Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Of home labs and fun of science

A bit late to the party, I just noticed - thanks to a tweet from Noah Gray, a senior editor at Nature in NYC - an interesting write-up that the New York Times carried a couple of weeks back. It talks about the somewhat meteoric rise of home labs, dabbling in science experiments, ably aided by the availability and use of relatively low-cost tools. [click to summary if you have a tldr; moment]

Prima facie, this is rather heartening; the title of the NYT report hits the right note by including the phrase 'Fun of Science'. Science is about curiosity and inquisitiveness; science is about exploration of the unknown. Any effort that encourages fact-finding, knowledge-gathering, and rational thinking, ought to be lauded.

This report dovetails nicely with another one a few days back, at the online version of Wired, a tech magazine, about DIY biotechnology "Hacker Spaces" opening up in NYC, where science enthusiasts can come in and work on experiments of their own devising under trained mentors. Running on donated equipments, the public lab apparently conforms to the CDC's biosafety level 1 regulations, which is excellent news.

What got me thinking (yes, I do that sometimes) was when Steffi Suhr, my friend and until recently a Nature Blogs colleague, asked one of those apparently-simple-but-actually-rather-deep questions upon reading Gray's tweet: "Is it 'science'?"

It is undeniable that such programs do bring science a lot closer to the people. I do think that it is in the best interest of humanity that science and the scientific method should be more approachable by common people, which would never happen until science loses some of its mystique and elitist appeal. I don't, of course, mean the dumbing down of science, but do think that it is eminently possible to bring the tenets of the scientific method, which embodies the spirit of enquiry, empiricism and critical analysis, and that popularization (if that's even a word) of science experiment would go quite some way in achieving that desirable outcome.

And God knows, today's world - infested with pseudoscience, quackery, irrational religious literalism that encourages nonsense like the odious intelligent design creationism - needs more than a dollop of sense, sanity and critical thinking. Perhaps a little bit of sense and sanity would even put a dent in the business of the silly, ludicrous creation museum and the proposed theme park in Kentucky that plans to present the Noah's Ark myth as a historical account - both of which ought to be considered national embarrassments!

However, tempering my enthusiasm for science education through these Home labs and DIY lab-spaces was another consideration. Science is not merely an exercise in empiricism. The ability to form a hypothesis, to critically and objectively evaluate both the said hypothesis and the empirical observations, and to do so within the limits set by ethics and human conscience and compassion, is an ability that is central to the performance of science. And this ability can only be acquired slowly and honed to perfection through practice - which means, science needs training, science needs discipline. People who become good scientists cultivate this ability by going through intense, gruelling grooming - often making, but learning from, mistakes. The practice of their trade trains their hands and sharpens their minds; indeed, the competent scientists are separated from the run-of-the-mill researchers by their acquired and finely-tuned ability to recognize serendipity, which is oftentimes the gateway to high discoveries.

IOW, science needs education and training. It would indeed be great disservice to these kids who enjoy science not to equip them with good training. And judging from the current nadir of Maths and Science scores in US schools, such training is getting increasingly hard to come by. The constant bombardment by religiously-motivated, proselytizing, evangelical propaganda (such as 'teach the controversy'), targeting adults and children - as well as its promotion by several States of the US Bible-belt - is bound to have negative effects, both imminent and in the long term.

One of the examples mentioned in the original NYT article is an author who homeschools her children, who apparently take great interest in studying nature. Somehow I think - I'd be glad to be proved wrong - the practice of homeschooling, a controversial practice at best, is possibly not going to cut it; I am not going to discuss the merits/demerits of the practice here, but the transition for a homeschooler from a curious science-enthusiast to a trained, capable scientist is bound to be extraordinarily hard.

So... to summarize, I submit that while science labs at home and DIY spaces are good and encouraging, serious thoughts need to be accorded to a proper science education, that includes a thorough grounding in the central concepts of science and the scientific method, as well as a lesson plan that emphasizes the fun in learning.

Think of the children.

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