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How [not] to teach science

I was thrilled to be able to go to the San Francisco Academy of Sciences homeschool day. It promised both a reduced price and fewer crowds.

We had been to the Academy one time since it opened. The crowds were so thick we couldn’t see the exhibits. Downstairs in the aquarium, we were in a standing-room-only crowd — literally. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other adults, while miserable children squirmed in between us.

This time, I was looking forward to actually seeing what we were supposed to see last time! In two ways, my expectations were fulfilled: We paid a fraction of the usual price, and the attendance was sparse. We actually got to walk into the rainforest exhibit, which usually has long lines, with approximately 25 other awestruck people. It was really gorgeous, a marvel of modern engineering and an experience worth having.

Then we visited the rest of the museum.

I’ll start with this disclaimer: I love modern museum architecture! I love the air and the light, and I think the buildings themselves are marvels. Not only do they push the envelope on aesthetics, but they also show what sort of engineering is possible for other, more modest buildings. The Academy building is lovely. Its living roof is inspiring.

However, there is one thing that designers of modern, airy museums seem to forget: All that air displaces content. Not outdated, old-school museum content that we were happy to do away with, but real, solid content that inspires, teaches, and excites us. The Academy suffers terribly from this “displacement by air.”

We have been studying evolution and Charles Darwin in our homeschool, so I went to the Academy website and found some curriculum on the evolution of Galapagos tortoises that tied in with their evolution exhibit. It looked great. Supposedly at a middle school level, the teacher was expected to introduce evolution to the students beforehand, then have them study the tortoises at the exhibit and postulate the reason for their different body structures. My children and I, after a satisfying lunch at the cafe with friends, went and applied ourselves to the task.

Luckily, the way we entered the exhibit, we got to the tortoises last. We enjoyed looking at the array of finch specimens in jars. We had read about how important the study of finches was to Darwin’s theory, and it was cool to see them there side-by-side. We watched a video in its entirety — it was about the history that the Academy has with the Galapagos Islands, from rapacious Victorians grabbing specimens at will to modern conservationists working with others to save this place for future generations of study.

My 8-year-old got caught by the video game where you use a virtual net to catch as many insect varieties as you can. I suppose something was learned there — by me. I honed my skills at getting an 8-year-old away from an “educational” video game!

Then the tortoises: In case you don’t know, here is what science is supposed to be. You observe, experiment, record, and then form theories. You test your theory through more observation, experimentation, and by publishing your work for others to debate and prove or disprove on their own.

Science at the Academy, however, goes like this: Ask the students a question, have them ponder it with no access to data or experience on which to form a theory, then tell them the answer. Science at the Academy is simply received wisdom.

We did what we were told: My kids recorded their observations about the models of tortoises up on the walls. They recorded the island each one was pointing to as its island of origin. Then we read a plaque that explained why the tortoises differ in their body structures, though they all share a common ancestor and live so near each other. The plaque offered us received wisdom, with no data, nothing to observe, nothing to argue against. This isn’t science, and it certainly doesn’t ask middle-school students to flex their analytical abilities. My 8-year-old looked at the plaque, read it, and shrugged. “Well, duh,” seemed to be her reaction. “That’s it?” was mine.

A friend of mine who was very fond of the old Academy of Sciences remembers that they had a great collection of minerals that the kids could really interact with. No more. However, there was a docent out on the floor as we were leaving, and by chance, she had a display of minerals. I pointed out my friend’s lament and she responded with enthusiasm. “I know!” she said. “We docents have been telling them that they have to put the collections back out. But there’s no room.” She glanced around the enormous, light, airy space around her.

It seemed sort of funny. But it’s not. Our science has become their easily digestible tourist trap. Our homely building full of wonder and experience has been turned into a must-see-once destination for people who educate their children elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s for people who don’t care about education at all. “Maybe it should be called, ‘The Lobotomy of Sciences,'” joked one of my correspondents.

One concern about homeschooling that educated people often express is, “How are they going to learn science without a laboratory?”

We can do more science in our house with kitchen chemicals, rocks picked up in random locations, and the forest in our backyard than they can do with $500,000,000. Sad.

To be continued: My hopes and fears for the new Exploratorium.

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Posted in Culture, Education.

3 Responses

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  1. Heddi says

    Suki, you really verbalized all that I felt about the new Academy of Sciences when we went to that homeschool day. I think you ought to send them your post as commentary!

  2. Min says

    I couldn’t agree with you more! This is how I felt when I visited the new planetarium in NYC. Good design requires form and function. Modern museums are more for aesthetic value than actual content and purpose. You described what I’ve been wanting to express so perfectly!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. How to teach science – Avant Parenting linked to this post on March 13, 2011

    […] have a deep fear that when the new Exploratorium opens, we’ll see the Academy of Sciences all over again. Ooh, ah, look at that amazing building! Hey, look, they have this great curriculum on their […]

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