Friday, August 25, 2017

Poking the Universe

A group of John Muir teachers and school administrators experienced a professional development session recently as part of their involvement in the NASA Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. The meeting was conducted via Skype from astrophysicist Jeff Goldstein.

I was most impressed with the philosophical background of the program as to the “why” behind the process.  Mr. Goldstein gave the example as to how young children “poke the universe” and begin to determine the causes and effects from the time they are old enough to sense their world around.

Children are already predisposed to be inquirers and find out how the world and universe works. He mentioned that same way of thinking; that childlike sense of inquiry and investigation is what science is all about, and that is how the scientists they work with approach their work in looking at the universe.

Here was a key question: “How many of you science teachers give a set of procedures to your students to do a lab?” As a former science teacher, I did not want to raise my hand because I knew where this was going. He asked, “If you conduct your labs by giving your students a list of procedures, is that science?” I thought to myself, “Ouch!”

He noted that is not science, but it is following the recipe or doing the work of a technician and not a scientist. When we teach science (or any discipline at all for that matter) as a set of procedures or as a rigid recipe, students see the classroom and the learning as belonging solely to the teacher.
However, when we build the learning around inquiry-based, evidence-based learning, students own the learning much like they did as young children who “poke things” to see how they react.

The scientific method is not a set of procedures or rules as well, but it is simply “poking” around inquiry-based, evidence-based learning. And, he mentioned,  “Who says you have to have a hypothesis?” For example, a group of peer scientists just recently “poked the universe” by wondering what was beyond a certain part of space. After digging further, they discovered a whole new set of planets and systems.

A powerful part of the learning was this: He emphasized that the scientific method (remember his definition of the scientific method is inquiry based, evidence based learning) should be in all of our courses, across all disciplines. For example, a cook wonders what would happen if he added a little rosemary. He then experiments by adding rosemary and testing the results (aroma, taste, etc.). Or, an
artist wonders what would happen if she added texture to the painting. She uses a variety of textures, tests the aesthetics, the feel, the tone created, and adjusts.

All of this inquiry based, evidence based learning is embedded in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. John Muir students will be “poking” about the idea of how living things react, live, adjust, grow, divide, build, survive or thrive in a zero gravity environment in a space station that is in orbit. Looking forward to our kids “poking” around!

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