Learning  science - let's not forget the 'why'

Learning  science - let's not forget the 'why'
Children excavating ''dinosaur bones'' at the Dino Pit in Science Centre Singapore. Having a passionate and fun teacher who is not preoccupied with grades will go a long way towards inculcating a lifelong interest in science - along with passing on the tools of the scientific method - in Singapore's youth.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The late astronomer Carl Sagan said: "Science is much more a way of thinking than a body of knowledge."

A truly successful nurturing system will produce a person who thinks and acts with scientific rigour, rather than a walking encyclopaedia.

Science occupies an important place in our schools. Of the four subjects tested in the Primary School Leaving Examination, the two languages and mathematics are really life skills, while science is heavily content-oriented.

To be effective, the science learning process must be affective - involving hands-on, provocative and multi-sensory experiences. And since science is all about how the physical world works, teaching should include a dose of real life.

Some things can get in the way.

Even as we acknowledge that assessment is indispensable in school, it is possible to kill a child's interest - even in pop music - by making it examinable.

Let's consider the recent brouhaha over the need to be precise in answering exam questions. That's not unreasonable, but wisdom is needed both in asking the question, and grading the answer.

Take a typical classroom question: "Does this tiny cup of coffee contain more heat than the large glass of cold lemonade?"

The words "tiny", "large" and "cold" are all imprecise terms, but the real transgression here is in the use of the word "heat".

In thermodynamics, heat cannot be contained. It comes into being only when thermal energy flows from one point to another.

If the question is vague, the student cannot possibly provide an acceptable answer. So a teacher needs to have a strong grounding in the basic concepts of science to properly rate a student's answer.

We should be uncompromisingly clear when presenting basic scientific concepts, but take care not to be too pedantic over the use of everyday English.

So never confuse a squirrel with a bird, but don't quibble too much that a "flying squirrel" glides and doesn't actually fly.

Science and the scientific method are exact and powerful.

But in an ever-evolving field of knowledge, new truths supersede old ones.

In Sir Isaac Newton's era, for example, time was absolute, but Albert Einstein later proved that time can slow down if you travel fast enough.

Newton thought light consists of particles, but British scientist James Clerk Maxwell showed that light is part of a spectrum of electromagnetic waves.

Today, we accept that light behaves like both a stream of particles, as well as waves. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

So why do we learn science?

In primary school, I would advocate that teachers instil a hint of scientific thought, and inspire a visceral sense of wonder and inquiry, rather than just dole out facts. To explain our place in the universe, for instance, show children the natural night sky filled with stars - don't just point to a page in a book or on the Internet.

Many city children have never even seen the Milky Way in its full glory, and, thus, never fully appreciate the vastness of space.

Similarly, to understand atmospheric pressure, the simple experiment of water being held in an inverted cup by a mere piece of paper is extremely effective.

How do we assess the success of such instruction methods?

I doubt there is an effective system to gauge a child's inspiration. And that matters a lot more than marks in a report card. When the difference between a full mark and zero can be determined by grammar and syntax, a science score is meaningless.

The primary school years are when a child's brain is being hard-wired, so we want to develop in them a love for the subject.

Having a passionate and fun teacher who is not preoccupied with grades will go a long way.

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