As a teenager in high school, Amanda Gefter was relatively disengaged from classes and studying. It was not that she wasn’t smart, was not interested in the world around her, or did not want to learn, but that teachers and her school did not manage to grab her attention and excite her with the subjects they taught. In her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter explains the interest she took in physics and science outside the classroom, and discusses how interesting science is, yet how little of the mystery of our world was actually conveyed in her classes.
She writes, “Einstein said, ‘This huge world stands before us like a great eternal riddle.’ Why couldn’t any of my teachers have told me that? ‘Listen,’ they could have said, ‘no one has any idea what the hell is going on. We wake up in this world and we don’t know why we’re here or how anything works. I mean, look around. Look how bizarre it all is! What the hell is all this stuff? Reality is a huge mystery, and you have a choice to make. You can run from it, you can placate yourself with fairy tales, you can just pretend everything’s normal, or you can stare that mystery in the eye and try to solve it. If you are one of the brave ones to choose the latter, welcome to science.”
We present science in school in a way that allows us to test student knowledge. The knowledge we test is usually just basic facts and information that can be evaluated with multiple choice questions. Science in the real world, however, is not multiple choice. We don’t actually know all the answers and the quest to find them involves creative thinking to design experiments, evaluate the world, observe complex phenomena, and crowdsource knowledge to establish accepted theories of what is taking place. When we reduce this complex web that we call science to basic multiple choice questions, we create an illusion that science is well understood and that we have all the answers figured out. Students become disengaged because we lose the mystery and fail to connect the challenging science to the important developments of the world.
To inspire kids with science we need to first obliterate the idea that math is hard. Math is not hard, it is just a different frame for understanding the interactions of the universe. If we tell our kids that math is a secrete code to the universe that they have the power to understand, then they can approach the subject with less apprehension and more intrigue, and they can be more successful. From there we must explain the mysteries of the universe that we are working to better understand, and we must demonstrate to kids the interesting work and knowledge being undertaken and discovered every day. We must create new ways of transmitting knowledge and testing knowledge that don’t involve multiple choice questions and textbooks that present information without connections to real world applications.