Monday, September 14, 2009

Is it good for science?

As a TA I have taught labs and also some discussion sections for the courses. Most of them have been for engineers or science (including pre-med majors) but in one occasion I had to TA for a class designed for liberal arts majors. This was a whole new experience for me, it's not like engineers or science majors other than physics really enjoy taking a physics course (I'll leave my rant about why they should like and learn physics for a later time), but (these) liberal arts majors really, really came into the course hating physics. It didn't help that the professor that was teaching it taught it the exact same way that he teaches plasma physics to his graduate students: by showing lots of math and little explanations into the concepts.

As the semester moved on, my office hours started getting more and more students who looked for a different style and hopefully a chance at passing the course. I should mentioned here that I completely disagree with non-science/engineering majors having the requirement of taking science courses (at least in the traditional way). Don't get me wrong, as a scientist I definitely think the non-scientists also need to know about science, they play an important role in politics, economics and religion (just a few of the areas that heavily affect the funding and spreading of science) but do they really need to know how to solve boring textbook problems in order to appreciate science? I think not. I actually think by forcing non-science majors to take our courses we are doing science a disfavor: not only are they not learning science but they are hating it even more.

I mentioned that traditional science courses for non-majors do not stand very highly in my eyes, but every time I tried to explain my position to someone I ended up getting into many many details that, while true, were so specific many people didn't think they were as bad as I did. A few days ago I found a two-sentence answer that summarizes my view. It was Shinya Inoue who said it during an interview:

"I continue to worry about science being learned as a collection of facts and theories. One needs to have a certain body of knowledge -- but in addition, one needs to understand how the knowledge is acquired-- that really is at the heart of science."

I agree 100% percent. It is a simple phrase that contains important ideas. Just standing in front of a room reciting every equation or theory we can remember is a horrible way of teaching science. Science majors will (hopefully) eventually pick up the lost knowledge, but non-science majors will go through life thinking that science is just a bunch of non-sense stuff.

Is knowing that when we let go of something it will fall that complicated? Really? Can no one do better than integrating the acceleration twice on the board? I hope science professors and teachers soon catch up with the idea that not everyone is as passionate about science as they are and that science is more than just equations and theorems.

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