Science education

The problem with all those high school science "experiments" is that they weren't. It's not an experiment if you know what's going to happen. It's a demonstration. What were we going to do, publish the results?

Considering that I ended up a practicing scientist, you'd think I must have learned what science was in high school and decided I liked it. Not really. Some of my high school science teachers did inspire me, and I discovered I was good at the analytical side of it, but honestly I didn't understand how science works until grad school. That's why I can't summon up any righteous indignation when I look around and see that the vast majority of Americans are ignorant about what scientific results mean.

It must be really difficult for high school science teachers today. In the 80s, we could set magnesium on fire in the classroom, but safety and liability and budgets have killed almost everything that used to be hands-on. Outside of school, most of the toys and appliances we buy can't be altered or repaired. Where can a young person develop a taste for hands-on work? At least you can still open up a desktop PC and install extra hard drives and video cards.

What would I do differently? I think science education emphasizes the categories of knowledge too much--for example, the acids and bases of chemistry--and doesn't teach how that knowledge was learned in the first place. How do you learn? One, get your hands dirty: people remember best what they learn for themselves, and curiosity will show you what direction to go next. Two, learn everything you can from the people who got their hands dirty before you. Act, observe, explain, and act again. Teach kids that, and they'll get it.