Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Importance of Science Education

This week is American Education Week, and since I am a strong believer in education as the foundation of not only a strong culture, but also a strong economic future.  I volunteered to spend most of yesterday speaking to the 7th grade science classes at my son's Junior High School.  For five periods, I basically got to impart some of my experiences to the future minds of tomorrow.  Because I put this together in a very short amount of time, I started with a transcript of what I wanted to say to them.  I did veer off in places, but this is very close to what I said to them.  I thought I would share.

-- transcript follows --

Hi, everyone, and as Mrs. Lang said, I am Dr. Davis.  I was trained as a scientist, and I'm here today for American Education Week to give you a little insight into how science education shaped my life, gave me opportunities, and why science is important and relevant to us all.

It started with astronomy.

When I was a kid, we didn't have the level of distractions that I think maybe kids do today.  But what the heck do I know, I'm an adult?

It was all about staring up at the sky and wondering what's out there, and why.

While I was growing up, space travel was in its ascendancy.  The space shuttle program had started in 1976, and there was quite a bit of hype about it.  We watched the launches in school, and every flight was pretty amazing.

So it was pretty easy to be a kid interested in science.  We were sending people into freakin' space!

So I was always fascinated with science.  By the time I was your age, I had a computer that I worked with.  No kidding.  My parents really didn't have a clue what it was, they just knew I was kinda interested in geeky stuff, so they gave me a computer.  So I started learning to program a bit. Nothing but little bits of logic here and there.  Text-based adventure games.  And of course, I played a lot of video games on that thing.

And chemistry.  Boy was I fascinated by chemistry.  I don't know what they do these days in school. Do you do chemistry?  You know where you take one kind of thing, and add it to another kind of thing, and then the next thing you know, it's this completely third thing?  It's basically magic, if you don't understand chemistry.  You've got some hydrogen, and you get a flame near it, and BOOM! There's an explosion.  And what's really happening?  You've got a bunch of hydrogen gas in the presence of oxygen gas, and then give it a little energy to get the reaction going, and boom!  And it doesn't disappear, that's the crazy thing.  It becomes water vapor!

If you think about it, that's a bit like smashing a kitten into a puppy and seeing a bunny come out! Seriously, this is what people think of when they think of magic!  Except it's not exactly a hanky turning into a dove...

So I really liked science from these three angles.

So, hey, here's all this crazy cool stuff that happens in the world.  We've got the far reaches of the universe we're looking up at and exploring.  We've got machines that you can tell what to do and they do it; I can't get my kids to do what I want, but I can tell a computer what to do!  We've got the power of transmogrification in our hands!

Well, don't you want to know why?  Well, we can kind of explain it with some references to some abstract concepts, but if you really want to get precise, and science does, we have to speak in a precise, logical language, and that, generally, is math.

Strangely enough, most schools kinda teach it backwards from what you'd think.  They give you all this math from a very early age.  Add this, subtract this, check out this equation, solve this system of linear equations.  Sines, cosines, tangents, geometric proofs with their smug little theorems and postulates, and you're like, "Well, what am I going to do with this?"  And they pack your head with a bunch of techniques for solving problems you generally don't have.

You know, beyond the situation where you have 25 apples and your sister eats 17, and you're left wondering... you know, who eats 17 apples?  How could this number manipulation seriously have anything to do with real life?

So where they miss all the kids in school is that they never tell you why you're doing math.  Sure, everyone needs to be able to add and subtract.  That's easy and obvious stuff.  You get paid for doing some work for someone?  Bank account goes up by that amount.  Want to pick up the latest call of duty game?  Do you have enough money?  You better be able to subtract.

But that other junk?  When are you ever going to use that, right?

Well one place that you most definitely use it is to talk about science.  See, math is kinda the language of science.  Science starts with curiosity, asking question about what, why, how much, when.  Science, at its core, is natural philosophy, a curiosity about the world around you and why it behaves the way it does.  It's a systematically defined methodology for asking questions and getting answers.  It's not really a belief system.  It's a formally developed way of getting at the causes behind the things you see in nature.

And inventing new ones!

One of the major pushes in science in the last century.  You know, my century, the 1900's.  Ha ha... I'm old.  One of the major pushes was to explore the tiniest of the tiny.  While some of mankind was pushing through the atmosphere and thinking about worlds beyond our own home, some of us were pushing into the deepest reaches of inner space.

Around 1900, just over 100 years ago, we'd just discovered the electron.  It took about 25 more years, another quarter century to discover the proton.  And then we started getting particle happy.  We found the neutron, and then we thought we were done.  But nope!

So we discover more and more particles that make up those things.  Quarks!  Up, down, strange, charm, bottom, top.  Whole families of particles that we can't see!  So science really runs the gamut from the very large to the very small.  From the very current, to the oldest times imaginable.

Well, I was pretty good at math, and I kept challenging myself to do harder and harder things.  In high school, at least for me, science started to get really specific.  An entire year of Biology, an entire year of Chemistry, but when I got to Physics.  Whew.  Man, when I got to Physics, I was hooked.

I mean, here's a discipline of science that basically aims to explain everything.  From the fundamental interactions of the smallest particles to the gravitational attractions and atomic reactions that govern motions and explosions in the farthest reaches of space, Physics has you covered.  No other branch of science is this universal, in my opinion.  Chemistry is very localized to things that are above a certain size.  Biology is limited to living things.  Astronomy is limited to the motion of objects through space.  And they're all kind of weird specializations of what Physics does.

At least that's how I read it at the time.  So in college, I go for a double major.  You guys know what college is, right?  And what majors are?  That's where you kinda pick what type of thing you want to do for the rest of your life.

But I didn't know what I want to be when I grew up.  And in a lot of ways I still don't, I suppose, but I knew I wanted to have a solid foundation for whatever I wanted to do.  And to me, that meant science, since it teaches you not what to think, but how to ask questions and how to find answers. There's no better framework for asking questions out there.  We have refined these techniques over thousands of years and they haven't changed.  It is the absolute bedrock for critical thinking.

So I set myself up for a double major in math and physics.  Thing is, when you take one of the so-called hard sciences like physics, you need a lot of math to understand it.  Like I said, math is the language of science, and to push your understanding of something, you have to get better at "talking" about it, so you take a lot of math classes, too.

And then I got to the end of college, and looked around and thought to myself, "Well, I'm really not ready to go get a job yet.  I think I should keep studying more science and get super good at it."  My goal was actually to become a university professor, because science education was really important to me, and as a tutor, I enjoyed helping other people learn, too.  And to do that, you really need a Ph. D. in the subject you want to teach.

But I was hedging a bit, see?  I was not sure that I would be able to be a professor.  There's only so many universities, and so many openings, so I wanted to make sure that I could find employment no matter what happened, so I reasoned that instead of going on and getting a Ph. D. in math, it would be better to continue on in Physics.

So I did my Ph. D. research... That's the thing about getting a Ph. D. is that you have to contribute to science first before it will contribute to you.  Science is kind of selfish that way.  You have to contribute some original research, something that someone has never studied before, before you are considered to have a doctorate in a field.  I did my Ph. D. research at Fermilab, right here in our backyard.

Have you ever been to Fermilab?  Even on a tour?  It's pretty amazing.  It's this huge particle collider where they collide protons and antiprotons (antimatter protons, you know) like a half million times a second at the center of these detectors that are five stories tall!  These infinitesimal itty-bitty no-see-um particles banging together so hard they light up a five story detector half a million times a second. Again, we're talking real world no-nonsense freaking magic here.  The ring they use to accelerate these particles towards each other is three miles around!

So yeah, I studied bottom quark production at Fermilab.  I wrote a Ph. D. thesis and got my doctorate.  But as I was getting to an end, I noticed science funding drying up in the United States.  Funny thing about doing science these days, is that to do research, you have to be fairly good with computers. There's no getting around it.  Scientists can't do that much these days with just a protractor and a pencil.  Sure if the power went out one day, they'd still muddle through, but computers are a huge part of life.

Think about how much data is generated at Fermilab.  Five hundred thousand interactions every second, running for, what three years?  How many seconds are there in a year?  Kids, you should know this off the top of your head.  It's something like pi times 10 to the 7th seconds per year.  Times three years. That's a lot of data.  No way we're writing that out in a notebook.

So right about the time I was graduating, the tech boom was happening.  1999, still just before many of you were born, right?  Well, the web was really blowing up.  Lots of people needed people who could write code (that is... program) on computers to write web pages, set up databases, etc.  At Fermilab, when the detector is taking data, it's not like you're writing the data points down as they come in.  Nope, to get at what really happens, you write lots of code.  Eight to ten hours a day, every day.  Doing cool data analysis, plotting graphs, trying to play detective and explain what's going on.

I figured that I could definitely help out in the programming world, so I took my Ph. D. and jumped into the world of business.  Thing is, the world of business is a totally different animal, but they still rely on people who can think very logically and rationally.  They need people that can do data analysis.  They need lots of people.

And those people can be compensated quite nicely for their efforts, because especially in this country, there's kind of a shortage of people who can think logically. I don't know if you know much about economics, but when you don't have much supply of something, and there's a pretty high demand, the price of that thing goes up.  Every company nowadays needs people who can think scientifically at least somewhere on their staff.  And there's simply not enough people that can do it.

And realize, that I'm not talking about an innate ability.  Everyone can think scientifically if you put in some effort.  In some ways it's a lot easier than being creative, because it's applying a very specific set of rules, a very specific set of training.  And those are all things that can be learned through effort and repetition.

So in 1999 I took my first non-science job as a software developer, though I suppose you could say that's still computer science in some way.  Ever since I have worked in the fields of insurance, finance, investing, and banking.  These fields not only need people that can write code, but people that also understand the sometimes complicated math and statistics that are used in those industries.

Could I have done all these things without a science education and background?  Maybe.  But the path would have been a lot harder, I think.

Couple parting thoughts on the current state of jobs and science education: do you have to wait to college to learn these skills.  No.  Not at all.  Go to code.org.  There's an event coming up December 8, where hopefully your teachers in tech will do this with you.  If not, ask them why not.  Like today, ask them why not.

Also computing people love to share.  There is no easier field to get into at any age.  Free tutorials about how to program are everywhere.  Write web pages, write simple games.  I work with a conference called That Conference, and we have a kids track every year that shows kids lots of cool technologies.  This year, we had an eleven year old girl showing other kids how to program.  Eleven years old and gave her first conference talk.  So what are you waiting for?

All right, so let's talk about science now. Today.  What have we done since those days I used to look up at the sky as a kid?

How about I tell you about just two of our most recent awesome achievements?  Hopefully you've heard about this stuff in the news or from your mom and dad, since they're kind of a big deal.  Real envelope pushing kind of stuff.

10/25 - Alan Eustace - he attaches himself to a helium balloon and floats himself 25 miles above the surface of the planet.  That's like more than here to the Morton Arboretum, and he went up, just him and a helium filled balloon, straight up!  When he was 25 miles off the ground, he says to himself... "Okay let's do this thing!" and I believe a small explosive charge separated him from his balloon, and he started to fall. On the way down, his body was going more than 800 miles per hour.

To give you a kind of comparison, when you fly on a plane, it's like between 500 and 600 miles an hour.  So he was basically going 30% faster than an airplane.  Just him himself.  No power, no rockets, just the awesome force of this giant lava-filled rock we're sitting on yanking him from his high altitude towards itself.

On his way down, he was going so fast he created a sonic boom that you could hear from the ground.
18000 feet, and his parachute deploys.  He floats safely to the ground, having broken a record that someone had set only two years prior with a similar stunt.  Now these aren't rednecks with a bunch of Wal-Mart balloons tied to a lawn chair.  These are professionals, and both guys who did this had teams of scientists creating their gear to safely get them both up and back again.

So that's just a few weeks ago.  Science!

Amazingly enough, we've got another story that was just last week.  Anyone know about this?  It was pretty huge news in the scientific community, and maybe you should get yourself plugged in if you haven't heard of it.

Do y'all know what a comet is?  Like what differentiates a comet from a planet?  Planets generally orbit in circles around the sun and are generally pretty large.  Comets, in comparison, are smaller and orbit the sun at a crazy oblique orbit.

The Rosetta spacecraft was launched in March of 2004.  Now this wasn't our spacecraft.  This was from the European Space Agency, but 2004.  You folks were only a couple years old at the time! The goal of this spacecraft was to be the first spacecraft to orbit a comet.  It's supposed to orbit this comet called 67P for 17 months.  And it just arrive there on August 6th, and entered orbit September 10th.  It orbits at a distance of 19 mi away.  That's closer than that Alan Eustace fellow was to earth, for a sense of scale.

But that's not as crazy as the story gets.  The Rosetta spacecraft is an orbiter.  But it was equipped with a lander, too!  So on November 12.  I'm not kidding you, it was totes just last week, like just a couple days ago, the lander Philae touched down on the surface of the comet.  Now this comet is about halfway between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, so it's pretty far away. It's so far away that its signal takes a half hour to reach us.  And we just dropped a 220 pound robot onto a rock that's on the other side of the sun.

Now if that's not cool, I don't know what is.  Science!

Really, what I can tell you is that my journey started with the outermost reaches of the universe, looking toward the stars and wondering what was out there.  Sprinkle a little bit of science education in there, and I ended up researching the smallest known bits of matter, wondering what the heck was in there.

I want to finish up by giving you a couple resources on continued education.  People to add to your twitter feed, or even watch out for or whatever.

Seth MacFarlane, yes, the guy who created Family Guy, is an executive producer to the show Cosmos, starring famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  Bill Nye the Science Guy is another one who campaigns very publicly for science education.  He had on an amazing show years ago.  My favorite episode was the "Eye holes filled with glue" episode, which you can now find on YouTube.com if you search for it enough.

So I want to give a shout out to those people that dedicate their lives in a very public way, but I also want to give major props to all science teachers out there.  Mrs. Lang deserves your utmost respect for spending her life giving all y'all a leg up learning science, as it's one of the most powerful and enabling things you can learn, both for yourself and pushing the entire human race forwards. Without science, we wouldn't have such amazing things around us.  Remember, it's better to shoot for the moon and miss, than to shoot for mediocrity and make it.

I want to thank you for your time and attention today.  I know it's weird having someone come in and take over the class for a while, so I thank you for your attention.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your voyage with the children, as well as with me. You have a special gift and a real purpose in life, that is to be an inspiration to those who, like you, are curious in the world around you