Thursday, November 11, 2004

What Are We Missing in Science Ed?

I'll link to two maps I came across today, just because I think they're cool, and then I'll get to the rest of the post. The first one is a map of some polling done on the Electoral College of the World . Nice resounding win there. The second one is of the exit polls done for people 18-29. Another resounding win for the forces of good. (I'm going to do some analysis on the second map for a post later.)

I've been noticing a couple streams in our postings recently. We've been sending some venom in the way of the Radical Christists. We've been looking into what it means to teach a standard physics/astronomy class, and what limitations are present. And I, at least, have been angry at some radical post-modern physics teachers, for opting out of any rational thought (see the posts about "S and S" from late October).

I came across a post from the Daily Howler today that hit upon these themes in an interesting way, even though it has nothing to do with physics and education. The Howler's main thesis is that the SCLM (so-called-liberal-media) doesn't avoid talk about Radical Christist religion because it views that strain of religion with contempt. No, the SCLM doesn't report on Radical Christist religion because it is deferential to those believers. I think the Howler has a point here. Even if a New York Times reporter happens to be contemptuous of gay hating, racist, pseudo-religious wackos , that reporter can't really say it, because if they did write that there were gay hating, racist, pseudo-religious wackos walking amoung us, a great many of the so-called defenders of said gay hating, racist, pseudo-religious wackos (who remarkably live in major Eastern, Democratic, urban areas) would accuse the NYT of attacking "America's Heartland" and make a big stink about giving aid and comfort to terrorists. So, to solve the problem the reporter just doesn't talk about the Radical Christist phenomenon, and moves onto other important stories like Lacy Peterson. The reporter may or may not be contemptuous of religion in America, but more importantly, they are certainly afraid of the mighty Right-Wing Noise Machine.

Because no one reports on what goes on in the "heartland", gems like this (mentioned in the Howler story) from Time Magazine, go unnoticed:

GIBBS (7/1/02): A TIME/CNN poll finds that more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news might relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack.

A majority of Americans believe that the end times are upon us? A majority of Americans believe that there will be four horsemen? That there will be a battle in Armageddon? That there will be a one-world government led by the anti-christ? Apparently, alot of people didn't learn much from the "fate of the universe" section in their astronomy courses. (You were wondering how I was going to get to physics/astronomy, weren't you?)

I think that physicists and astronomers suffer the same problem as the NYT reporter does. Maybe we aren't so afraid of the Right-Wing Noise Machine, but we also don't tend to like conflict or messyness in our classes. We talk about things that are simple, like mechanics, opposed to things that are complex, like how the process of science informs our worldview. Reformed physics education deals alot with misconceptions. We worry about the misconceptions that students carry into a class about forces and the seasons. Why aren't we talking and worried about the situations when students walk into a class with a completely anti-scientific worldview (even if it's not metacognative)? That's a big misconception to overcome, and it's very important to the future of science as a societal pursuit.

I find the conclusions of the post-modernist physics educators to be horribly wrong, but thier basic kernal that all physics teaching is political is right on. When we abdicate the chance to change the world for the positive through our teaching, we allow the continuation of the negative. When we allow space in our class for strange ideas to exist, we perpetuate them. Obviously, it doesn't help to be offensive to people's worldviews in class (as opposed to what I'm doing here), but there must be ways to show people that our scientific paradigms work. That we don't talk about it as a professional society simply allows the wrong worldviews to perpetuate.

If I were running a physics or astronomy conference, I'd have a session where I'd put the quote from above on a sign, in like 3000 pt font, and the topic of the session be, "What the hell are you all doing wrong?" Many millions of students are passing through our physics and astronomy courses, and apparently millions of them are not getting anything. It doesn't really matter that we reach the "best" of those classes. It doesn't matter that a few students from those classes go on to get Ph.D.'s and do great research. If we don't reach all the students, we fail. Sadly, its not even a matter of not reaching a small minority of students, we don't even reach the majority of students. That's horrible. We need to spend alot more time worrying about science education as a community than we do galaxy clusters, young stars, and dare I say, even galaxy structure. Cause if we don't, and more elections like this one happen, there's not going to be a community.


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