Home > Friday, Science & Technology > Science Friday open thread: the Bridgekeeper’s Questions Three

Science Friday open thread: the Bridgekeeper’s Questions Three

June 29, 2007

In joining the new blogging tradition (it seems absurd to speak of “tradition” and “blogging” in the same sentence) of “Science Friday”, I wanted to draw attention to interesting science-related, or even just reality-related posts and articles that I’d found around the net that week.  The problem is in choosing, not finding; I am fascinated by so many aspects of our natural world.

Today, like the bridgekeeper of The Bridge Of Death, I have three questions, and hope to start a discussion:

  1. What in our current education system stands in the way of teaching math and science?

  2. How can we stimulate kids’ interest in math and science?
  3. Would anyone like to share an especially good or particularly bad personal experience in math or science education?

Multiple and conflicting answers are fine; surely it’s a multifaceted topic.

I’ll go first:  once we had a total eclipse of the sun in our area.  Instead of planning for and exploiting the educational value of this once-in-a-lifetime event, the local school district decided to keep all the kids indoors with the blinds drawn.  I took my kids out of school, and we drove to the central point of the eclipse a half-hour away.  There, with correct eye protection and a pinhole solar viewer, we observed the eclipse.  It was amazing, not least because of how the local environment changed – the drop in temperature, the thousands of sun-images projected on the ground through holes in the leaves of trees, animal behavior (quiet), and the eerie light which suffused everything.  But the science education, if any, was performed by nature; all we had to do was be there and pay attention.

Yes, I skipped questions one and two – I hope to find inspiration for next week’s post in your answers.  I’m working on an original science education post based on a photograph and one of my kids’ other science education experiences.

  1. Les
    June 29, 2007 at 20:31 | #1

    This is completely off topic, but tag you’re it.

  2. June 29, 2007 at 22:21 | #2

    No fair, he’s already been tagged Les!!

    Anyways, I remember when that happened and I remember being told to stay inside.  In fact my Mom was scared by what we were being told.  My Dad got my sister out of school.  One problem with not understanding science is that what we don’t know scares us and inhibits us from learning.  Too bad, I would give a finger to have another chance to see it.

      1. What in our current education system stands in the way of teaching math and science?
      2. How can we stimulate kids’ interest in math and science?
      3. Would anyone like to share an especially good or particularly bad personal experience in math or science education?

    1. How about the system itself? 

    This is an excellent question and a hard one to answer.  I think the problem rests in many different hands.  For one, you DOF are more interested in science and math than many people.  So naturally your children will have some interest in it.  My parents weren’t so interested and naturally I learned less about science and math.  They both interest me, but not necessarily due to my parents involvement.  Parental involvement makes a huge difference and seems to be overlooked in our society.  Even though studies show parents to be the largest factor in a child’s education.

    There are many other issues involved but I don’t want to spend the night typing, I would rather see what others think.

    2. It’s a tough question again.  Many issues affect a child’s involvement in a specific subject.  But just like question 1, a lot of studies point to the parents involvement in the child.  I could find some studies to link to but it wouldn’t be hard to do a Google Scholar search.  Also Freakonomics has some data in their book and likely their blog.

    I think another important thing to overcome here as well though is this image that a girl has to be some sort of princess, and care about “boys”, her hair, makeup, and all the other BS.  For whatever reason girls still think that science and math are boring and gross.  Call me crazy but this is where I think TV and parents come in.  TV makes me more confused about science the more I watch it.  And MTV could give two shits about science.

    3. I had a teacher my sophomore year in high school that really tried and cared about students interest in science.  The only problem was his methods for keeping track of assignments and his ways for dealing with the problems associated with this were terrible.  So a teacher that actually knew how get a student interested in science left and was sort of forced out.  He genuinely knew how to make science fun by doing interesting things like making ice cream and how melting ice can freeze cream.  Teaching needs to be more than a job it needs to be a passion.  Boring people do just as much to bore others as a person’s own motivation.

    For a funny story… In eighth grade we were to dissect worms for science class.  A kid was prodding his worm, poking it and making fun of the hole he was messing with (so he sort of deserves this).  What this student didn’t realize is that sometimes worms have both male and female sex organs.  He somehow excited the worm and it shot sperm into the students eye.  The student jumped up in the middle of class and screamed about how his eye burned.  He was sent to the nurse.  His new nickname for awhile was spermy (pronounced spermie or sperm eye).  How he ever lived that down I have no idea.

  3. June 30, 2007 at 07:57 | #3

    The ostensible goal is to educate citizens. In math there is a real goal interfering with this: identifying and training future engineers. Everything else is subordinated to this. Geometry hasn’t been geometry since the 50s. It’s algebra with different notation, and the presentation of a few facts essential to calculus. All of algebra is now pre-calculus. Everything is pre-calculus. If the student is going to study engineering the system works very well. If he studies anything else, he may never get the education a citizen should have. A better high school curriculum would involve logic, algebra, discrete math, and statistics. But that would not allow time for AP calc.

  4. June 30, 2007 at 11:55 | #4

    I was a girl in the years of Baby-Boomers plodding through the educational system, growing up in a small mill town. The increased Levy tax got voted down 5 years in a row, even though the classrooms were bursting into former storerooms, and teacher salary remained flat as a floor.

    Not all of the students graduated high school, and them that did were not expected to go on to college.
    My education in the standards of Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic was better than most, because the school board assumed we would go on to get jobs rather than higher education.
    Awhile back, someone sent a very old 8th grade graduation test for me to take (sorry, I can’t find the link).
    It needs some intensive logical thought processes to pass it.
    I did.

    My most recent classes for elementary education at the community college taught a different way to teach math.
    Being out of the educational system so long, and having struggled when I was there, I was open to this ‘new’ direction.  My understanding is our syllabus followed the way math is taught to children in Southeast Asia.  I caught on fairly well, I managed to earn a B for the semester course.  I was able to observe and tutor a couple Second Grade students, who were able to grasp arithmetic much more easily than others in a standard class.  I disagree with the idea that students should be able to come to the answer in their own way, there was much trial-and-error to get a couple answers.
    This method is not embraced by Teacher’s Unions of the USA.
    I’m not making much sense here, but do understand that there is more than one way to prepare a lesson plan.  Teachers are not always able to go outside the walls of their own educational experience.
    I also think that a teacher should have an undergrad degree in whatever subject they are teaching, then add education classes and internships beyond that to make sure they know how to convey the knowledge by several different schemes, and to properly assess their students understanding.

    To stimulate interest for students, there should be more trips outside classrooms.  Connect what is in the book to what happens in the world.  I once wrote a letter to editor of the newspaper about how my job as a church janitor needed math for figuring the square feet of a carpet to be cleaned, and the chemistry of mixing the proper solutions. My attitude and use of psychological tactics for dealing with a nervous bride trying to do decorations.  Too often, a student is simply given information and told it would be on the exams.  The letter received accolades from many who read it, especially teachers.

    A personal story about a science classroom was in 7th grade.  I loved my teacher, one of the nicest ladies ever on the planet.  She had a flaw in the way she gave assignments.  We had to do many lessons as partners or in a group.  Whenever we were working, she gave the boy all the hands-on tasks, and the girl the documentation notes, as if the boy was in charge, and the girl was his secretary.  I am not a person who keeps good order of records or items in sequence.
    It was mid-term before I got to actually pour one chemical from one beaker to the other.  Thing is, my partner that day was another girl, and she didn’t want to spill anything on her clothes.
    Seeing this at such a young age did not boost my confidence in my ability.  No matter that I could cook supper in the home kitchen for a family of six, measuring and mixing and deciding oven temperature in a finicky old gas stove.  It was the classroom at school and the report card sent home that measured my gifts.

    I learned much more about science and nature from my dad.
    He did not do well in the educational system, and did not hold us to its standards.
    He was always taking his daughters outside. 
    Berry picking, fishing, climbing hills or trees.
    We had a big vegetable garden, and had to learn which were helpful insects and which were bad bugs.
    He built new stuff from old lumber.
    When we got our driver’s license, we had to learn all the parts of the car and what might go wrong with them, and how to change a tire, and how to steer through a skid on an icy road.

    In years since I was in school, I have come to understand there is too much emotional baggage with learning.  As if something intrduced under a negative context remains there and cannot be used again for good.
    Much of classroom lessons rides on personality of the student and teacher interacting.  I’ve never liked group work because it seems unfair for students who work diligently.

    And this is really long, so I had better move along.
    Hope it helps with your next post!

  5. Lucas
    June 30, 2007 at 17:41 | #5

    Sanctimonious Hypocrite:  I don’t think that mathematical logic is all that useful for political debate and awareness—it’s too rigid and formal to be particularly useful at constructing a bullet-proof argument, and conversely, most arguments can be shown to be “wrong” under the strictest protocols of logical inference.  I think that the main math education that the general voting populace needs is a good understanding of statistics.  Most people get through life just fine without more than a basic knowledge of arithmetic, and I think that’s just fine.

    As for mathematics education that is geared towards engineering, I think that discrete math would be a good thing to teach technically minded students, as it is far more useful in computer programming than calculus.

  6. July 1, 2007 at 13:22 | #6

    The argument for math education is not really one of utility, but since I said ‘citizens’ I can see how Lucas would think I meant that. A course in logic, whether based on geometry or algebra, won’t make anyone a better voter. As you say, logic has nothing to do with politics. Statistics is somewhat more useful, although without a grounding in logic not very much more, as we have probably all seen. There’s really not a lot of utility in most of what we teach math students – nobody is going to pay anyone to factor a polynomial. If they did, it would be someone in Myanmar who would do it better than you or me for five cents an hour. The purpose of math education beyond the most basic numeracy is to train your mind in a particular way involving pattern, order, quantity, and change. I sometimes think we could do as well teaching chess, euchre, poker, and golf instead of geometry, algebra, statistics, and calculus. One result would be the same: The students would say chess was hard, golf boring, euchre stupid, and poker useless in the real world.

  7. July 2, 2007 at 09:54 | #7

    Mine was too long to post as a comment, so I put it out on my site:


    Thanks for making me think!

  8. July 2, 2007 at 11:37 | #8

    I’ve been teaching second grade for many years.  Our district does a pretty good job of providing science materials for us to use in the classroom.  The problem, in part, is the kids themselves.  If you go read VW Bug’s post, you’ll see she is doing at home what kids need to be prepared for school.  In my experience, fewer and fewer kids are getting exposure like that at home.  So many kids are coming now from a ‘video game’ background, and haven’t learned the questioning and reasoning skills needed to explore science and apply math abilities.  It takes time and lots of practice to have students apply those skills independently. 

    In effect, the students are thus ‘behind’ in necessary skills when they come to school.  And these days, schools are also so heavily focused on NCLB and test scores that they want ‘results’, which means focusing on specific areas that will be on the test, without really building the skills in the classroom that the kids really need.  So actually, this paragraph is an answer to your question #1.

    Question #2:  If we don’t focus so much time on standardized test scores, valuable class time can be given over to more ‘fun’ activities that spark interest and build skills.  I try to give ‘experiments’ that the kids can do at home.  Thus learning goes on outside of the class, and family can be involved.

    Question #3:  Fun science memory:  Being four years old and being outside with my dad.  He was teaching me about centrifugal force (and yes, he used that term) by having me swing a pail of water around.  But before he did it, he first asked me questions about what would happen, had me guess (make a hypothesis), and then had us both swing the pail around.

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