Full Circle

I began this journey more than thirty years ago. I graduated from Columbia University with a BS in Metallurgy/Materials Science and a Masters (MIA) in International Affairs. I was the first student in a joint program between the School of Engineering and The School of International Affairs. I wore many hats; running from Metallography and Crystallography to Russian classes to classes on Game Theory and Deterrents. I managed to graduate as Carter embargoed all things Soviet (my regional specialization) and discovered I could make far more money in industry than I could in foreign policy or NGOs. 

Life happened, and several jobs, one marriage and three kids later I re-emerged teaching high school math and science. That was 15 years ago. I thought I would stay for a few years and then go back to technical product and market development work. But I got hooked on the energy, enthusiasm and continual learning that happens in a classroom. The students have kept me there. I have been fortunate to have the freedom to innovate because I teach at a private school. I have designed an Engineering Design course, and re-designed my classroom and my approach to AP Physics labs to allow for more active, collaborative experiences. And, to quote Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come”.  My students come to class ready to get to work, excited to try new things and willing to fail. But they are mostly seniors and are finally getting the chance to experiment, model and think creatively. How we teach science has not changed very much in the past half century; yet the world is exponentially different. It is frustrating.

I had the good fortune to be awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching last year and spent 6 months researching science and technology education in Singapore. (See kaisersing@wordpress.com). They face some of the same issues we do here. Students learn to take tests and education becomes the quest for the one right answer on the test. Singapore is committed to shifting to skills-based education and, because of a highly centralized and highly reflective system, they will probably get there before we do. But change is slow and challenging in the face of so much success on international assessments.

I have returned to my own classroom more convinced than ever that how we teach has to change. Traditional science labs do little to put young people in touch with the engineered world that they live in. More importantly, as my own research has shown, they do little to reinforce the concepts they are meant to focus on and even less to introduce young people to the process of scientific inquiry. Most of our interactions with science in the modern world come from the products and processes engineers have designed. Not every student has the opportunity to take an Engineering course, but they all deserve to have science made real. Not every young person will go on to a technical career, but they all need to understand the highly technical world they live in.

I hope to use this blog to outline some of the projects I am developing and implementing in my classes along with some of the ongoing research I am doing.  I will be presenting on some of my findings from Singapore at the NSTA Conference in Boston in early April.  In addition, I will be returning to Singapore in June as an invited presenter at their biennial Teachers Conference. The conference focusses on values and character education across the curriculum and fits well with some work I have been doing on using design projects that deal with appropriate use of technology and ethical decision making.

Things have come full circle. It is a little different from the approach I envisioned 30 years ago, but educating young people to be creative problem-solvers who will deal with challenging global issues is not a bad way to go!

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