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Thread: Education dilemma - scientific literacy of a typical person

  1. #1 Education dilemma - scientific literacy of a typical person 
    Forum Ph.D. william's Avatar
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    The dilemma of a science professor;

    I'm currently teaching an intro astronomy class at a university. Here is the conundrum;

    The class is an introductory class for students that need a science requirement. Almost none of the students have had math past algebra, and they all seem to fear math. The level to which I feel like I have to teach this class is pretty low. Whenever I introduce any mathematics to back up observations, or have the students calculate something (e.g., using Kepler's 3rd law), they struggle with it, and in the end, don't seem to grasp the underlying mechanisms as to why the math works. "v=d/t, you know d and v, solve for t" - some struggle with this.

    Consequently, I try to keep the calculations, and the deeper explanations to a minimum. I try to keep in mind that these students are not going into science for a living - they just need to fulfill a science requirement. The calculations they do don't seem to register with them and seem to just be a "plug and chug"-type exercise. Plus, I try to keep it in perspective that I can't save the world through an astronomy class. C'est la vie.

    Because of the way I (feel I am forced to) teach this class, I can see how the students might walk away from it with the notion that science is a lot of hand-waiving and that scientists don't truly understand anything. For example, to try to explain galaxy formation and evolution - that the old theory is inadequate with new observations, but that it could be "this," or, "that" could contribute to "the other thing," yada yada, without being able to give them a real feel for what goes into these theories (e.g., computer simulations, mathematical models, calculations beyond algebra, etc.), and in the end, stating that astronomers are just now beginning to understand these processes. It's too much information for them to process, and they don't have the mathematical sophistication yet to understand the full nature of the intricacies behind these theories.

    The point, is that the way in which this class must be taught (and other "intro" classes), gives the general person the wrong impression of science. And it's most likely these people that are the ones arguing for the crackpot ideas we occasionally read, or the ones who take a literal interpretation of a scripture and think that it is as good as any scientific "theory," etc.

    I'm sure there must be a way to convey that "scientists really are smart afterall..." but I think, that they think, that science is just about memorizing "facts" from books. I don't think I'm doing the world much service with this class....

    Cheers,
    and thanks for the fish,
    william


    "... the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane."
    ~Footnote in Goldstein's Mechanics, 3rd ed. p. 202
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  3. #2  
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    Thanks for the fish? - is it worth replying? will he read this?

    Can you give them examples of where maths has clearly worked in astronomy, like sending a probe 1300million miles and arriving within 30 seconds and 10Km of it's target? - or bashing a probe released from a small probe to crash into a fast moving comet? - maybe a class demo of ballistics, ask them what they think the optimum launch angle is. If not demonstrate your renowned ability to come within a hair's breadth of cracking a skull with a baseball bat... :wink:


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    Forum Ph.D. william's Avatar
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    I heard about a demonstration where a bowling ball was tied to a string, which in turn was tied to the ceiling. The prof would stand at the side of the room with his head against the wall and hold the bowling ball to his cheek. He then let the ball go. The ball would swing all the way to near the other wall, and... surely enough... when it came back, it just kissed his cheek (as opposed to smashing his head against the wall).

    The key is to not let one of your students release the ball....
    "... the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane."
    ~Footnote in Goldstein's Mechanics, 3rd ed. p. 202
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    The key is to release the ball with an ever so gentle push...
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  6. #5  
    Forum Ph.D. william's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Megabrain
    The key is to release the ball with an ever so gentle push...

    That's exactly why you don't let one of your students release the ball.
    "... the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane."
    ~Footnote in Goldstein's Mechanics, 3rd ed. p. 202
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    William: I expect this response is precisely the opposite of what you're looking for. But - if you can't communicate complex notions in everyday language, whether or not you know that they involve mathematics, then you need to hone up your teaching skills. After all, a description of the universe, in order to be as true as we can make it, must not depend on the tools we use to describe it; all roads must lead to Rome (apparently).

    PS: Gah! I'm going to be a bit Maoist here. Your ability to make complex scientific notions accessible to, say a 12-year old, is a measure of your own understanding of them; think on!
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    Guitarist, I disagree with that. When it comes to a theory like neural binding in my own field, I can't explain that to a twelve-year old, because it is incredibly interconnected, and it does not reflect anyhow my ignorance of the matter - I understand it very well..

    The problem lies in the modern system of education, where people are not enough encouraged to study mathematics and understands the essence of it.
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    The problem lies in the modern system of education, where people are not enough encouraged to study mathematics and understands the essence of it
    one of my teachers for example blames the calculator for making things easier, cause then people who rely on the that dont really learn the real processes, they just learn to punch in numbers
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    Forum Ph.D. william's Avatar
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    In teaching this class, two things became discouraging to me;
    1. The students' aversion toward math - even at a very basic level, and
    2. Certain students - I have to wonder why some of them are bothering taking classes. It's not apparent that they desire an education.

    Hind-sight being 20/20, I always find a way to explain something better... only after I have already discussed it. But there always seems to be an invisible barrier between describing a scientific idea well, and describing it well combined with leaving the student feel confident that it is correct (or at least on the right track).

    As I long-windedly said in the opening post, I think most of the students probably think scientific theories are not as robust as they really are.

    Guitarist;
    Sometimes I think I express these scientific ideas that I'm trying to teach in a too-everyday-type language... it makes them seem more delicate then they really are.

    Anyway, maybe it's just my impression of the students. And as time goes on, I'll probably find better ways to express myself.

    Cherio,
    william
    "... the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane."
    ~Footnote in Goldstein's Mechanics, 3rd ed. p. 202
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    Quote Originally Posted by johnny
    The problem lies in the modern system of education, where people are not enough encouraged to study mathematics and understands the essence of it
    one of my teachers for example blames the calculator for making things easier, cause then people who rely on the that dont really learn the real processes, they just learn to punch in numbers
    I would completely agree with that!
    The hand of time rested on the half-hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across No Man's Land to begin the Battle of the Somme. - Poet John Masefield.

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    I'll bet they said the same when the Abacus, mathematical tables, the slide rule the adding machine were introduced...
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    Quote Originally Posted by william
    Hind-sight being 20/20, I always find a way to explain something better... only after I have already discussed it. But there always seems to be an invisible barrier between describing a scientific idea well, and describing it well combined with leaving the student feel confident that it is correct (or at least on the right track).
    do you do a quick revision on the idea discussed in the previous lesson before moving on to the next topic? if you find a better way to explain it after you teach it then a quick revision the next lesson gives you an opportunity to get it out and provides another opportunity for something to click inside the students heads.


    well thats what my maths teachers at school do and i'd have to say its helped me on the odd occasion.
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    Quote Originally Posted by HomoUniversalis
    The problem lies in the modern system of education,
    Well yes, maybe. But who are the practitioners in the "modern system of education "?

    Guys like William, maybe? That was my whole point - you have to blame the teachers, not the students. And to pass it off as "poor motivation" on the part of the students isn't good enough - a teacher's primary objective is to motivate, the rest follows naturally.

    Anyhow, that's my experience, from both sides of the classroom divide...
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    Quote Originally Posted by Guitarist
    Quote Originally Posted by HomoUniversalis
    The problem lies in the modern system of education,
    Well yes, maybe. But who are the practitioners in the "modern system of education "?

    Guys like William, maybe? That was my whole point - you have to blame the teachers, not the students. And to pass it off as "poor motivation" on the part of the students isn't good enough - a teacher's primary objective is to motivate, the rest follows naturally.

    Anyhow, that's my experience, from both sides of the classroom divide...
    HU's complete quote;

    Quote Originally Posted by HU
    The problem lies in the modern system of education, where people are not enough encouraged to study mathematics and understands the essence of it.
    Guitarist,
    When they come to my astronomy class, I shouldn't have to teach them math - especially since it's a prerequisite. I do, however, teach them the math they need, and I don't mind it at all... I just wish they didn't fear it so much.

    How can you place sole blame the teachers? It takes a tremendous amount of effort to teach -
    - there's reviewing the material yourself first,
    - preparing the lectures (powerpoint in the case of my astronomy class), which must fill about 1 hour and 15 minutes, can't be too long or too short...,
    - tracking down good figures and photographs for the lectures (this is where astronomy takes much time),
    - going through the lecture the night before so you are prepared,
    - coming up with good homework problems/questions (one hw each week in my case),
    - doing the homework yourself in order to try to catch possible problems/errors,
    - make sure you cover enough material so that you cover the stuff on the homework,
    - devising exams that are fair, unambiguous, and doable in the time limit,
    - grading the homework and exams in a timely fashion (for about 50 students by the way!),
    - grading old homework which is turned in late (and trying to remember exactly what you let slide when you graded the others),
    - creating/updating the class website (yes... I have one of those for the class...),
    - holding office hours which are usually used by a few students (which is good!),
    - my class is at 8:30 in the morning, and I usually get a terrible night's sleep (not uncommon to only get 2-3 hours...),
    - and I'm only getting paid $2096 USD for this class (I'm only an adjunct professor),
    - plus trying to keep up with my research.

    This is just one class - the full professors have 4 classes each to teach per semester! (At a teaching institution that is....)


    Ironically, I'm doing this for my education.... (It surely isn't the money!)

    Anyway, I try to be funny and make it interesting... in which case, it really demotivates me when I read comments like yours! Have you no appreciation for any of your professors - even if they weren't very good? Shouldn't the students take responsibility for their own education?


    The students have to want to learn. If they do, then even the crappiest teachers can't hinder them. If learning isn't what they most want, then they'll get a degree but not an education....

    Cheers
    "... the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane."
    ~Footnote in Goldstein's Mechanics, 3rd ed. p. 202
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    Forum Professor river_rat's Avatar
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    I know the feeling William. I have a similar problem with some of the engineers I tutor and I am not sure what you can do as the problem is not your course but that the students did not learn what was required of them before they took your course.

    Perhaps you should focus on the buzz topics in astronomy as they tend to be the things that grab the attention and imagination of students. The trick is to do the maths of a related topic that sounds similar but really is not - for example you start off with a fancy slide on black holes (with a nice star trek picture thrown in for good measure, or SG-SG1) and then say something about curved space in a nice hand waving manner to tie yourself into curvilinear coordinates and finally spherical coordinates and RA and declination with some things about how the zodiac doesn't align with modern star charts for example. So it seems like you have done something amazing yet the actual work is mundane - academic smoke and mirrors if you wish?
    As is often the case with technical subjects we are presented with an unfortunate choice: an explanation that is accurate but incomprehensible, or comprehensible but wrong.
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    Well, one thing that I can say is (while I'm not a teacher) teaching someone who's not interested is the toughest thing to do. If someone doesn't want to learn, they don't listen. Oftentimes my peers tell me they hate their science class. Students simply don't see the applications of science. This may sound ridiculous since science is basically what runs society, but it's true. It's like math. Tons of applications, but you don't see the bulk of them until you get to calculus. You think: "why tha heck am I learning 'bout asymptotes? I'm goin' in tah law field :wink: "
    Whence comes this logic: no evidence = false?

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    ^-- i agree people dont want to learn

    For example i could be at a friends place smoking, doing our thing then i start to talk about for example the benzophene in the weed as it burns, people are either like.

    i dont care

    or

    why do you know so much useless information????

    i dont understand, useless information???? why are people saying thaat now? half the stuff i tell people are in there text books, and they still say its useless information...

    i think the world is, well you know
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    Quote Originally Posted by william
    Anyway, I try to be funny and make it interesting... in which case, it really demotivates me when I read comments like yours! Have you no appreciation for any of your professors - even if they weren't very good? Shouldn't the students take responsibility for their own education?
    Taking this apart - yes, I had huge appreciation for my professors, good and bad. Having done some lecturing myself, I do know how hard it is. But it gets easier as you teach the same course over and over, trust me.

    The students have to want to learn.
    And my whole point was that it is the teacher's job to make the subject so interesting - such fun, if you like - that they will be self-motivated. Self-motivation is hard to define, as you hint at. Is it getting a degree, or is it getting an education? They are not the same thing, of course. I repeat myself: as educators it is our job to motivate the latter, rather than the former.
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    william, i think you should ask yourself the question : do i want many students or do i just want the students that are keen on astronomy ? if the former, water down, if the latter don't

    any student keen on astronomy should be willing to get on with the maths
    "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (Philip K. Dick)
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  21. #20  
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    Thanks to everyone for all the input.

    We've strayed a little from the point I originally was trying to make... which is, that I think the intro courses are a little too "intro," and the students leave the course with the wrong idea that science isn't as robust as it really is. I think that it is this type of person then, that hops into a science forum such as this, and with false ideas of how science works, tries to support crackpot ideas and 6000 year-old Earths etc. If you ask these types about science, you will see what I mention above reflected in their ideas and answers.

    Perhaps the only way around it is to force the students to take a couple higher-level science courses...?

    Cheers,
    william
    "... the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane."
    ~Footnote in Goldstein's Mechanics, 3rd ed. p. 202
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