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Old June 28 2010, 12:46 AM   #32
Fleet Captain
Re: A description is up for one of the new Starfleet Academy books

Christopher wrote: View Post
Well, you don't need to teach General Relativity in order to teach that the planets orbit the Sun because of gravity. You can introduce the basic concepts before getting into the detailed math.
If a science teacher somewhere does not mention to her students that the planets orbit the sun because of gravity, then that certainly is a failing of dramatic proportions, but it really doesn't have anything to do with whether Newtonian or Einsteinian theory is being taught, since both of these theories are descriptions of "gravity." Once you start doing the math, though, I don't think there's any way to just start with Einstein.

Certainly on a conceptual level, it makes sense to introduce children to ideas like time dilation and so on in a more anecdotal sort of way before the actual math gets dealt with, and I think any good science teacher could include a few thought experiments of this nature. But as far as acquisition of the actual mathematical understanding is concerned, you have to crawl before you can walk.

Christopher wrote: View Post
And you probably wouldn't have needed to wait that long to get the foundations if the educational system hadn't wasted so many years teaching you outdated stuff like Ptolemy and Newton and the Bohr atom and then required you to unlearn it all.
I don't think you have to unlearn the older conceptual models to understand the newer ones. That's certainly true of Newtonian physics, since you can't understand the Einsteinian equations without first understanding the Newtonian ones, just like you can't realistically learn algebra without learning arithmetic first. It's cumulative.

With the Bohr model of the atom, I could see it potentially being misleading if presented incorrectly, but if presented correctly, as a sometimes convenient approximation of a more nuanced reality? I don't see this inhibiting anyone's development as a scientist. In science basically you formulate hypotheses, then test them. Create a model, then improve upon it. In that sense, learning how models and theories have been created and refined strikes me as a pretty natural and important part of what teaching science should be all about.

Christopher wrote: View Post
At the very least, students shouldn't be lied to. They shouldn't be taught the Bohr model of the atom as if it were truthful. They should at least be told that it's a very crude and discredited analogy.
Agreed, but teaching quantum mechanics as truthful would be a mistake as well. Science is a work in progress, so it goes without saying that any theory should be presented as an attempt to describe reality that will need to continue to be tested and refined (or has already been tested and refined). Teaching the Bohr atom as truth could potentially be more damaging since it is currently extremely outdated, but teaching quantum mechanics (as we currently understand them) as some kind of ultimate truth would be damaging as well, since our understanding of these processes will continue to grow and be refined.

These are issues of teaching technique, and I'm sure that there are many bad teachers out there, but they would probably be bad teachers even if the curriculum were changed. Getting more good teachers out there is a hugely important issue, which I'm afraid has no easy solution.

Christopher wrote: View Post
See, a lot of the problem we have grasping quantum physics is that we're so indoctrinated over the years in a classical way of defining particles and waves that when we're confronted with the idea that they're facets of the same thing, it's a struggle to understand.
How does this struggle manifest itself? If we're talking about understanding something like the uncertainty principle in a pop-science sort of way, then I think any interested adult can readily grasp some of the basics, and certainly any child as well.

If we're talking about learning the actual math, then that means going through the "history of math and science," unless there is a short cut to multi-variable calculus that I'm unaware of, short of being a math genius. Here the problem is pretty simple: the math is hard.

Doubtless our schools could do a much better job of teaching math in a rigorous manner, but I don't think the problem is that they're teaching outdated math when they should be teaching the updated math (none of the math is outdated and is necessary in order to understand the new math).

Christopher wrote: View Post
So it's frankly rather dishonest to hide the quantum nature of reality from our children.
Anyone doing this is wrong

Teachers teaching algebra and Newtonian physics so that their students can later do the math that is required to understand Heisenberg and Einstein are definitely not wrong. On a very basic level, you can't do the complicated math without learning the easy math first.

On the other hand, math and science teachers should definitely be teasing their students with time "paradoxes" and thought experiments and so on, absolutely. That is part of being a good teacher, but it doesn't remove the need to actually learn the science involved, to the extent that the goal is that type of concrete understanding, rather than a popularizing A Brief History of Time-style appoach, which undoubtedly has its merits and might complement the actual science very nicely in any curriculum.

Last edited by flemm; June 28 2010 at 01:10 AM.
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