Science education content, come the revolution

Morning sunlight brightens the classroom. Casey opens a tablet.  It’s 9:05.

Sounds like the beginning of a “tablets with revolutionize evolution” post, doesn’t it?  But no.  I’ve been bending peoples’ ears about content.  Descriptive content.  For K-grad science education.  The stories we tell students about how the physical world works.  And someone at dinner asked, “Ok, say you’re right.  What does the revolution look like?

The teacher noticed the sunlight too.  So she begins the morning with astronomy.  Casey’s tablet says, “The Sun, is a Big, Hot, Ball!”  Casey exclaims, “A ball!”.  Casey likes balls.  On the screen, there is an interactive white ball.  With spots.

That’s it.  There’s the revolution.

Missed it?  It’s there at the end.  It’s easy to miss.  No, not the spots.  No, nor the interactive – how could anything educational not be interactive?

It’s the “white”.

Huh?  Why?  Compare to the present.

Have you played the “ask an Astronomy grad student the Sun’s color” game?

Q: What color is the Sun?
A: yellow

Q: What color is Sunlight?
A: white

Q: Explain how those two can be?
A: <silence>

As embarrassing as this is for astronomy, it’s not the problem.  The problem is you can easily do worse than “yellow”.  Just ask a non-Astronomy first-year physical sciences grad student.  A most popular answer is “The Sun doesn’t have a color.  It’s lots of different colors.  It’s rainbow.”  So not merely a misunderstanding of a poorly taught star classification scheme.  Instead, a basic ignorance of color and light.

Casey’s tablet shows a large white square.  Cartoon prisms float across it, breaking white into rainbow.  Casey finger paints the rainbows back together to white.  Red light blends with green into yellow, and yellow with blue into white.  It’s 9:15.

Some afternoon in the not too distant future, there will be a second-grade student named Casey.  And Casey will have a sounder understanding of color, and of sunlight, than your current average science grad student.

And that matters.  A great deal.  Not so Casey can win at trivial pursuit.  Or eventually become a slightly better graduate student.

Step back.  It is miraculous that science works.  That the universe is understandable.  That pieces of knowledge plug together.  That where a piece doesn’t fit, you know you have misunderstood something.  And can go back and figure out what.  That there is such a rich tapestry of connections between the pieces.  That the more you understand, the easier it becomes to learn more.  And to exercise that knowledge.

But all that only works if you get your descriptions right.   If instead, most of the pieces you are handed are broken and misshapen, and all are misunderstood, then you have a rather different story.

A story about a shallow mess of a pile of decaying pieces.  Of incorrect and misremembered and disconnected trivia.  Of stamp collecting, not insight.  Of Harvard Business School grads not knowing what makes summer from winter.  Of physical science professors unconnected with biology, not knowing RNA from DNA.  Of most introductory science students remaining unclear on most of the few concepts taught, for large values of most, and small values of few.

There’s nothing unavoidable about this condition.  It’s just not one we’ve cared enough about to change, given the effort required.  And lack of funding.  And lack of recognition.  With the collective heavy lifting needed, and largely absent, being from the science community.

It is wonderful that we can dig far enough out of this mess to allow research to happen.  But getting content pervasively right?  And beyond that, getting it pervasively insightful?  That’s a necessary but not sufficient condition to science education ceasing to be a disaster.

Oh, and that clueful Casey some future morning?  It’s not just Casey. It could be most of Casey’s cohort.

Casey’s friend changes the temperature of the ball.
“I… I can tell what temperature you did, by what color it is!”
“What’s a Sirius?”

(This post is second “write, don’t revise, just post immediately” effort.  The alternative, setting things set aside for revision, regrettably isn’t resulting in posts.)


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