Down the pub with Alaskans*

It is a rule of scientific meetings that some of the most productive times are informal gatherings with your colleagues, who are also your friends. And like any gathering of friends, they often take place in the pub. Funding agencies won’t pay for the beers – we pick up that expense ourselves – but it’s worth it. Everyone is a bit more relaxed, and it’s easy to generate new ideas. One of my university professors tells a story of how he made an offhand suggestion to a friend of his in the pub after a long day of meeting – a suggestion that resulted in his friend winning the Nobel Prize.

Yesterday, I went to the Hilton hotel bar with Dr. Travis Rector of the University of Alaska Anchorage, along with some extremely bright colleagues from the University of Arizona and the Ohio Department of Education.

We discussed the state of science education in U.S. universities. Travis’s passion is getting all undergraduates taking astronomy courses to do some research – not just the science majors, but everyone. He came up with a brilliant analogy for the current state of affairs, and how we can improve it. The analogy was about baseball, so I will internationalize it.

The way we run a traditional science class is as if we were trying to teach students how to play soccer (football) by showing them videotapes of matches, without ever letting them play the game.

But it’s even worse than that! We tell them about the results of science as knowledge, which is like teaching about football by showing them highlight reels of spectacular goals, without showing them the careful match strategy – not to mention years of practice – that goes into creating those goals.

In science, it’s extremely rare that a result comes fully-formed from the mind of a single person, just as in soccer, it’s extremely rare that one person creates a goal all by themselves (sorry, England fans, that really is the archetypal example). How long do you think Maradona had to practice to do that? It took Johannes Kepler 10 years of poring over Tycho Brahe‘s data to figure out his laws of motion.

It’s our hope that exposing people to the day-to-day process of scientific research, through Galaxy Zoo and this blog, can help someone develop an appreciation for the day-to-day process by which science actually works.

*Actually, only one Alaskan, and he’s not originally from Alaska – he only works there. But having that title for a post was too good to pass up.

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3 responses to “Down the pub with Alaskans*”

  1. Adam Primus says :

    Diego Maradonna?!! And I suppose you’d use his “Hand of God” goal to illustrate Divine Intervention?!!
    You COULD have used Michael Owen’s goal v Argentina in the France World Cup…..

  2. Ronnard says :

    The problem with education at school and at univerity nowadays is, that students have to learn too much.

    It should be sufficient, if they would get an overview about a topic, learn the most significant methods and facts and then start directly to do some original work themselves.

    Lets take astronomy as an example:

    Would it not be possible, that a student gets a short overview of lets say 6 months and thereafter does do some research work, like doing observations with telescopes himself and doing some theoretical calculations. Eventually using some finished software programs.

    Thereafter 6 other months with teaching and so on.

    The question is, what our societies want to get from their students: An army of uniformly trained people or a lot of highly motivated and creative people, who are eager to solve problems ?

  3. Jordan says :

    Adam:

    Time to expand the analogy a bit, I think:

    Sometimes students cheat on their exams.

    And sometimes the students that usually don’t do very well will surprise you with good performances.

    Ronnard:

    You’re absolutely right. Major education research reports have criticized the U.S. school system as being “a mile wide and an inch deep” – there are too many things being taught, in not enough detail.

    It takes students time to learn a new concept, and if we try to pack in too many things, they end up not remembering any of it.

    You’re also right that we want students that can solve problems. It’s less clear how to do that, although student projects seem to help, especially if the projects resemble what real professionals in that field do. In this context, doing scientific research should really help students learn science.

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