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The Beauty of Science

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Josh G.
user 7498547
Atlanta, GA
Hello everyone,

Happy holidays and happy new year!

It's great to see so many new people joining over the last week. Welcome to our meetup, and we look forward to seeing you soon at upcoming events!

I wanted to share this brief video clip from Alex Filippenko, Professor of Astronomy at UC Berkeley, entitled "The Beauty of Science":­

I hope you enjoy it

take care,
Ernie C.
user 7596470
Atlanta, GA
Post #: 8
I thought that was an interesting video, and his point that there is more to comets and stars than just tables and figures is well-taken. Any sensible public lecturer of science will strive to show how scientific knowledge -- facts, figures, formulas, and theories -- only deepens the experience of natural phenomena by explaining them. And they will no doubt mention how these new tools of demystification (new scientific knowledge) allow one to see yet deeper mysteries and points of wonder on the horizon.

When it comes to teaching high school students (and college students in certain introductory courses) about science, however, much of this ``mystery and wonder'' needs to be scaled back. There is often a fairly large overhead of knowledge that must be learned by the students, and there really is no good way around it except for them to spend lots of time doing homework assignments and listening to the teachers as they try to explain it in as painless a way as possible. The naive instructor imagines himself or herself teaching a high school course in, say, physics the way it ``ought to be taught'', full of many inspiring examples and beautifully-crafted experiments. If he or she is willing to put in loads of extra time per lecture very carefully planning this, it might succeed (as was the case of Frank Oppenheimer when he taught high school, before setting up his Exploratorium in San Francisco); more likely, the students will not learn all that they should (as measured by standardized tests), and a few cynical ones will crack jokes at the teacher's expense (anything out of the ordinary is a target), which might turn the course into a circus if left unaddressed.

Again, the naive instructor will dismiss teaching ``by the book'' (light on mystery and wonder) by saying something like, ``Well, the teacher isn't really teaching them how to think. It's all just a bunch of facts and figures and memorization.'' While many high school classes probably are just ``facts and memorization'', and that certainly needs to be addressed, it has been my experience that many do, in fact, teach their students ``how to think'': In a math class you will get a question from the teacher like ``How could we go about setting up this word problem?'' Or in physics, ``Can you see why, intuitively, the object should spin faster when it contracts like that?'' Or in biology, ``Can you think of two animals with similar phenotype, but different genotype?'' These are all examples of ``thinking'', by most anyone's definition. Though granted, much more could be done to teach students how to think critically and skeptically -- e.g. knowing how to evaluate quality of evidence, like whether a certain medical experiment was ``double-blind placebo-controlled'' or not.

How to deal with gifted students is another issue entirely. For many of them the pace of regular high school science classes is too slow, and the level of depth, fairly lacking. Georgia, like many other states (Kentucky, for example), recognizes this, and has special summer programs for gifted students to seek enrichment between their junior and senior years. The state should probably do much more (perhaps encouraging and permitting them to take college courses in place of some or all of their high school classes), and I have wondered just how much anger towards public school education is the result of gifted kids being forced to learn at a pace far below their abilities.

In college, many schools (Georgia Tech, Emory, etc.) have an honors program, where students can take advanced versions of similarly-named courses (e.g. ``Honors Probability and Statistics'' vs. ``Probability and Statistics''). I think this is a very good way for talented students to deepen their knowledge and to get the education they deserve.

As to science education outside of school, even though there are loads of science programs on the television and on the internet, I think there is still a problem that not enough scientists engage the public directly. One factor contributing to this is a lack of time. Much of their time is taken up by teaching, research, and service to their respective departments, and what remains (after work) they spend with their families and friends. And another factor is that there simply is nowhere for them to present (except on blogs, perhaps)! Fortunately, we have the Atlanta Science Tavern... and look at how many eager professors we have gotten to present so far!

I don't buy the claim I have heard before that most scientists are just not good at communicating to the public. The NASA channel aside, it has been my experience that the majority (perhaps slightly more than 50 percent) of scientists are able to give decent and inspiring public lectures when they try. Maybe they aren't all so telegenic or speak stutter-free, but they can still get their ideas across fairly well. Furthermore, all it would take to get many of them out of their offices to speak at, say, the ATL Science Tavern is a polite, friendly email.
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