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Five Great Reasons for Studying Science through Researching the Lives of Great Scientists: Spotlight on the Challenge B Research Strand

The research strand in Challenge B fall semester is bursting with a wonderful science education. This article explores why that is so by highlighting five reasons for studying science through researching prominent scientists. Each reason focuses on an underlying misconception about science that tends to be prevalent and that is corrected through the students’ research into the lives and discoveries of these prominent scientists. Every myth is countered by a truth and a few lessons students may learn from their studies are highlighted.

Researching the lives and discoveries of prominent scientists:

  1. Inspires curiosity and an attitude of discovery.

The Misconception: Today we have access to more information than ever before in the history of man, and people—especially young people who are plugged in technologically—often have the impression that ‘googling’ produces all the possible answers to questions. This leads to the illusion that science is ‘settled’; that virtually all there is to be known has already been discovered and not much can be added to the existing body of knowledge.
The Truth: In Challenge B students learn, through real-life examples, that throughout history what seemed like ‘settled’ science has routinely been re-energized by new innovative ideas. Furthermore, these innovations do not come out of ‘nothing,’ but are almost always based upon previous information viewed in a new light. A fantastic example of this is Johannes Kepler, who worked with existing understanding and calculations, but had the ‘aha’ moment of realizing that in order to fit the observed data the planets’ orbits had to be elliptical rather than circular.
The Lesson: Students are exposed to excellent role models in the scientists they research and they learn from them how to be discoverers themselves. They perceive that science is explorative, innovative, and creative. Students also learn the important life lessons of dealing with the ambiguities and frustrations of stepping out into uncharted territory. They learn from famous examples like Faraday or Curie to respond to the questions of what to do when they do not have access to an answer key or an expert resource to consult. In addition, students are frequently truly inspired to life-long scientific curiosity by the models they meet in their research.

  1. Promotes the understanding that progress has been happening in scientific fields for centuries.

The Misconception: Due to the fact that more technological advancement has been seen in the past century or so than ever before in history, it is difficult these days not to feel that there was no progress until the sudden explosion of discoveries in the modern age. Especially for young people, whose knowledge of history may be limited, it is difficult for them to appreciate the important and revolutionary discoveries of the past because they seem to pale in comparison to the flash and dazzle of the twenty-first century.
The Truth: Scientific learning has been progressing for centuries and our current scientific knowledge is layered, building upon the understanding and information of past ages. Undoubtedly, it is the case that advancing knowledge has been extremely rapid in recent years, but that does not invalidate or discredit the vastly important discoveries of the past upon which our current knowledge rests. Students can see how Linnaeus, for example, laid a solid foundation for the genus and species divisions of classifications that we still use today.
The Lesson: Science is always in the process of being refined. New ideas build upon older ideas (some of which are being rediscovered after being long buried in obscurity). Science is not static. Students learn to appreciate the fluidity of scientific knowledge and begin to understand how their own knowledge and discernment is important when examining any scientific ideas or discoveries they encounter in their own lives.

  1. Encourages the integration of ideas and subjects.

The Misconception: In our postmodern age, we have a fragmented way of looking at the world. We have a tendency to define everything by particulars and by what makes things ‘different’ rather than by what they have in common. This is especially true when we think about the subjects of education. Often students are not encouraged to perceive how science is related to history or how math is like poetry. We tend to break our studies into the ‘sciences,’ the ‘humanities,’ and the ‘arts,’ as though they are separate and unrelated.
The Truth: Although this is our tendency, it is not the reality. We live in a world in which the sciences, humanities, and arts are integrated all around us in our daily experiences. Just go to the movie theater today to watch a blockbuster and you will see there the melding of story, art, science, technology, music, and more. And of course, neither scientists now nor those in the past have explored, researched, pondered, or discovered in isolation. They have lived and worked in real time and in real places. They are heavily influenced by prevailing philosophies, current events, artistic movements, and spiritual trends. They are not affected by ‘science’ alone, but by the whole of their own experiences, education, personal understanding, and lives as a whole. In other words, science happens within a historical context that automatically has as a prerequisite connections with a myriad of other factors, ideas, and subjects. This can be clearly seen when one researches the life of Einstein, for example; it is impossible to divorce Einstein from the prevailing factors of his time, including the budding technologies of astronomy and the unavoidable historical and political tensions presented by the Second World War. Often students are also surprised to learn that Einstein was an accomplished musician, who is attributed with saying: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
The Lesson: Students learn to identify with the men and women behind the scientific discoveries that have such an indelible impact on the students’ own lives today. Almost every one of the scientists studied has had a direct influence on our daily, modern existence. Through their research, students see these scientists as real people, who came from definite places and backgrounds, who had certain kinds of education and beliefs, and who had goals and aspirations. They learn from this that science does not happen in some sort of scholarly, academic vacuum, but is an integral part of the course of civilization’s development.

  1. Encourages truth-seeking.

The Misconception: Our world is inundated with the philosophies and underlying assumptions of relativism: every one’s truth is his or her own, constructed from personal experience and suited to each individual. Although science upholds the ideal of objectivity in its methods, it has been haunted by the specter of relativism as well. The question of whether light is a wave or a particle has had long-term consequences; not being able to conclusively and objectively observe and analyze light, science has been thrown into the confusion of trying to decide how to even define this fundamental aspect of everyday experience. And of course, the Theory of Relativity brings the issue of subjective perspective into even greater focus. Science has been forced, despite itself, to question its own capacity to observe, define, and measure. This produces a high degree of cognitive dissonance in our culture, for while we fanatically adhere to the truths and the products of science, sometimes almost to the point of idolatry, at the root we doubt even the truths of science that we rely upon (from those of medicine to those of space travel).
The Truth: In fact, however, there are so many ways in which the science we rely on is objectively true. If it was not, we would not be able to do successful cutting-edge surgeries or fly space ships…or even plant crops successfully with any hope of harvesting them. That is not the same as saying that science is objectively full proof, but it is claiming that in some very important ways science meets reality in a way that we can apply it and not only apply , but do so with great achievement and with great fruitfulness. Even though we may not understand all there is to know about satellite technology, for example, we do know that it is working with a fair amount of accuracy.
The Lesson: In researching the lives and work of great scientists, students learn that these scientists—even though they stepped out into the unknown, and even though they were influenced by the times and places in which they lived—sought timeless, objective truths that could then be applied to life successfully. This affirms not only the validity of scientific endeavors but it confirms that we are able, through the scientific method, to reach, articulate, and use truth concretely in our lives. Whether or not a plane flies is not relative; it either does or does not fly! The questions of how fast it flies or what its length is are ones that come up with relativity, sure…but do not dispute actual event of the flying. Students are able to see scientists actively pursuing abstract truths that can then be used in the concrete world and this is a great testimony against the philosophies of relativism so rampant in our times.

  1. Allows students to study important scientists who asked good questions and worked towards good answers.

The Misconception: In a materialistic, results-oriented culture we often have the idea that the answers are the most important part of any inquiry, especially scientific ones. And, of course, while it is critical that answers be correct whenever we want to apply scientific knowledge (after all, we want buildings that stand, bridges that don’t collapse, and medical equipment that is effective), we tend to downplay the importance of the role of the questions that were being asked in order to get to those good answers. The misconception is that the process of exploring, testing, investigating, pondering, and inquiring is less important than the answers.
The Truth: In reality, the process is vital and knowing how to travel through that process with perseverance and discernment is critical. It takes many scientists many years of labor and effort, through a multitude of various hypotheses and experiments, to come to the conclusions which then provide the answers we now rely upon for all of our space age needs.
The Lesson: Students who study the lives of real scientists gain an appreciation for all the hard work, patience, humility, and sheer volume of time and effort required for most major scientific discoveries to become part of the scientific body of knowledge. This helps students to understand not only the scientific method, but the importance of asking good questions, of sacrificing of themselves, and of tackling hard things as they seek knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

These five reasons are not ranked—they each can stand alone and in addition can overlap with one another. After having researched the lives of the selected great scientists in the fall semester of Challenge B, every student will have had the opportunity to benefit from a wonderful grounding in an insightful and solid education in the nature and history of science.

CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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