Nov 19, 2010

Conversation with a Friend

Last Friday night at 1am (!), I ended up having a conversation about science teaching with a friend of mine who lives in DC. She is working for the American Engineering Association on nation-wide campaign to change people's views about what it means to be an engineer. Essentially, the AEA sees much-reduced enthusiasm for the profession, and they're trying to do something about that by changing the public attitude. When our nation's brightest potential physicists and mathematicians spend their time bringing the world's financial system to its knees rather than, say, solving the world's energy shortage, something is certainly wrong. It struck me that high school education provides unique opportunities for influencing students in ways that might make them more inclined to devote themselves to science or engineering.

The meat of this conversation, for me, is in the question of whether we're doing what we want to be doing with our science classes in this country. I mean, clearly we're not, but what do we want to be doing? Measuring gains on diagnostic tests, I believe, can do a good job of measuring the effectiveness of a class to truly teach student what you're trying to teach (That is, I believe that the FCI accurately reveals whether the person taking the test can be called a "Newtonian thinker."), but this certainly isn't the only measure of the success of a science class. If we're trying to encourage our students to want to devote themselves to science and engineering, then the value of an assignment where students are asked to build something with their hands can't be underestimated. Shop class is a rarity these days , and with most of the focus of NCLB or R2T on testing, it ain't making a comeback anytime in the near future.

Maybe one of the best things we can do with our ninth grade physics classes is to generate enthusiasm for the subject through content-based building projects, student-designed experiments, and projects that may not even be all that topical mostly intended to spur creative engineering in students. I considered the 2-Liter bottle rocket project in my ninth grade class to fall mostly into this third category. The project fit into nicely into the class around Newton's third law and conservation of momentum, but it was mostly an opportunity to turn students loose to research and build something cool. It took me a little while to come around to it, since I saw it as less instructive than other activities, but I kept it in the course because my students loved it so much. But after a few years I came to see the primary value of the project was simply that students were working together to build something truly badass.

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