Monday, May 11, 2009

Reading and Thinking about Education

Iris told me that her favorite part about school (besides leaving) is walking to school with me. She says it is like having a private science tutor. She saves up questions and we talk over breakfast, all the way to school, and sometimes continue in the playground. This week's topics include absolute zero and quantum mechanical zero point energy. No kidding.

The other day, she stumped me with a question about how a radio works. Any EEs want to chime in and save me?

At night, I have been reading The Organization Man by William H. Whyte. Whyte definitely has a bias towards liberal arts (vs. vocational) training. (He is neutral about science departments.) Aspects of the book are clearly dated and a product of his time. Workers are always white males and their spouses are always white females. Overall, I find the book timeless and timely. He warned about how group think can run a company into the ground more than 50 years before AIG and this global economic meltdown.

Several academic mom blogs I read have also recently discussed the value of a liberal arts education. Too bad none of them include science in their definition of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Don't worry, I piped up for math and science in their comments. ;-)

I wrote earlier that I have both a BA and a BS from UC Berkeley. Earning a BA had a greater impact upon me than I realized at the time. Read Why Study the Liberal Arts? (link via James Fallows' blog discussion about Chinese vs. non-Chinese education) for Berkeley's philosophy about "breadth and depth". The history classes I took to satisfy the requirement for an area of concentration outside of one's major gave me a framework to understand the human world around me. I am deeply grateful for that experience.
To be liberally educated is to be transformed. A liberal arts education frees your mind and helps you connect dots you never noticed before, so you can put your own field of study into a broader context. It enables you to form opinions and judgments, rather than defer to an outside authority.
I describe my education to others as a liberal arts education in science. That is, mathematics is the language of science and chemistry is the "central science" that bridges the physical and life sciences. Only in graduate school did I pick a specialization. I also transferred from a physical chemistry program into an interdisciplinary program with physics at the end of my second year.

I appealed to Carl Wieman about the wacky value of g, the acceleration due to gravity, in Iris' homework. He told me that we have bigger fish to fry than worrying about non-linearity and a factor of 2 or so in g. Carl has been writing about A Scientific Approach to Science Education on his blog. It's an excellent series and I recommend reading it in its entirety, including comments. Read his description of physics as a framework for understanding nature.

From part 2 in the series:
Students believe certain things about what physics is and how one goes about learning the discipline, as well as how one solves problems in physics. If you interview a lot of people, you find that their beliefs lie on a spectrum that ranges from “novice” to “expert.”

My research group and others have developed survey instruments that can measure where on this scale a person’s beliefs lie.

What do we mean by a “novice” in this context?

Adapting the characterization developed by David Hammer, novices see the content of physics instruction as isolated pieces of information— handed down by an authority and disconnected from the world around them — that they can only learn by memorization. To the novice, scientific problem-solving is just matching the pattern of the problem to certain memorized recipes.

Experts—i.e., physicists—see physics as a coherent structure of concepts that describe nature and that have been established by experiment. Expert problem-solving involves employing systematic, concept-based, and widely applicable strategies. Since this includes being applicable in completely new situations, this strategy is much more useful than the novice problem-solving approach.

Once you develop the tools to measure where people’s beliefs lie on this expert-to-novice scale, you can see how students’ beliefs change as a result of their courses. What you would expect, or at least hope, is that students would begin their college physics course somewhere on the novice side of the scale and that after completing the course they would have become more expert-like in their beliefs.

What the data say is just the opposite.

On average, students have more novicelike beliefs after they have completed an introductory physics course than they had when they started; this was found for nearly every introductory course measured. More recently, my group started looking at beliefs about chemistry. If anything, the effect of taking an introductory college chemistry course is even worse than for taking physics.

So we are faced with another puzzle about traditional science instruction. This instruction is explicitly built around teaching concepts and is being provided by instructors who, at least at the college level, are unquestionably experts in the subject. And yet their students are not learning concepts, and they are acquiring novice beliefs about the subject. How can this be?

From part 3 in the series:
Cognitive scientists have spent a lot of time studying what constitutes expert competence in any discipline, and they have found a few basic components.

The first is that experts have lots of factual knowledge about their subject, which is hardly a surprise. But in addition, experts have a mental organizational structure that facilitates the retrieval and effective application of their knowledge. Third, experts have an ability to monitor their own thinking (“metacognition”), at least in their discipline of expertise. They are able to ask themselves, “Do I understand this? How can I check my understanding?”
The May 2009 issue of Physics Today ran David Mermin's "What's bad about this habit?" about the dangers of confusing a theoretical/conceptual framework that explains the observable world with reality.

Lots of food (framework) for thought. But off to bed. I need to ride my bike in to work tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. It is so cool to go to a knitting site, and then read a blog post discussing Physics today article!