from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Preserving Enthusiasm for Science 

I want to devote my posting today to an op ed by Derrick Jackson that appears in yesterday’s Boston Globe (free registration required). It is at least indirectly about education. It is clearly about science.

For those who don’t know, I consider Jackson one of the finest writers working today in newspapers, and long overdue for a Pulitzer (he has been a finalist).

The piece is occasioned by Jackson serving on the board of review for a young man attempting to become an Eagle Scout. It is almost a crime not to give you the entire piece, but I do have to abide by fair use. I will describe what I cannot quote. My remarks will be held until the end.

The young man, Travis LeSaffre of Melrose, Ma, led his troop in an examination of vernal pools for the local conservation commission. Jackson describes vernal pools as small bodies collecting moisture during fall and winter, coming alive in spring, then drying out during the summer. He offers the following:

''A vernal pool is very important because the obligate species which live in them, primarily for breeding, return generation after generation to the same pool, traveling as much as a mile or as little as a hundred feet," LeSaffre wrote in his project workbook. ''If the pool is destroyed, by either being filled in or paved over or built on top of, the obligate species will not move to another marshland. All life -- frogs, salamanders, fairy shrimp, caddis flies -- which breed, live, or depend on the pool will die and lose their link to the food chain. Once these sites are found, documented, and protected, the species that rely on them will be safe."

Jackson admits that he had no idea what an obligate species was. Once he and the others on the board of review grasped what the young man had done, they were overwhelmed. When he mentioned the project to the president of MIT her response was
”It brings tears to my eyes.”

Let me offer several uncut paragraphs that are at the heart of this piece. The first person mentioned, Hockfield, is the president of MIT.
The curiosity of LeSaffre is precisely what concerns Hockfield these days. President Bush is of late touting a new initiative for K-12 math and science. But scientists are distraught over Bush's profound disregard for science on global warming and a host of other environmental protection issues and deep proposed cuts in research and student loans.

Citing NASA cuts, Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee on earth observation from space, said our system of environmental satellites ''is at risk of collapse." Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's life sciences division, said this month that NASA research cuts are a ''terrible blow for US science. Right now, the US has leadership in space life science. It is not going to have that leadership."

Nobel laureate and Princeton physics professor Joseph Taylor this month said on Capitol Hill that budget cuts will drive future astronomers to other fields or out of science altogether and ''other bright people will decide not to enter." Last week, Granger Morgan, the chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency's science advisory board, said on the hill, ''We all want environmental decision-making to be based on sound science. However, our nation is not investing adequately in producing that sound science."

Mentioning slated cuts for a doctoral fellowship program, Morgan asked, ''Where will the next generation of US environmental scientists come from?"

Jackson goes on to discuss the impact of funding cuts - students see professors frustrated by lack of funding and wonder if they should continue to dream about careers in science and research. Hockfield, after noting what we might charitably call the current national administration’s lack of support of good science unfortunately is in the midst of a time, a crisis, that has
''a public that cannot discriminate good science from bad science."

Jackson goes on to describe how the scouts were originally frustrated in their attempts to find vernal pools, until they got tips from hikers and neighbors. Once they found sites, and then found the teeming life in such pools, they became very excited and enthusiastic.

Pushing the limits of fair use, let me quote the final two paragraphs before I begin my commentary:

Hockfield wonders how long we can keep that excitement if we keep cutting the funding for science. She said the national drive for scientific learning she felt as a girl growing up in the shadow of Sputnik now resides in places like China. She said that she felt a hunger for learning and a physical energy in the streets ''that you don't feel here." That is why she said she had a tear in her eye over LeSaffre. A teenager who obligates himself to finding obligate species is a teen bursting with the energy to fuel tomorrow's science.

''It is marvelous to see that kind of passion," Hockfield said. ''We have to fertilize those passions."

There are others more qualified than am I to comment on the bad science of this administration. Competent writers like Chris Mooney have written how much of the Republican leadership in this country seems hostile to good science, and we know that the administration will use any excuse to ignore the impact scientific studies on things like global warming, especially if it would in any way diminish the profits of their corporate supporters. My reason for posting about this op ed is therefore not because I wish to comment on such issues, at least not directly.

I view this as an illustration of how this administration is destroying the future of this nation, of how incredibly short-sighted it is. I chose to write about this column because it is to me once again illustrative of at least the oblivion if not the downright hostility of this administration to true learning.

I write most often on education. This is directly related. I note that NCLB as originally implemented did not include testing on either science (applicable for this article) or social studies (which I teach). Let me caution that I am not about to argue for more testing, although required testing for science is due to come online shortly. In fact, one might argue that given the attitude towards minimizing the expenditures for test administration, those tests will be hostile to real science, because inexpensive and low-level one out of 5 multiple choice items do not really address whether a person can think scientifically. Such questions tend to push towards convergent thinking, when real scientific development requires the ability to think divergently.

The administration and many of its supporters are trying to eliminate all but functional learning for most people and to transfer educational resources to mother purposes. Vouchers that can be used for religiously based schools that will not teach evolution are one example of this mentality, and if one sees a connection with Pakistani madrassas that teach little but memorization of the Qur'an I assure you that you are not the only making such connections. After all, we have a strong element in this country that inevitably sees itself as persecuted and whose solution to that supposed persecution is to turn this into a theocracy to be guided by their interpretation of “biblical” principles. The event organized by Rick Warren at which Tom Delay spoke illustrates one part of this approach.

But the increasing influence of such religious types on policy is only one part of the problem. The other is equally as corrosive. If the government cuts off funding for scientific research, as it has apparently been doing in all cases in which it does not find a possible commercial advantage for favored interests, then the only source of funding for research will be corporate interests. And understand this -- (1) they will not fund research that challenges the assumptions on which their profit making is based; and (2) they will insist on control of the research, as to any publication and distribution of results, and probably not hesitate to suppress any studies that challenged the assumptions on which they operate. We have seen this administration take that approach with respect to intelligence in the past, and we have already seen attempts to limit the access to the press of scientists who might offer other than the approved explanation of the world.

Jackson gives an example of the enthusiasm that comes from real-world practical learning. That leads to another issue -- why is that kind of learning occurring only in pursuit of achievement as an Eagle Scout? Why is it not a regular part of the school experience? What is it about what we are doing to our public schools that will make this kind of exciting and real-world learning decreasingly a part of the every day school experience?

As a teacher I know that invoking the interest of students can be difficult, but when it occurs learning in the domain explodes. Further, students then begin to see the applicability of skills that when taught in isolation bore them, so that they might “learn” enough to pass a test or two, but they promptly expel all evidence of that “learning” from their minds.

I do not know why school has to be so deadly. It can be demanding, but exciting. And as we continue to diminish the possibilities for meaningful explorative learning, we further deaden the natural curiosity about all things with which most of children begin school.

A wise man once said that if you wanted to know what was important to someone, look at his checkbook -- on what does he spend his money? Those are the things that matter to him. If we apply the same test to our nation, to our government, I’m not sure we would be happy with the implications. Ponder that for a moment.

Then also reflect on things we used to learn as small children. We might read (or have read to us) things like Aesop’s Fables, or tales from La Fontaine, or similar items. Consider them parables, illustrative of the human condition. I will not quote a specific example, but will use an illustration from agriculture. If one wants to survive for the long term, one does not eat one’s seed corn, for how then will one plant for the future? Our approach to education, to science, is an eating of our seed corn, a consuming now of our possible future. We see it an attitude that postpones addressing global warning, or that seemingly is unconcerned that its faith-based economics (tax cuts for the rich 24/7/365) are driving us towards a future where the vast majority our people may have to struggle for basic economic needs.

When I offer a piece I read, it is often because in itself it is quite cogent. This piece by Jackson is, and I again encourage you to go read it in its entirety. I also will use something I read as an occasion for a meditation, an excursion through some ideas that have been rattling around my mind. A posting like this is not well crafted, that is, I have not gone through multiple drafts, exposed it to the eyes of my very fine editor of a wife. I lack the facility of a Hunter, a Meteor Blades, a Digby, or some of the other truly superb writers in the ether of blogs and the internet. I nevertheless write and post these not completely formed pieces in the hope that they will provoke a response in at least one person, that in some way my pointing someone at a piece they might not have seen, or offering an idea that is new to them, might set a spark, and that they can then fan that spark into a flame of some kind, that somehow this poor writing of mine can be a small part of positive change.

Remember, I do not claim to have the answers. I can see, I can comment, but beyond my poor words I am limited in what I can do. My actions are largely limited to challenging my students -- that truly is more than a full-time job.

What will you do? What do you have to say in response?

I await your answers.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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