Sciense educashun

My eleven year old granddaughter is visiting this week, and is just at the stage of discovering that the i-Phone is a good substitute for looking at the world, thinking etc. Discovering a sat-nav app she was able to confirm that the short-cut we took to avoid the Exeter rush-hour was in fact correct, and to spend the rest of the journey reading off how long it would be before we got home. A shame she missed the views.

One app she has is a “science education” thing. You maybe can guess the kind of thing, involving food colour, cooking oil, matches and so on. My problem with it is that it presents science as producing magical effects, rather than as exciting the curiosity for explanations.

For example, one “experiment” involved mixing olive oil and food colour, and shaking the result with water. Hey presto! Red oil floating on clear water.We discovered biphasic mixtures. Except that some of the oil was inexplicably still on the bottom, and as granddaughter held it in her hot little hand, she began to cause drops of it to rise up and defy gravity. So we put the glass on the kitchen range, and produced our own lava lamp, together with the question of why it worked that way.

That wasn’t the end. We left the thing to stand during lunch, and returned to find the water had become red, and the oil had lost most of its colour. Another set of questions to explore, which the app would not help us with, being interested only in astonishing the bystanders with a two-phase mixture.

But the next experiment illustrated on the app was worse. More food colour, this time in water on a plate. A live match is secured by some means to the plate, and struck, at which point a glass is inverted over it. Lo and behold, the coloured water rises up the glass, and the match goes out. Tiny minds are amazed, as the app does the “science” by telling us the heat of the match drew the water up the inside of the glass.

What the …?

“Tosh!” I said to the app. “Also, Piffle! How dare you misinform my esteemed granddaughter so?”

Here we have a classic experiment that, with a little thought, explains much about the nature of combustion, and demonstrates the existence of oxygen, simultaneously disproving the phlogiston theory. It’s potentially both mentally stimulating, and a good example of how science asks the universe questions to get unexpected answers. I had fun asking those questions, and granddaughter had fun realising that she had actually proved the existence of oxygen as a constituent of air.

Along the way we could challenge the other view of science, as a body of truths you accept because some authority – in this case an app – tells you it’s so.

“How do we know that it wasn’t invisible goblins making the water rise?” I asked.

“Because goblins don’t exist.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I’ve never seen one.”

“But you wouldn‘t if they’re invisible – have you ever seen air?”

Of course, she hadn’t – but she had now seen a bunch of air disappear before her eyes by burning a match. Goblins became less necessary… although we agreed to retain gnomes in our worldview until they were disproven too.

To be fair, I don’t think think the “Look at the amazing tricks science can do!” approach is new. I remember in my childhood similar “experiments” were included with my first home chemistry set, and even remember getting entire books of “neat science tricks” out of the library. Somehow they were always following recipes to produce a result, rather than asking questions that seemed to demand answers, and suggesting how to answer them. It was having sciency test-tubes and sodium thisosulphate to hand that made something “science,” rather than looking around and wondering how things work.

There was still a large element of that even in school science. I guess they thought they had to teach all the basic findings of 500 years of science, so the rather crucial fact that science was always about being inquisitive about stuff never really got through to me – that’s a major reason I didn’t see science as a career for myself, and opted for medicine instead.

There were even a few “the heat draws up the water” moments in my school science courses, which only later did I question as inadequate or plain wrong. For example, the stuff in A-level physics about primary colours, which managed to divorce the subject from the physiology which alone makes sense of it. I blogged on that here.

I suppose that science-apps for 11 year olds may well not represent how science is taught in schools here, or in the USA and the other colonies. But I hope they don’t, when the world is such an intriguing place. Thinking God’s thoughts after him means cultivating the art of asking him the right kind of questions.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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