# Why middle school science should not exist

My 8th grade daughter had her final (distance learning) science quiz this week on work, or as it is called in her class, the scientific definition of work. I usually have no idea what she does in her science class since she rarely talks to me about school but she so happened to mention this one tidbit because she was proud that she didn’t get fooled by what she thought was a trick question. I’ve always believed that work, as in force times displacement (not the one where you produce economic value), is one of the most useless concepts in physics and should not be taught to anyone until they reach graduate school, if then. It is a concept that has long outlived its usefulness and all it does now is to convince students that science is just a bunch of concepts invented to confuse you. The problem with science education in general is that it is taught as a set of facts and definitions when the only thing that kids need to learn is that science is about trying to show something is true using empirical evidence. My daughter’s experience is evidence that science education in the US has room for improvement.

Work, as defined in science class, is just another form of energy, and the only physics that should be taught to middle school kids is that there are these quantities in the universe called energy and momentum and they are conserved. Work is just the change in energy of a system due to a force moving something. For example, the work required to lift a mass against gravity is the distance the mass was lifted multiplied by the force used to move it. This is where it starts to get a little confusing because there are actually two reasons you need force to move something. The first is because of Newton’s First Law of inertia – things at rest like to stay at rest and things in motion like to stay in motion. In order to move something from rest you need to accelerate it, which requires a force and from Newton’s second law, Force equals mass times acceleration, or F = ma. However, if you move something upwards against the force of gravity then even to move at a constant velocity you need to use a force that is equal to the gravitational force pulling the thing downwards, which from Newton’s law of gravitation is given by $F = G M m/r^2$, where $G$ is the universal gravitational constant, $M$ is the mass of the earth, $m$ is the mass of the object and $r$ is the distance between the objects. By a very deep property of the universe, the mass in Newton’s law of gravitation is the exact same mass as that in Newton’s second law, called inertial mass. So that means if we let $GM/r^2 = g$, then we get $F = mg$, and $g = 9.8 m/s^2$ is the gravitational acceleration constant if we set $r$ be the radius of the earth, which is much bigger than the height of things we usually deal with in our daily lives. All things dropped near the earth will accelerate to the ground at $9.8 m/s^2$. If gravitational mass and inertial mass were not the same, then objects of different masses would not fall with the same acceleration. Many people know that Galileo showed this fact in his famous experiment where he dropped a big and small object from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. However, many probably also cannot explain why including my grade 7 (or was it 8) science teacher who thought it was because the earth’s mass was much bigger than the two objects so the difference was not noticeable. The equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass was what led Einstein to his General Theory of Relativity.

In the first part of my daughter’s quiz, she was asked to calculate the energy consumed by several appliances in her house for one week. She had to look up how much power was consumed by the refrigerator, computer, television and so forth on the internet. Power is energy per unit time so she computed the amount of energy used by multiplying the power used by the total time the device is on per week. In the second part of the quiz she was asked to calculate how far she must move to power those devices. This is actually a question about conservation of energy and to answer the question she had to equate the energy used with the work definition of force times distance traveled. The question told her to use gravitational force, which implies she had to be moving upwards against the force of gravity, or accelerating at g if moving horizontally, although this was not specifically mentioned. So, my daughter took the energy used to power all her appliances and divided it by the force, i.e. her mass times g, and got a distance. The next question was, and I don’t recall exactly how it was phrased but something to the effect of: “Did you do scientifically defined work when you moved?”

Now, in her class, she probably spent a lot of time examining situations to distinguish work from non-work. Lifting a weight is work, a cat riding a Roomba is not work. She learned that you did no work when you walked because the force was perpendicular to your direction of motion. I find these types of gotcha exercises to be useless at best and in my daughter’s case completely detrimental. If you were to walk by gliding along completely horizontally with absolutely no vertical motion at a constant speed then yes you are technically not doing mechanical work. But your muscles are contracting and expanding and you are consuming energy. It’s not your weight times the distance you moved but some very complicated combination of metabolic rate, muscle biochemistry, energy losses in your shoes, etc. Instead of looking at examples and identifying which are work and which are not, it would be so much more informative if they were asked to deduce how much energy would be consumed in doing these things. The cat on the Roomba is not doing work but the Roomba is using energy to turn an electric motor that has to turn the wheel to move the cat. It has to accelerate from standing still and also gets warm, which means some of the energy is wasted to heat. A microwave oven uses energy because it must generate radio waves. Boiling water takes energy because you need to impart random kinetic energy to the water molecules. A computer uses energy because it needs to send electrons through transistors. Refrigerators work by using work energy to pump the heat energy from the inside to the outside. You can’t cool a room by leaving the refrigerator door open because you will just pump heat around in a circle and some of the energy will be wasted as extra heat.

My daughter’s answer to the question of was work done was that no work was done because she interpreted movement to be walking horizontally and she knew from all the gotcha examples that walking was not work. She read to me her very legalistically parsed paragraph explaining her reasoning, which made me think that while science may not be in her future, law might be. I tried to convince her that in order for the appliances to run, energy had to come from somewhere so she must have done some work at some point in her travels but she would have no part of it. She said it must be a trick question so the answer has to not make sense. She proudly submitted the quiz convinced more then ever that her so-called scientist Dad is a complete and utter idiot.

# Harvard and Asian Americans

The current trial regarding Harvard’s admissions policies seem to clearly indicate that they discriminate against Asian Americans. I had always assumed this to be the case. My take is that the problem is not so much that Harvard is non-transparent and unfair in how it selects students but rather that Harvard and the other top universities have too much influence on the rest of society. Each justice on the US Supreme Court has a degree from either Harvard or Yale. That is positively feudalistic. So here is my solution. All universities have a choice. They can 1) choose students any way they wish but they lose their tax free status or 2) retain tax exempt status but then adhere to strict non-discrimination and affirmative action rules. The top schools already have massive endowments and hurt the locales they are in by buying property and then not pay property taxes. I say let them do what they want but tax them heavily for the right to do so. The government should also not subsidize loans for students that attend such schools.

# What liberal boomers don’t get

Writer Lionel Shriver recently penned an opinion piece in the New York Times lamenting that the millennial penchant for political correctness is stifling free speech and imposing cultural conformity the way the conservatives did in the 60’s and 70’s. The opinion piece was her response to the uproar over her speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival instigated by a young woman named Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out in the middle and then wrote a commentary about why she did so in the Guardian. You can read Shriver’s piece here, Abdel-Magied’s here, and a blog post about the talk here. The question of cultural appropriation, identity politics, and political correctness is a major theme in the current US presidential election. While there has always been conservative resentment towards political correctness there has been a recent strong liberal backlash.

The liberal resentment has been spurred mainly by two recent incidents at two elite US colleges. The first was when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council recommended that students not wear Hallowe’en costumes that might offend other students. Lecturer and associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, Erica Christakis, wrote an email questioning the need to regulate student’s clothing choices and that students should be allowed to be a little offensive. This triggered a massive reaction from the student body strongly criticizing Christakis. The second incident occurred at Bowdoin College in which there was a “tequila” themed party at a College Residence, where students wore sombreros and acted out Mexican sterotypes. Two members of the student government attended the party and this led to a movement by students to have the two impeached. Both of these incidents led to pretty uniform condemnation of the students by the main stream media. For example, see this article in the Atlantic.

The liberal backlash is based on the premise that the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000) have been so coddled (by their baby boomer parents, born between 1945 and 1965, I should add) that they refuse to be exposed to any offensive speech or image. (Personal disclosure: I am technically a boomer, born in 1962, although by the time I came of age the culture wars of the 60’s had past. I’m a year younger than Douglas Coupland, who wrote the book Generation X, which was partially an anthem for neglected tail-end boomers who missed out on all the fun and excitement of the cohort a decade older. The cruel irony is that the term Generation X was later appropriated to mostly mean those born in the 70’s making us once again, an afterthought.)

My initial reaction to those incidents was to agree with the backlash but the contrast between Ms. Abdel-Magied’s thoughtful heartfelt comment and Ms. Shriver’s exasperated impatient one made me realize that I have underestimated the millennials and that they do have a point. Many liberal boomers believe that while full racial equality may not yet exist, much of the heavy lifting towards that end was done by the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, which they supported. What these boomers miss is that the main reason that full racial equality has not been reached is because of cultural biases and attitudes that many of them may even possess. The millennial approach may be a little heavy handed but they at least recognize the true problem and are trying to do something about it.

The plain truth is that just being black does carry an extra risk of being killed in an encounter with law enforcement. Whites and blacks still live in segregated neighborhoods. Even in the so-called liberal enclave of academia, minorities are underrepresented in high level administrative positions. There are just a handful of East Asian women full professors in Ophthalmology in all US medical schools. Hollywood executives do believe that movies cannot be successful with Asian lead actors and thus they still cast white actors for Asian roles. Asians are disadvantaged in the admissions process at elite American schools. Racial stereotypes do exist and pervade even the most self-professed liberal minds and this is a problem. This is not just a battle over free speech as liberal boomers have cast it. This is about what we need to do to make society more just and fair. Shriver thought it was ridiculous that people would be upset over wearing sombreros but it does indicate that there are those that automatically associate a Mexican drink with a Mexican stereotype. Some of these students will be future leaders and I don’t think it is too much to ask that they be aware of the inherent racial biases they may harbour.

# The failure of science museums (and some radio shows)

While I’m in the ranting mood, I’m also going to criticize my  favourite childhood radio show Quirks and Quarks on CBC. The problem I have with the show these days is that it basically only covers astronomy, dinosaurs, and animal behavior. Occasionally, it will also cover high energy physics or climate change. It pays scant attention to the rest of biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, or mathematics. The show does a very poor job of giving the public an idea of what most scientists really do and what constitutes scientific breakthroughs. I think it is more important now than ever that science shows try to educate the public on how the scientific method really works, to get across how difficult it can be to come up with experiments to test hypotheses and how long it takes to get from breakthroughs in the lab to applications. They should also better convey the sense of how it is impossible to predict what will become useful in the future and how lots and lots of failure is a prerequisite for progress. I hope Quirks and Quarks will become more serious because it’s migrating its way to the bottom of my podcast stack.

# Is abstract thinking necessary?

Noted social scientist, Andrew Hacker, wrote a provocative opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday arguing that we relax mathematics requirements for higher education. Here are some excerpts from his piece:

New York Times: A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

…There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

…The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

The expected reaction from some of my colleagues was understandably negative. After all, we live in a world that is becoming more complex requiring more mathematical skills not less. Mathematics is as essential to one’s education as reading. In the past, I too would have whole heartedly agreed. However, over the past few years I have started think otherwise. Just to clarify, Hacker does not (nor I) believe that critical thinking is unimportant. He argues forcefully that all citizens should have a fundamental grounding in the concepts of arithmetic, statistics and quantitative reasoning. I have even posted before (see here)  that I thought mathematics should be part of the accepted canon of what an educated citizen should know and I’m not backing away from that belief. Hacker thinks we should be taught a “citizen’s statistics” course. My suggested course was:  “Science and mathematics survival tools for the modern world.”  The question is whether or not we should expect all students to master the abstract reasoning skills necessary for algebra.

I’ll probably catch a lot of flack for saying this but from my professional and personal experience, I believe that there is a significant fraction of the population that is either unable or unwilling to think abstractly.  I also don’t think we can separate lack of desire from lack of ability. The willingness to learn something may be just as “innate” as the ability to do something. I think everyone can agree that on the abstract thinking scale almost everyone can learn to add and subtract but only a select few can understand cohomology theory.  In our current system, we put high school algebra as the minimum threshold, but is this a reasonable place to draw the line? What we need to know  is the distribution of people’s maximum capacity for abstract thinking. The current model requires that  the distribution be  almost zero left of algebra with a fat tail on the right. But what if the actual distribution is broad with a peak somewhere near calculus?  In this case, there would be a large fraction of the population to the left of algebra. This is pure speculation but there could even be a neurophysiological basis to abstract thinking in terms of the fraction of neural connections within higher cortical areas versus connections between cortical and sensory areas. There could be a trade-off between abstract thinking and sensory processing. This need not even be purely genetic. As I posted before, not all the neural connections can be set by the genome so most are either random or arise through plasticity.

To me, the most important issue that Hacker brings up is not whether or not we should make everyone learn algebra but what should we do about the people who don’t and as a result are denied the opportunity to attend college and secure a financially stable life. Should we devote our resources to try to teach it to them better or should we develop alternative ways for these people to be productive in our society? I really think we should re-evaluate the goal that everyone goes to college. In fact, given the exorbitant cost and the rise of online education, the trend away from traditional college may have already begun. We should put more emphasis on apprenticeship programs and community colleges. Given the rapid rate of change in the job market, education and training should be thought of as a continual process instead of the current model of four years and out. I do believe that a functional democracy requires an educated citizenry. However, college attendance has been steadily increasing the past few decades but one would be hard pressed to argue that democracy has concomitantly improved. A new model may be in order.

# Science Museums

When I was a child, I lived across the street from the Ontario Science Centre.  I loved the place and would go quite often.  When it first opened 40 years ago, the Science Centre was quite innovative in  its use of interactive exhibits and demonstrations as well as its architecture.  It drapes over  the side of a valley.  I still remember the excitement of riding down the escalators to the lowest levels where my favourite exhibits were.

I went back to the Science Centre this past weekend for the first time in several decades.  It has changed quite a bit but some of the old exhibits still exist in a room called the Science Arcade.  The architecture looks a little dated on the outside but holds up fairly well on the inside.  As I walked around, I wondered whether people actually learn anything at these museums.  There are lots of neat things to play with but do they actually get it.  An example is an exhibit of a Cartesian Diver, which consists of a small glass fish inside a cylinder of water.  The fish is partially filled with water.  The visitor pushes a button that pumps air into the cylinder and the fish sinks to the bottom.  However, there wasn’t a detailed explanation of how it works.  The write up basically said that as air is pumped into the cylinder the pressure rises and squeezes the air inside the fish.  It didn’t say explicitly that the fish had a hole in it so that water could move in and out and as the air in the fish was being squeezed by the water moving in due to the increased pressure, the fish became less buoyant and thus sank.  I saw a boy watch the fish sink and say, “how did that happen?”  Perhaps, the exhibit will spur his curiosity to learn more about it.

I believe the current idea of curators who design science museums and exhibits is that science museums should try to make science fun and cool.  Thus the exhibits need to been highly interactive and entertaining.   Maybe this is the right strategy and people do get a lot out of visiting science museums.  I really don’t know.  The National Academy of Sciences has a report, which I haven’t read, on this very issue.  I think having a science literate public is more important now than ever.   Do science museums play an important role in educating the public?