Waring School Science Program, 1988

Kids seem to understand from a very early age that they can ‘make’ music; usually, however, they have not understood, even by the time they get to the Waring School, that they can just as easily “do” science.

Perhaps this is because young rock musicians are everywhere, on the tube and on the pages of the newspapers and magazines they read, whereas successful young scientists, such as the recent group of Westinghouse Science Prize winners, pass by pretty much unnoticed by the kids, as by the general public.

It’s probably a fact, that, of all the subject matters and activities that we would have students become familiar with while in school, music and science are the two most readily accessible to them at their age.

For one cannot be an historian, nor can one have much to say about literature, without having read an awful lot of books (thus limiting these activities by and large to graduate school and beyond).

Then, to write and to draw well take years of practice; at Waring only those students who keep sketch books and journals (those who practice) achieve anything significant in one or both areas.

Finally, both mathematics and French require years of study before one is able to think in either language.

If then science, like music, is indeed accessible to kids at an early age why is it that so few of them seem to be doing it? (Whereas so many of them, if not making, are certainly listening to music.)

In part the fault lies with the media as I mention above, and the attention given the one activity and the neglect of the other. But also to blame is the fact that teachers, students and parents are probably not of one mind as to what it should mean to “do” science in the schools.

There is no reason why the Waring School’s science program could not be just as strong as the programs in math, music and French, but teachers, parents and students would have to reach agreement among themselves as to what it is they (we) would achieve in this area of the school program.

Probably science for most Waring parents means lerning (memorizing) the elementary content of one or more subject areas such as biology, physics and chemistry, the content being presented both through chapters in a textbook and exercises in a laboratory manual. In other words, for many of you, having a science program means having the students both reading science texts and spending some time in the science laboratory.

Doing science in this way generally means memorizing information and learning laboratory techniques, that which obedient kids, especially those with good memories, do well, whether or not there is anything of the scientist within them.

But this is only one kind of science, probably the kind that turns so many kids off to doing any science at all while in school — it’s a fact that fewer than 10% of American high school students choose to take courses in physics or chemistry.

But doing science need not be primarily reading textbooks. In this science differs from history and literature. Doing science may include reading some books, but the books need not and should not come first (as they do now in most science programs in most schools).

Science should be first and foremost a unique way of looking at the world (different, say, from that of the poet, or the business man), and in so doing the looker acquiring a certain kind of (scientific) knowledge of that world. Indeed, to confine the activity of science to the acquisition of information from textbooks is bad science for a number of reasons.

First, one doesn’t learn to took for oneself, one accepts usually uncritically what others have said and discovered; second, there is just too much available information and no school science program can cover more than a small portion of this tremendous body of knowledge; and third, the state of our knowledge of the world is never at rest, and any given textbook description will, almost immediately following publication, be out-of-date.

Perhaps in its most fundamental form doing science means being curious about something, something you have noticed and which has struck your imagination. Richard Feynman’s life (as depicted in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman) is an endless succession of instances of his following up his own curiosity. I don’t think he would even bother to distinguish in kind between those instances which led to his Nobel Prize in Physics, and those which enabled him to pick the lock of one of the filing cabinets in a Los Alamos office.

Mr. Feynman’s curiosity leads him to such things as investigating a house painter’s claim that by mixing red and white paint he will get yellow, finding out just how much of the bloodhound’s gift he has within his own nose, discovering how the mindreader reads minds, how the ant returns to the hill, and comparing “human” cyclotrons at Princeton with “inhuman” ones at MIT.

Feynman shows us that absolutely everything and anything may become the object of scientific inquiry, that everything can be looked at scientifically. On the other hand this is why, perhaps, for many people, science is so frightening, — for it’s probably true that everything may be made subject to observations and experiments in order to discover patterns, trends, theories and laws.

To do science in this way, investigating methodically the object of one’s interest, was the intent behind our 7th. and 8th. grade science program this current school year. Each student was asked to choose a subject of interest to him or her and then follow up that interest in every possible way in order to gain thereby and then communicate to the rest of the class a greater understanding of the subject.

Some students have enjoyed this approach, choosing subjects such as pregnancy and birth (to which the student in question happened to be a recent witness), sketching ducks and observing their social behavior in a backyard pond, the workings of logic gates and gasoline engines. These students have kept science journals, the principal focus of their work, recording therein their observations, measurements, notes, questions, ideas, and sketches.

Other students who seemed uncomfortable with this approach would, at best, go to encyclopedias and texts and take information and the transfer that information to their science journals. And in fact it has been these latter students have since opted to study basic science in the more traditional manner.

Finally, here are my own ideas on what might be (ought to be) the six elements of science education at Waring. Do they meet with your agreement? We want to know.

1) First of all I would place mathematics within the science program because, besides being a science in its own right, it is, after all, the language of physics, of much of chemistry, and much of molecular biology.  Calculus (taught at Waring in AP form) did grow out of physics. It was invented, by Newton and Leibnitz, in order to better describe motion, being therefore in important respects the language of physics as much as a discipline in its own right.

2) Second, there are the familiar basic science courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, the kind of thing I describe above. But it is not often acknowledged that these, in spite of parents’ wishes, just like Harvard and Yale, are not for everyone.

Indeed, it is the experience of the Waring School that only a few students in any one of these classes are interested in and/or prepared or ready to begin their serious study. Those who are ready may do so at Waring, in addition, we make it possible for them to enroll as juniors or seniors (prior to that time they won’t have had enough mathematics) in one of the basic science courses offered to highschool students through the Extension School at Harvard.

The Harvard classes open to our students are the very same ones given to Harvard undergraduates and they therefore represent a tremendous opportunity to find out, while still in highschool, what a college course is like, as well as to receive a course credit that can be used later on in college.

3) There are the independent science projects, the kind of things that go on at science fairs and that may be presented in competition for Westinghouse Science awards. This is the sort of thing that comes closest, in my view, to “doing science” while in school.

The independent projects represent on the part of the student scientist an investigation into something for which there are not yet clear and thorough answers in the books. And while doing the investigation the student will inevitably learn a lot of traditional science, in addition to illuminating and acquiring an improved understanding of the particular problem that he or she has chosen to address.

The beauty of this approach to science is that the student may very well discover something new, see something for the first time, make clear a relationship that no one else had noticed, and therefore experience a bit of what it’s like to be a scientist. There are no prerequisites for doing science in this way, except the ability to clearly state what it is you’re doing, then to carefully observe, measure and record, and finally to correctly interpret.

Most of all the student must be able to think clearly about whatever it is he or she is investigating. And this ability is, I would like to believe, more or less within the capacities of all of all of our students, accessible to all of them.

4) Work in the laboratory is the fourth element in the Waring science program. Accompanying the basic science courses described above are any number of laboratory techniques and experiments with which the student must become familiar. But it is not expected that every Waring student do laboratory science. the time commitment is considerable and the student must be ready and willing to make it. Not all are.

For those who are it will be their responsibility to come to the laboratory with a particular goal in mind, such as learning a basic lab procedure, carrying out an experiment that illustrates this or that physical or chemical law, or one in support of his or her independent science project.

Laboratory science is a costly and often tedious activity and only makes sense if there is considerable interest on the part of the student to thoroughly prepare and meticulously carry out the proposed experiment.

5) The fifth element in the Waring science program is the history of science. (This also happens to be where my own greatest interest lies.) Also, and in important respects this is the school’s interest, because science considered in this way fits right in with the Humanities (history and literature), the discussions of the Great Books, the history of Art and Music.

Those high school students who have little interest, or who are without the necessary math skills, to study the basic sciences in the traditional manner described above might with considerable satisfaction and profit study science in this way. In any case, the great scientists, and the ideas and laws with which they are associated should, no less than Beethoven’s music or Monet’s art, become the possession of all of us.

6) Finally, there is science literacy. This comes about, just like literacy in any other area, through reading not only science texts, but also science newsletters, newspapers, and magazines. Waring offers no course in this area, but encourages students to be curious about what is going on right now on the frontiers of each one of the sciences.

In this regard the daily all school meetings will take up such subjects as mapping the human genome, theories of the K-T extinction, particle accelerators, and super conductors, all these and other exciting ideas and happenings that are currently taking place among scientists throughout the entire world.

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