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Scientists are wild people: they seek to explore and understand a thing that is constantly changing, that thing being the universe. The models we have today may not hold 100 years from now, but we seek to develop models anyway in an effort to explain wherein our thinking lies. We do not explore the world by looking at textbooks, or reading flashcards.

We explore the world by actually doing science. Being able to do science requires scientific literacy, a skill rarely seen in the general community. Professor Andrew Zwicker, a professor of plasma physics at Princeton and head of their science education department, does a TEDtalk on scientific literacy, one in which strongly resonated with me. I encourage you to watch the entire thing, despite it being about 10 minutes long. It is something we constantly talk about at Warner, and to have examples and explanations by Prof. Zwicker has been really helpful to solidify and pull together my understanding of scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy is also defined, according to the National Academies:

Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities. In the National Science Education Standards, the content standards define scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read, with understanding, articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.

The skills we want to instill in students come from doing explorations in science, not memorizing facts. Always listen to Prof. Sagan on this one (if you don’t have 4 minutes, jump ahead to minute 3 — that’s where the most important piece is):

This scientific literacy allows us to pursue knowledge. We must understand the language of what we seek to understand. We do not understand science by staring at the words on the page, but rather, by becoming adept in asking questions and discerning the information necessary to assist in our understanding of the answers to our questions. As scientists, we also must prepare for failure: not every experiment or investigation goes accordingly to plan. As science educators, it is important to encourage students to have positive experiences with failure, to see them as beneficial rather than as hindering.

In science, failures are bound to happen, and this is sometimes how discoveries are made. Some of the major discoveries that were made in science by accident were the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (won a Nobel Prize in Physics), the invention of the microwave, the discovery of X-Rays (won the first Nobel Prize in Physics), the discovery of the pacemaker (Greatbath pulled the wrong resistor out of his box of circuitry parts, and voila), and the discovery of insulin. Failing in science gives as much information as succeeding: by failing, you’ve proved that your original hypothesis isn’t sound. Say you thought that Coulomb force was proportional to 1/r instead of 1/r^2. You perform a bunch of experiments and realize your original hypothesis was wrong, but you’ve figured out something else instead. This could be considered a failure, but should be considered a discovery. Providing concrete examples for students to understand how failure can lead to something great is essential to avoid discouragement.

But how do we encourage students to be wild about science in the first place? I’ve recently began reading Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith (a truly phenomenal piece of work, one I highly recommend picking up). Obviously in teaching science, there are some skills that students need to understand. In physics, these skills include being able to rearrange equations, take ratios, set up wordy problems, understand relationships between particular variables, and graph solutions. In the fourth chapter of the book, Wagner and Dintersmith extensively discuss 20th century science educator skills — forcing students into memorizing equations and constants, doing worksheets, and performing and answering irrelevant lab questions that do not contribute to their every day understanding.

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The transition to scientific learning skills that need to be employed in a STEM-driven 21st century differ wildly from the basic, rote skills students were forced into years ago. Some of these skills are still necessary: I know that I definitely require students to understand the equations we are using, the units of each of the variables, and performing different laboratory activities that are not entirely relevant to their every day lives. But I always try to ask questions that relate the lab back to their life. I try to explain units with something they are familiar with, such as if you go “65 miles per hour,” that’s how fast you’re going, and that’s distance over time.

I see myself employing a lot more of the 21st century skills that Wagner and Dintersmith talk about. They discuss a slew of skills in the last part of the chapter (pages 140-143), which I will discuss a few of individually. The first one that they mention is learning how to learn. I don’t think I truly understood how to study until I got to college, and it would’ve been a formidable skill in my younger years, but that just wasn’t the case. However, it is definitely something now that I instill in my students: I do not want them to memorize equations; such a skill is something I could teach a parrot to mimick, but rather, I want them to be able to connect the content and equations with laboratory activities to see how the science works in action. This is a much better representation of how students learn things — being able to make these kinds of connections.

The next two skills — communicating effectively and collaborating productively and effectively — are very related to each other. Students are always required to either (or both) collaborate with each other on laboratory experiences or present their findings to the class. I usually engage students in this activity by making it relevant to them. I bring up something well known in the recent news, and I could ask them how they developed that knowledge. They’d explain that they’d seen it on the Internet, and I would ask, “If it weren’t on the Internet/TV, would you have ever found out about this?” The answer is no, and I am then able to make a parallel between this and the importance of communication and collaboration in science. The collaboration piece I usually emphasize by some kind of team building technique that would be next to impossible (or at least significantly more challenging) if done individually. Students are able to see the importance that teamwork and utilizing each other has in science.

The next skill is creative problem solving, which students are always encouraged to do in my class, and it’s really where the wild part of science comes in. Rather than do a bunch of practice problems on the topic of conservation of energy on a worksheet, which never happens in the real world, students construct roller coasters (which have requirements of more than 3 elevation changes, a loop, and a corkscrew) and write stories about the different transfers in energy within their roller coaster. While this doesn’t necessarily emphasize the mathematics behind calculating the speed of the roller coaster at a given height, it much better emphasizes the relationships between kinetic and potential energy than some numerical answer ever could. Building roller coasters gets students wild about science. Worksheets do not.

I don’t know anybody who said, ‘I love that teacher, he or she gave a really good homework set,’ or ‘Boy, that was the best class I ever took because those exams were awesome.’ That’s not what people want to talk about. It’s not what influences people in one profession or another.
–Neil deGrasse Tyson

Remember always that science can be messy. We learn just as much from our failures as we do from our successes. We do what we can to control the wild: we learn as much as we can about what it is we seek to understand, and we do what we can to be wild about it.

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