Thursday, May 12, 2016

What does it mean to learn science?

What does it mean to learn science in school these days? I watched some high school student presentations this week, given by some of the best and the brightest students. They are all bound for top colleges. The presentations were about science but they were not science. The students came up with ideas for new products as part of a project in one of their science classes. I think it was chemistry, based on the types of products they proposed. However, they had absolutely no idea how the products would be made. "It will change colors" or "it will be a foam." Most of the "judges" applauded their great ideas, very innovative they said. I didn't say anything. One of the judges wasn't from the US, and they started asking the students questions. Here is a summary of the conversation: What will make it change colors? Answer: we saw someone advertise that they have a sensor that changes colors. Do you know the compound? Answer: No, but we know it changes colors when the pH of the solution changes. Next presentation, we will make this cool foam. How will you make the foam? Answer: We will use these two chemicals that another group has used. So they made a foam? Answer: No, their material had similar properties, but it wasn't a foam. So how will you make the foam? The American judges glare at the questioner and say: They will figure it out. After we walked away, one of the judges says: Don't stifle the kids' enthusiasm, we want to encourage them to invent and be creative.

This exchange bothers me on so many levels, but I kept my thoughts to myself at the moment because I didn't feel like being a negative nelly. First, if the students had done any sort of research, they would have discovered that what they are presenting was already done. If a simple Google search reveals that a product already exists, then you aren't innovating in my book. Second, how do you not even have a clue for how to make your product? Isn't that what you are supposed to learn in a science class? We're going to be a country of Steve Jobs wannabes running around saying make this or that, but we won't have a Steve Wozniak around to actually turn the idea into reality.

1 comment:

  1. I thought that I had commented on this one already, but for some reason not. I share your sentiments; this also irritates me to no end -- you always hear that everyone wants to create and innovate, not learn "boring material" in the classroom! WTF? Shouldn't you learn about the stuff we already have and how it works in order to be able to build on it? How did we get to the point that learning math and basic sciences is somehow seen as irrelevant for engineering practice? Or that you can innovate without actually having a clue where the state of the art is? Good metaphor with Jobs/Wozniak.