Friday, May 29, 2015

Continuously Changing Learning Objectives

Teaching science is challenging for a lot of reasons one of which is that learning objectives are shifting with changes in our scientific and technologic reality. Take for instance the development of robots. Robots have been in the mind of futurologist, technologist, and industrialists since the beginning of the industrial revolution (maybe before) mainly to replace humans doing unpleasant tasks.

Reading Diane Ackerman's book The Human Age I am exploring the idea of the possibility of self aware robots.

Image form Amazon
This exploration made me think about the problem of teaching a subject like chemistry that is being transformed by the use of "artificial" intelligence. Computer models that can replicate chemical reactions and gather data that is retrofitted to the algorithm so through many fast iterations a final reactant can be identified as the best. For an example of a computational drug design look at this youtube video 

In this video you can see as the molecule is modified to fit in the dock the enthalpy of the hydrogen bond which is a measure of fitness is calculated and displayed.

Of course these experiments can't be done by someone without basic knowledge of bonding, atomic and molecular orbitals, molecular structures, and thermodynamics. But all of these concepts are there in cyberspace and constitute 'knowledge' that is universally shared. The main problem is that now there is no way we can teach everything that is available in any branch of science, like it was the case a century ago. The issue, for me, becomes how to structure a systematic process where students will learn basic concepts that include how to get the necessary information from the internet. The cloud becomes the hub where students transit for the interconnection of ideas and tests. Hypothesis are explored in this new environment where collaboration becomes the norm and communication (including of course the proper language) the most powerful tool.

So, the question becomes: how much time should be invested in learning and developing searching and communicating skills?


Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is there in the vocabulary

     One may wonder why is having a broad vocabulary important in science? How would understanding the meaning of a word helps grasp the concept referenced by the word? Is the understanding of the meaning of a term necessary to solve problems where the term is invoked?

     These are not trivial questions, but it appears that they are, based on the fact that we use a lot of terminology which meaning depends only in the context where the terminology is used. For example let's think about the word "attraction". Take a moment and think about the word. Then you realize that in order for you to thing about the word attraction you have to construct a sentence like: two bodies experience gravitational attraction due to their mass. Or, two bodies feel romantic attraction due to their psychological compatibility.

     Are these two examples of attraction similar? I dare to say, no! They are very different with respect to the way that the ideas of force and feelings have completely different mechanisms thus the solutions to the problems presented in each case will have very different results and conclusions. Let's expand this argument for the sake of clarity. In the case of gravitational attraction one knows that the force is proportional to the mass of the bodies involved. Therefore one can write a formula that simply states this attraction as a function of mass like this: Force of attraction between to bodies at some distance is proportional to the product of the masses of the bodies. F(at some distance) ~ m1*m2  or F~m1m2; where m1 and m2 are the masses of the bodies. The next step is to remove the proportionality symbol ~ through experimentation and change the proportionality to an equality like the following where the distance factor is introduced: F = k (m1m2/r2. The r2 indicates that the force decreases with the square of the distance r.

Now let's try to do the same with the romantic attraction. What factors would we use for the 'psychological' feeling that these two bodies experience, can we talk about these feelings like forces?
Or the metaphor will completely get out of hand? The opposite was the case when in the seventeen century Isaac Newton suggested that two bodies 'attracted' each other through gravitational forces. 

The French much given to romanticism were completely opposed to Newtons ideas for many years because they could not come to terms (pun intended) with the idea that inert bodies like rocky planets could have feelings and 'attraction" was before Newton used in the sense of the later example. Now of course we have blurred the line between the metaphorical meaning and the 'literal' when we use the term force to indicate desire, need, or even thought.

So what is there in the vocabulary? Why do we have to teach a bunch of terms in science classes?

How can the lack of understanding of the terminology involved in a particular discipline hinders the understanding of difficult concepts?

The answer to these question surely will lead to better pedagogy of science teaching and learning.

Do you have a term that is you favorite?