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Scientific culture: When I sometimes dream ...

Reflection on the initiation to science of preschool and cycle 1 students. What should we try to convey to them?

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Reflection on the study of science by preschool and cycle 1 students. A few examples taken from the history of science aim to recall the diversity of qualities that lead to scientific discoveries. What should we try to convey to the student when they are introduced to science?

When I sometimes dream ...

… I think of the scientists of the past and I question myself. Is there a unique way to introduce my young students to science and technology?

When I sometimes dream… I am a Greek shepherd.  At night, the spectacle of the stars distracts me. I like the cyclical rhythm of the Moon and that of the seasons where the nights are sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. My brother regulates his plantations on these primitive observations and my cousin travels on the sea, guided by the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the stars, like Ulysses advised by the goddess Calypso. Have I engraved on a clay plate these constellations that I amused myself by naming? Did I think like Aristotle that the Earth was at the center of the universe or like Aristarchus of Samos I considered the Sun as the center of the world, a thousand years before the Copernican revolution, but ignored by all. Then came Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, followed by many others. Millennia after the first observations, by advancements and retreats, hypotheses, theories and inventions, we now seem to see the birth of our visible universe, 13.8 billion years ago at the cosmological diffuse background. This is the Big Bang theory. And we observe and we create better instruments and we discuss problems and theories.

What does this example teach me of what science is, that is, the discovery of objects, phenomena, the attempt to explain them and what technology is, is that is to say the invention of tools, of instruments to offer our poor limited senses an exponential sensitivity and to our fragile body the power and speed that it lacks?

Is it the tool that makes discovery and invention or the sensitivity, curiosity, intelligence and creativity of human beings? How to translate this question for my students born in the digital age?

 

When I dream sometimes… I try to understand the material.  The atom, from the ancient Greek “atomos”: “which cannot be divided”. This is the atomist theory. I imagine being Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, I am designing a chemical nomenclature. I define "element": a substance that cannot be broken down by any known method of chemical analysis and name a few: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, mercury.

Another day, I imagine to be Dmitry Mendeleev.  Sixty-three things were known in my time. I thought I perceived a form of organization between these elements. One day after playing cards, I had this brilliant idea. I made a small card for each element where I wrote down their symbol, atomic mass, and physical and chemical properties. I placed these boxes on a table in ascending order of atomic mass and collected the items that had similar properties. I saw that there were holes in my mount. I thought to myself that there were probably new things to discover. And I was right.

These dreams remind me that nomenclature and classification form the authoritative reference for each of the scientific or technical disciplines. They allow objects to be named unambiguously and allow community members to communicate confidently regardless of their language of origin. The nomenclature is a functional creation. Is it important to inform my young students of this fundamental creation of the human being?

In my dreams, I was Louis Pasteur, that determined being to whom many of us owe our lives.  Following his studies on fermentation, he was convinced of the falsity of the “theory of spontaneous generation” then accepted by the scientific authorities of his time. Six years of work have enabled him to refute the theory of spontaneous generation: dust in the atmosphere contains "germs", tiny organisms that can multiply in a favorable environment. However, if after heating the putrescible substances, they are left protected from the air, contamination is avoided. Pasteur promotes the use of asepsis in medicine and advises the sterilization of instruments. He creates the words "pasteurization", "aerobic" and "anaerobic" and he invents vaccines. He is considered the father of microbiology. Being a scientist sometimes requires having a "revolutionary" spirit, to speak out against accepted ideas and reach a consensus. But is it enough to be critical? This is a topic of interest to discuss with my young teenagers.

When I dream of being Alexander Fleming, I laugh. They say he had the fault of being messy and careless. When he returned from his vacation, he discovered that a fungus had contaminated many of his culture boxes with staphylococci. It was while showing them to a visitor that he observed that there was an area around the fungi where bacteria had not grown. He identified this fungus as belonging to the penicillium family and named it penicillin. This fact occurred in 1928. It took several years and a solid research team for Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley to finally transform around 1942, this laboratory discovery into an effective medicine. The word "serendipity", created from English serendipity , applies to the very many discoveries made by accident, error, chance. By mistake we discover something other than what we were looking for, but as Louis Pasteur said: "Chance only favors invention for minds prepared for discoveries by patient studies and persevering efforts" Should this sentence be a leitmotif of my teaching?

When I dream sometimes. . . to be a researcher myself, what a nightmare! We imagine that the scientist's working method is unique and well codified. I know the importance given to the experimental method, the famous OHERIC by Claude Bernard.

But the few examples above, taken from the history of science, illustrate that various ways of doing things apply to the circumstances of the research. There are no magic recipes for producing new knowledge. But this recipe, the experimental method, allows on the other hand to verify certain facts, certain hypotheses. It is therefore important that my students know it, know how to use it.

When I sometimes dream ... that I am responsible for the study of science and technology through elementary and junior high school students, I reflect on the fact that it is thanks to their intelligence that humans have understood more and more intimately the functioning of their physical environment and have invented a multitude of applications of this knowledge, each more brilliant, more satisfying than the other.

It is the acuteness of the observations, the rigor of the thought and the creativity of the scientists of the past and the present which have led and still lead almost daily to the sophistication of the society as we know it.

When I sometimes dream… that I am responsible for the study of science and technology I imagine an analogy. Track all parts of Blues and knowing the statistics does not make a student a good football player. He must have a game intelligence yes, but also know how to move quickly, use the playing space, learn the technical gesture of passing and hitting, aiming for the net with precision, knowing how to outsmart the keeper and whatnot. Whatever the sport or the physical activity, their benefit lies in the practice.

Would it be the same for science and technology? Acquiring a mountain of scientific knowledge makes the student a cultured person and promotes the development of memory. However, science is the result of the evolution of human intelligence and requires the use of a host of skills, both physical and intellectual.

 

It is in this context that since the 70s, we try to develop the scientific spirit of the pupils.. We then went from a school of knowledge to a school of know-how. Emphasis was placed on the skills and attitudes that characterize scientific work. However, very quickly with use, we retracted the skills and insisted on the "scientific approach".

The student must now learn through a problem-solving process. Can I seriously believe that in a few periods of class, these small teams of students aged 6, 8, 11 or 14 years will be able to find an answer to a problem of a scientific or technological nature? Can my students reinvent the wheel? After all, it took more than five millennia for our ancestors to reach the current level of knowledge! Let's be honest, many of them will do research in books or on the Internet to find a ready-made truth that they will memorize very wisely for an exam or to present it to the class as a result of original research. Or, I will teach my little students to read through texts with a scientific or technological content, thus killing two birds with one stone.

In the 19th century, there were few books and knowledge of the material world was less advanced than it is today. Now our students live in a sea of information, libraries and bookstores are full of encyclopedic works, television offers a host of scientific and technological programs and the Internet God is there to answer all questions. In this context of abundance, how should the approach to scientific culture presented by my students in initial training?

that should I transmit to them, scientific knowledge, scientific thought, the scientific method? what should the study of science and technology bring them? How can I go beyond the level of knowledge and seek their intellectual development?

I do not belong to the group The hands-on nor that of Scientists, but I fully support their approach to 'inquiry-based science education'. On the other hand, this pedagogy of projects which allows the pupil to learn to learn presents the danger of a scattering of knowledge without link to each other.

When I sometimes dream… I realize that known science is the result of a long process of observation, questioning, imagination and intellectual rigor. The elementary study of science should it not allow the student (and also his teacher) to build a conceptual framework, an intellectual map which will help him to orient himself on this sea of information where he will encounter sometimes dragons and mermaids?

When I dream sometimes… I try to imagine a holistic, non-disciplinary study program, like nature and technology, where the student dwells on the study of all fields of science. I imagine that at the end of the course he will understand the interplay between forces, energy, matter and biological life and will be awakened to the laws which govern these areas. I also dream that he will realize the neutrality of nature, science and technology and his responsibility as a human being in the face of his discoveries.

 

A version of this text was published in Specter, vol. 43, no 3, the AESTQ review, May 2014

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About the Author

Ninon Louise Lepage
Ninon Louise Lepage
Ninon Louise LePage is a pedagogue and museologist who recently came out of premature retirement to be reborn as an educational designation. She has taught at the Université du Québec à Montréal and the Université de Sherbrooke in science education, in addition to working at the Canadian Heritage Information Network as a museology consultant. She also writes for our French friends at Ludomag. She also invites all interested to contact her so that she can talk about you, your students, your school and your particular experiences in digital and computer education.

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