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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Broaching the Education/Science Problem (one stop at a time)

The other day I had a rather unusual experience while walking downtown on my way to the bus stop and ultimately home up in the lovely forested mountains. It started in front of Borders. There was a crowd and some really big things sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. It occurred to me, after a second or two of staring, dumbfounded, that they were telescopes. Since that evening was also "dress-up-like-a-celeb" night, I figured it was someone dressing up as some scientist that nobody other than myself would get anyway, and moved on into the Borders to peruse the aisles for a short while (it makes me feel good to see books lined up in alphabetical order on the bookshelf).

When I came out the crowd had dispersed slightly and I soon realized that they weren't replicas or some kid's science project or something else. They were real telescopes and people could actually look into the night sky with them. What's even more interesting is that the guy who had them set up on the street had built them by hand. That's right. By hand. They looked it too, but when I took the time to actually look I got a chance to see Jupiter (and what looked like three of its moons) and an amazingly detailed view of the moon (the likes of which I hadn't seen except through photos online).

It was an amazing experience. I don't know when it was that I last saw Jupiter or the moon through a telescope. What makes it more amazing is that this man, whose name I didn't get for some stupid reason, was not only allowing people to see these things through his handmade telescopes, he was handing out literature too. It was the first time I think I've ever seen an educational display on a public street that wasn't part of a science fair or on a school campus (or provided by the lovely religious people who offer free food in exchange for them preaching to you for an hour).

And this all goes to the point of this blog post: education and science. It's a well known fact that
people in America are consistently ignorant of the basic laws of science. Additionally, there seems to be a, shall we say, negative reaction to the very idea of science--even mentioning the word "science" earns a few rolled eyes. Most kids these days (including myself, actually) are given an education in basic science that falls below the "rudimentary" line. Most of them, as Richard Dawkins has made most apparent, don't even trust the natural laws that we know exist.

What are we to do about this? Well, that gentleman downtown has a good idea. It's probably unlikely that he had any intention of being a part of the "educational revolution"--a term I'm going to use here to indicate the battle that science and its related fields are waging right now to maintain its relevance in a society of people that don't even understand it. But what that man had done was introduce people to a field of science that is more than just long division, algebra, and other "boring" number games. They got a chance to see that science can actually be beautiful, perhaps artistic. It occurred to me that most of the folks who looked through his telescopes probably had no idea
that the dark areas on the moon are actually at lower elevations than the rest. But maybe some of them know now. A few of them actually took his literature (perhaps some of them will have a desire to build their own telescopes, or at least buy one).

The problem with this country is that we aren't embracing science. By "we" I mean the United States as a whole. Most of us aren't scientist material (I don't think I am even though I do love science), but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have some basic understanding of how physics works or what's up with all those burning balls of gas in the sky, etc. We're shunning these very things because we don't understand them. Think of it along the same lines as the various things once feared by the Church so long ago that were considered sins. Science is, in a way, the new witchcraft and America could very well be the new Salem (and I'm not suggesting here that this is a religious war, although certain religious groups have had a heavy hand in ruining scientific credibility in this country).

What we need more than anything else right now is a collective explosion of cool science. I don't mean projects like the LHC, which most people largely don't give a frak about anyway (I care, but I'm not most people). We need to see what made science so "cool" and "fascinating" so long ago, when our kids were actually interesting in winning scientific prizes and what not. I suspect a lot of that "fascination" had to do with the fact that science was up-and-coming. Astronomy was just beginning to sprout as a truly engaging medium right along with the push to put people in space. The problem, perhaps, is that science has lost that exciting flare. This is the same argument used against science fiction from time to time and it's a valid one too. There's no gosh-wow.

But there could be. That's the key. There could be a massive gosh-wow moment if we were to introduce people to the beautiful aspects of science. Nobody has to be a genius to enjoy what science has to offer. We just need to get them thinking and enjoying things. I'd be happy if more people were interesting in the stars, at least enough to look at them and want to see what they look like through telescopes. It'd be better if more people understand some of the basic principles of physics (I'm not genius on physics, but I think I have a firm grasp of the basics, though I can guarantee my knowledge of more complicated physics is limited). Maybe we should all be building our own telescopes and sharing them with our neighbors. And get the kids into it too. If they don't grow up to be scientists, who cares? As long as they grow up understanding simple things like the scientific method, or gravity, or why space is so big, etc. There's too much out there for all of us to know, but what we should know is such a minuscule amount of knowledge it's disturbing that so many people are oblivious. Perhaps we should take a page for Mr. Telescope's book and start showing science on street corners. Who knows, it might work, right?

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1 comment:

  1. See, that's something that scares me about the US. Here we have a really good Science curriculum, and even if you're dumb you get a good overview of each of the sciences. If you're smart and get put in the top group, you get a really good grounding in all areas. Jumping from GSCE (compulsory) to A Level (bit more complex) was easy for me, and a decent transition for most people. I can't believe you've never had a physics class. I had biology, chemistry, and physics every single week for 4 years of my life. The first couple of years were interesting because we were just being introduced to science, and it was fun working with test tubes and burning stuff :p but the last two got a little duller because they were intent on teaching us principals for the exams. I think the curriculum could benefit from moving some of the A level stuff into GSCE, because it's just more interesting. Organic chemistry, with its inherent danger of explosions, is probably too dangerous, but transition metal chemistry isn't--and it's full of brightly-coloured liquids that change when you do things to them. It's that kind of stuff that will keep kids gripped.

    Eh I'm waffling and I gotta go to work. Point is that the US is backwards with science and it's easily remedied. Science is cool for everyone if you don't delve too deeply into it.