachers. Teacher preparation and crriculum development programs are usually lacking in opportunities to experience the intricacies of teaching science. 

When these students leave their junior high schools they are fortunate if they have used a microscope or experienced a dissection. Science learning has been narrowed down to a series of handouts and rote memorization.  The process of science is not one of critical thinking about the possibilities of investigation but simply finding a correct answer.  They have not experienced the joy of putting something together and making it work successfully or the even greater moment of something not working and figuring out how to make it work.

Just as educators should allow students to experience failure as a means of growth and learning, teachers too, should be willing to fail and make mistakes.  In fact what better way for students to value the process of learning from mistakes than to experience that process alongside a teacher.

Have fun, tinker, experience, build-destroy-rebuild, do, plan, make, mix, join, break, fix, play, understand, work, learn, guess, error, guess again, adjust, adapt, see, discover.

"Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house."
                                                                            -Henri Poincar-

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