We only conserve what we love, we only love that which we understand, we only understand what we know, we only know what we are taught.
Science helps satisfy our natural curiosity: why is the sky blue, how did the leopard get its spots, what is a solar eclipse? With science, we can answer these questions without resorting to magical explanations. Scientific understanding leads to technological advances, and helps us learn about enormously important topics, such as our health, the environment and natural hazards.
Yet each year it seems children know less about how the natural world works and have all but lost that curiosity. Is it because kids are spending less time outdoors and getting dirty? Is it because technology has made them intrinsically less curious? Is Siri, Wikipedia or Google to blame? Is it because they are reading less and being entertained more? Or is it because they just don’t care? No matter what the reason, not knowing spells trouble for all of us. It is frightening to think that we may be cultivating a generation of kids who don’t question or ponder.
A 2013 BBC.com article, “Why everyone must understand science,” references the fact that people feel excluded by science and scientific discussions. Although most people use laptops, fly in planes and use appliances in the home, they don’t know what’s behind this technology. The less people know the more they are likely to be influenced by people who may not have their best interests at heart.
People are so accustomed to science being part of their lives that they take for granted that everyone knows what it is. But they don’t. Studies have shown that nature of science misconceptions are prevalent among high school and college students and even among teachers.
As the lead nurse practitioner on the University of Miami’s heart transplant team, I thought I knew a lot about science. Even after 25 years of cardiac and transplant medicine, it turns out I was only standing on the surface. I realized this after I became a science teacher. With teaching, I found out how much more information and explanations there were below that surface.
As such, my mission as a science teacher has not only been to teach science, but to engage students so that they become aware and develop a desire to know, question and understand the way things work.
From sub-atomic particle behavior to photosynthesis, everything we do, eat, touch, see and smell can be explained by science. And what is more amazing is that everything about science makes sense.
What I found out shortly after stepping into the classroom was the extent to which most kids have an inaccurate view on how things work. This typically stems from either receiving the wrong information or from conjuring up their own ideas. This becomes more prevalent as the complexity of the concept or mechanism increases. Take the basic operating functions of appliances we routinely use — a light bulb, an ice pack or a doorbell. If you ask many students about how these things work, many see it as simple magic because they have not had to think about it.
As busy humans, we accept a lot of this “magic” in our everyday world — like how does a GPS receiver unit know where you are and where you are going? This occurs because we either don’t understand the mechanisms or are simply not compelled to know.
When students have the opportunity and motivation to demystify the way things work and are able to see the relevance, they are better able to question and extrapolate deeper information. In turn, this makes them more capable thinkers and problem solvers when faced with new situations.
Within the curriculum guided by the Florida Standards, great science teachers are committed to learning what their students know upon entering the classroom. They go on to strengthen what more they need to know while ensuring that they understand the WHY and HOW. This rigorous process makes me eternally grateful to science entertainers like Bill Nye, the beloved Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman duo, Vsauce and John Green for providing a great framework.
At the beginning of each school year, I introduce the idea that many of the concepts they have accepted as true are in fact, misunderstood. I start with an open discussion on common concepts like subtraction, cold and gravity. It begins like this:
▪ There is no such thing as subtraction. You might be scratching your head at this moment — especially if you teach math. We use the concept of subtraction to teach young children what happens when things are removed from a group. But subtraction is simply adding negative numbers.
▪ There is no such thing as cold. Ice is cold, dry ice is colder and liquid nitrogen is even colder. So cold is just a word we use to describe a relative lack of heat. Cold simply does not exist. That is, until science is able to reach absolute zero and demonstrate the fifth state of matter — the Bose-Einstein Condensate — where heat is totally absent.
▪ There is no such thing as falling. Things don’t fall, Earth’s gravity pulls them and us downward. If it wasn’t for gravity, we wouldn’t be here because the water and the atmospheric gases we need to survive would be lost to space.
Once the class realizes that their prior knowledge can be improved with meaningful rational concepts that they understand, they are more open to further unraveling of the science world. And in a classroom of hormonally crazed human beings, my challenge is to get them to forget about their social lives and instead create a room of deliriously curious adolescent scientists.
If you ask a random selection of adults who have used an instant ice pack/heat pack or watched a child delight in a glowstick or a fireworks display, few can actually explain how these things work. So when we cover the section on physical and chemical changes, it makes for a great learning opportunity to debunk prior knowledge.
I open a box of ice packs and glow sticks. Each student gets an item and is asked to examine it closely and draw one illustration that shows its parts, make two proposals about how it might work, and then create three questions they have about it. Following a class discussion, my clarification, and then their final investigation (yes, they get to crack and smash), the outcome is amazing and they never forget it.
And there really is no such thing as an ice pack because there is no ice in an ice pack. It is simply a chemical reaction that occurs when the inner pack is crushed causing the mixture of chemicals. The mixture starts a reaction which requires heat so the surrounding heat is pulled inward. It only feels like ice.
Of course debunking and demystifying prior knowledge of how things work is just one aspect of teaching science in middle school. A University of Albany report on the best practices in middle school science resonate some of my own philosophies:
Kids need a climate in which they feel capable of examining their prior knowledge and being able to grasp new and possibly more abstract concepts. Middle school is said to be the maker or breaker of future scientists.
▪ Fun has a lot to do with keeping science relevant. The more abstract a concept is, the more important it is to provide hands on, real world inquiry activities. Students need to see how science relates to their present lives. When science is made relevant — and cool, there is long-lasting buy in.
We have come a long way from fearing the Norse God Thor of lightning and thunder. Yet many people still don’t understand what actually creates a cumulonimbus cloud and the relationship between lightning and thunder.
Students need to learn that questioning, testing and revising current practices yields improvement. They need to understand that changing perspectives in light of new information is the reason why we enjoy the advanced technologies of today, why we can cure diseases that were once incurable, why women can now vote and why we no longer burn heretics. It is the basis of human progress.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.