March 28, 2011
A few weeks ago, I took my daughters to a program for girls at Argonne National Labs, a legendary facility near Chicago whose gates I’d never crossed. The half-day of tours and activities culminated in a terrific lecture-demonstration that set me thinking (not for the first time) about what it feels like to really get a science concept.
The Argonne scientist who gave the demonstration, Dr. Deon Ettinger, ran through the greatest hits of schoolroom science: the inflated, tied balloon that shrinks down to its uninflated size when you submerge it (gently!) in liquid nitrogen, then magically reinflates as it warms up; the rubber ball that bounces at room temperature but, when you go to bounce it after cooling it in liquid nitrogen, shatters like glass, startling eight rows of middle school girls wearing lab goggles.
That shattering ball would have been enough to make me think of Richard Feynman, the bongo-playing, lock-picking, Nobel-winning physicist, since Feynman’s big public moment came at the televised congressional hearings on the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1987, when he dipped a rubber ring—like the infamous O-ring that had failed on the shuttle—into a glass of ice water then snapped it in two. (The point: it was too cold to launch the shuttle that morning.)
But something else about the Argonne demonstration would have put me in mind of Feynman anyway. As I sat with the other parents watching the show and listening to Ettinger’s rapid, Socratic back-and-forth with the girls (“Do molecules stay still, or do they move around?” “Move around?”), I tried to figure out why this felt so fresh and exciting. Then, somewhere in the middle of his explanation of why he couldn’t squeeze the inflated, room-temperature balloon into a smaller sphere with his hands (“With all those molecules zinging around in there at three to four hundred kilometers a second, what happens when they hit the side of the balloon?”), I realized what was throwing me off, in a good way: the utter lack of scientific jargon, even the kind of jargon you define as you go. He wasn’t using scientific terms. He was just describing, in simple, everyday language, what was going on. The balloon example was all about air pressure, but he never used that phrase — it was all molecules “banging into each other.” Yet he explained air pressure so vividly and naturally that I got it in a new way.
This wasn’t “dumbing down,” or even talking down. If anything, it was a heightening of pedagogical aspirations: he wanted those girls to get the concept. The terms, the definitions, would come later.
And that priority (learning concepts before definitions) was a pet concern of Feynman’s. In a 1966 talk to the National Science Teachers Association, he distinguished between attempting to figure out how things work and learning what those things are called. The former is science, says Feynman; the latter is often just a false sense of intellectual security.
There is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off on the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog -- a windable toy dog -- and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says "What makes it move?"
The answer the book is looking for is that “energy makes it move.” But for Feynman, saying so is a dodge. “[T]hat’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy.” He continues:
If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around. What a good way to begin a science course!
Feynman tells the science teachers something that should be obvious, but somehow, in science education, bears repeating: that they’ve taught the concept only if the student can say what’s going on in her own language. “Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion. You cannot. So you learned nothing about science.”
You might think that this approach — engage people in the concepts, and let the definitions come later — would be the hallmark of informal science education, as opposed to the formal, classroom kind. After all, direct sensory encounters with natural phenomena are what science centers and science and nature museums are all about. ...
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Categories: Child audiences, Learning, Museums, Science museums, Young audiences
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