Thursday, December 27, 2012

Taking Apart, Building, and Learning

I think we can all agree that learning takes place when we put together pieces of knowledge to build a larger whole. We can call this larger whole a model. Scientists build knowledge through constructing models and while I'm not sure how other disciplines approach knowing I have a feeling it's pretty much the same. By visualizing a phenomenon we come to know it and communicate it better, and visual models are refined ideas made more or less simple through our critical shaping of them.

A visual model can be sight-based but we can also "visualize" through our other senses, especially through touch. So can we build a 3D model that through touch and eyesight reveals an idea? I think yes.

What about our students? For several years I have asked students to build visual models of the scientific concepts we learn by making short videos that they post on YouTube. My student projects are good but they require thought and time and editing, something that my non-science-major students aren't always willing to invest. It has occurred to me as well that students may not grasp the underlying science of the problems they choose to depict in videos. This leads to frustration and a feeling on my part and on students' part that the videos are a kind of "throw-away" assignment.

So I've been thinking long and hard about how people learn science and how I can foster this process. Ever since I've started teaching I've thought that the process of observation is central to science. But what to observe? The models we present students with in lab represent models that scientists developed over long periods. If we ask students to go through the motions to "rediscover" what scientists have modeled I think it feels dry and meaningless to the students. Even majors feel this way. Somehow it is not their own "process" they are pursuing but a kind of preset recipe they are expected to concoct.

So I've been trying to think more elementally about how observation works. And how people learn from observing. And how warming up the brain through observing might make a person more receptive to exercising the intellect when it comes to more difficult or abstract problems, like the things i talk about in lecture. As I've stated many times, I don't teach science. I encourage my students to think critically about abstract problems.

So, how do we deal with the abstract? With that maddeningly random-seeming set of ungainly, disorganized, stimuli that come rampaging our way? Can I help students take these signals and make something organized of them? Can I encourage students to do this on their own terms and not in a pre-conceived already-modeled learning environment?

If you will forgive me (and if my students will forgive me--they are second year university students and I don't want them to perceive that they are doing kindergarten work!!), I'd like to propose a series of lab exercises that approach nature and observing nature at an elemental, sense-dense way that wakes up students' minds, warms them up for thinking about science, and allows them to build their own models.

One exercise I'm working on right now is allowing students to come to lab and play with water. The forms of water, the movement of water, and the way water interacts with different surfaces, substances, and environments. This means i have to jettison my beloved "water and plants" lab where students observe and record leaves, cacti, etc. and copy down notes about how water behaves in different plants. It means I will have less "material" that is "fair game" for exams. It means that students won't docilely (but hurriedly) write down my every word before they rush out the door.

But maybe it will mean students take a brief moment or maybe more to observe what's really important--water as a phenomenon.

This is a lot of food for thought, something I'll have to construct a bit further, but with some luck and hard work I may provide a framework through which students can do their own cognitive construction projects.

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