Feb 17, 2015

Doubting Thomas: Science Attitudes Misunderstood

One Christmas, I was talking with my family about a friend 's cat who knew how the cross the street. She told me, "This cat will never get hit by a car. She goes to the curb, looks both ways, and then crosses when it's clear. I even saw her teaching a kitten the same thing!"

image by lusi, via rgbstock.com
Most of my family chuckled. But my father, physicist, furrowed his brows and said sternly, "I don't know if I believe that.-- Can a cat even see to the end of the block?"

"Well, Dad," I challenged him, amused that it was the physics he found the cat geometry in question, not the decision making process involved with crossing the street or the fact that a cat would teach a kitten such sophisticated concepts, "that's a good problem for you to work out."

" I can't," he said, quite honestly. "I don't know how tall a cat is."

I found this very funny since this was a man who asked me at the dinner table how much energy was contained in the bags of leaves we had raked one autumn day. It became apparent that he expected me to make some gross assumptions like estimating leaves as a few carbon atoms that were then oxidized. The answer, he explained, was within an order of magnitude, which apparently was good enough.

"Try a foot tall for the cat," I told him, and he ran off.

In about 15 minutes, he came back with a smile, "It can see down the block, and the curvature of the earth won't come into play."

Since people lived for centuries believing the earth was flat, I was pretty sure a cat didn't see the curvature of the earth either, but I graciously replied, "Good to know." Dad really was a scientist... a doubter until he could prove it true to his satisfaction.

Challenging authority is the cornerstone to a good scientist. Good scientists don't swallow what they are told if it conflicts with their observations, experience, or logic. But they don't stick to their original thoughts out of stubborn ignorance. Instead, they go about verifying (or dispelling) it with proofs, experiments, and prototypes. The essay, Get thee to a physics class, waxes eloquently about this, and it's important to remember this aspect when teaching STEM.

Too many times, teachers feel that they have to have "perfect" science, engineering, mathematics lessons so that students will observe exactly what they should and make the proper (test-standard) conclusions. But sadly, science, engineering, and mathematical discovery are messy. New standards are emphasizing process more, and with good reason, because STEM knowledge is a living, breathing body, adapted when we observe, discover, or learn new things.

When I was asked to write about laser safety by Laser Classroom (Bringing STEM to Light), I followed all the best practices for STEM curriculum: No assumptions are made about the previous laser experience or knowledge. Rather than a list of regulations (to memorize), activities were used to develop "common sense" around the regulations. Then I rubbed the Engineer's Playground "secret sauce" on it: I added a "Where's the STEM?" section to show where the activities connected to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; a "Historical Interludes" section which told the story behind a key idea in the activity (I'm particularly proud of the logarithms one); and a "Challenge Authority" section where students were invited to say, "Hey, I don't think that's right" to the activity procedures and conclusions. The latter, especially for a teen audience, I felt was critical.

So next time your doubting Thomas (or Thomasina) speaks up, don't get defensive, arm him or her with STEM to challenge authority.

~Until next time, Yvonne