Friday, July 25, 2008

Progressive Science Education

A number of factors propelled changes in science education when I first entered teaching. One important event was Russia’s launch of the satellite Sputnik 1. I vividly recall viewing Sputnik and its rocket launcher crawling across the pre-dawn sky on October 4, 1957--a Russian vehicle flying over the United States! I drove to my college classes that morning more thoughtful than usual. Tensions were high, our government’s embarrassment was palpable, and the fallout was immediate: we needed to beef up our science education to close the gap between our countries!

Other factors contributed to the push for curriculum improvement. After the discovery of the DNA molecule and its structure early in the 1950s, knowledge of genetics began to explode and important discoveries in cosmology were made. The advent of entertainment technology such as television increased public curiosity about events and accessible knowledge. Biology and physics curriculum innovations, such as BSCS biology and PSSC physics, captured the imagination of science educators. Both of these inquiry-based programs helped revolutionize science instruction. Students were led to think about science processes in addition to a compendium of facts.

Personally, I was impacted by a workshop in 1968 on a course entitled "Introductory Physical Science" (IPS). Our district began to offer this course to our 8th and 9th graders. A spin-off of PSSC physics, its many lab-based activities gradually led the students to discover, experimentally, the reality of "atomic theory." Those submicroscopic particles were not merely knowledge lifted from the pages of a textbook; they were real, as our experiments and logic demonstrated. Some parents objected that there were not enough "book facts" on which to base an exam. Perhaps that was true. However, deficiencies in any course offering in our schools were always supplemented by enthusiastic, creative teachers filling gaps in the subject matter.

Public school science instructors have abundant opportunities to encourage productive learning. Even in the realm of secular education, Christian teachers should promote the qualities of common grace--God’s gifts to all humanity. The Apostle Paul, in I Thessalonians 5:21, encouraged believers to “test,” “prove,” and “examine” their beliefs. Curiosity and skepticism lead us to discovery and knowledge of God’s plan for both the universe and our lives.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Reality of Plate Tectonics

Instructors at an NSF Oceanography Institute I attended in the mid-1960s were still using the term “continental drift” to describe the apparent movement of continents with respect to one another. The process was described for our class members, but not explained. Shortly after that, researchers showed that the ocean floor was moving apart from long mid-ocean rifts, a process dubbed “sea floor spreading.” Before that decade was over, the theory of “plate tectonics” provided an explanation. They gained an understanding of how the process works. In 1968, Canadian geophysicist and tectonics theorist J. Tuzo Wilson said, “The earth, instead of appearing as an inert statue, is a living, mobile thing.” Some science historians place the unfolding of our understanding of plate tectonics on a par with unlocking the genetic code, also an achievement of the 1960s.

Flashbacks from your general science classes may occur as you recall what you learned about the structure of the earth from center to surface: inner core, outer core, mantle, crust. The crust is sectioned into major and minor plates which fit together like a puzzle. The crustal plates “float” on the upper mantle, lighter rock on denser rock. Huge convection currents in the upper mantle slowly drag the plates. What is the result? Some plates converge, some diverge, and some slide past each other, all with results of significant impact.

Scientists of that era showed quite conclusively that the solid mantle does, indeed, slowly flow in convection currents on the order of a few centimeters per year. The long term effect, however, is measured in thousands of miles and in events of immense importance to human life. When first proposed, the theory of plate tectonics received its share of mockery and scorn. How could solid rock flow like a liquid? How could entire continents be moving around? This is reminiscent of the incredulous questions asked of Galileo: How could our earth be rotating when it appears we are stationary with all the heavenly bodies traveling around us?

No single, incredible process in nature offers final proof of design by an intelligent agent. Plate tectonics is but one of multiple processes which inspire our intuitive reflection about the design of the universe and its many functional “living, mobile” things. Courtroom juries look for “preponderance of evidence” supporting a verdict. This standard, while not proof beyond any reasonable doubt, certainly moves us closer to a verdict on supernatural design.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Origin of Recycling

Recycling has become a distinctive of modern life. Citizens who were alive during World War II, however, may recall a few formal recycling practices, such as flattening tin cans or salvaging rubber tires for the wartime effort. But beginning in the 1960s, increased sensitivity to environmental issues started to become important in the national psyche. In 1970 the first Earth Day was celebrated. Formal recycling gained popularity gradually during the next twenty years. Municipalities began to mandate the recycling of aluminum cans, plastic, and paper. Now the recycling mentality is ingrained in most of us.

By no means is recycling a new idea. In the Creator’s plan for preparing our earth for the sudden arrival of modern humans a mere blink of geologic time ago, prehistoric recycling has served to prepare plenteous natural resources for a rich human existence. Modern research reveals a fascinating scenario of ancient earth processes which now provide a wealth of resources needed by our modern technological society. Fertile soils, usable metallic and non-metallic elements, and fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal have all been produced by the inherent recycling processes of our living, functioning Planet Earth.

Let’s give a few eye-opening examples. Sometime after the earth’s formation as a solid body 4.5 bya, our sun is known to have become dimmer by about 15%. Coincident with this dimming was a change in atmospheric composition. Volcanoes greatly increased the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapor. Earth’s temperature was maintained at a life-friendly temperature in spite of the dimmer sun. Green plants and different types of bacteria absorbed and processed the additional greenhouse gases. Later, they were converted to the bio-deposits on which our society depends: coal, oil, natural gas, limestone, phosphates, sand, and multiple other resources. Sulfate-reducing bacteria also recycled poisonous soluble metals in the oceans, converting them to the non-poisonous, insoluble metal ore deposits we use today as the raw materials for our modern products.

Recycling is the continuous re-use of materials. This earth is really a large and complex recycling organism. We have spoken of man’s short-term recycling to avoid overusing newly mined materials, reduce landfills, or save money. We have also mentioned the earth’s own spectacular carbon-recycling mechanisms, such as the growth of green plants, still occurring on a large scale. This brief discussion barely scratches the surface of this topic. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Psalm 104:24 is an exuberant expression of worship of the creator of our earth’s recycling system: “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.”

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Environment and Ecology

In the 1960s I recall the relatively new term "ecology" becoming popular. At first some used the term synonomously with the word "environment," as in certain practices being “bad for the ecology.” Environmentalists were not unhappy with this misuse of terminology; they favored increased attention to environmental problems. Today, public understanding of the term is greater than ever before.

Two words are commonly used in definitions of ecology--relationships, and interactions. The natural world is one of the best examples of the maxim “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The many branches of ecology, such as microbial ecology and forest ecology to the social sciences such as cultural ecology, are making scientists and the public more aware of the importance of inter-relationships of organisms in our environment. The declining health of even one species can often adversely affect other species. This could trigger a negative cascade of events.

Examples abound. The tragic colony collapse disorder afflicting our honeybees may result in poor pollination of flowering plants and reduced fruit and vegetable harvests. A mysterious disease of bats in the northeast may mean the loss of agricultural insect pest consumption if it continues. There are also many historical examples of unhealthy proliferations of animals. For example, rabbits were introduced by man in Australia in 1788, and they have been battled by residents ever since because of the destruction millions of these animals have wreaked on crops. Less disastrous are the Asian lady beetles introduced in the U. S. to help control soybean aphids; they also became a nuisance when seeking winter refuge inside human dwellings.

Our Creator has supplied the earth with millions of diverse species which interact with one another and with humans. Sometimes the impact of man’s activities on these interrelationships has negative effects. Man’s knowledge has solved some of our self-made problems, such as our endangered eagles and scarce bluebirds(Welcome back!). As God’s highest order of created beings, we are given the ability to manage and work out these affairs. Surely the scripture in James 1:5 applies equally to our knowledge of ecology and to our quest for spiritual truth: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (NAS translation).

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Science "Wow" Factor

During my career as a science educator there were times my wife (a math educator) claimed there was a factor stacked in my favor in capturing the attention of my students. She claimed the “wow” factor in science education gave those instructors a leg up. After explaining that my students’ classroom experience did not always consist of flashing lights, loud pops, or unique odors, she confessed that there were also “wow” factors in mathematics even though she may have had to work harder to devise them.

The “wow” factor is important and needed in science education, but perhaps we should do more to promote it in everyday experience. Our lives have become too perfunctory. The wonder may be missing, perhaps due to a startling lack of basic scientific knowledge among our populace. Society's trend toward specialization may be partly to blame. Many people perform their chosen lines of work knowing little more than the ending step of applied science—button pushing, card swiping, or mouse clicking.

As adults, our preferences and aversions, our likes and dislikes, are sometimes measured by how much stress relief or personal pleasure we receive. Our children’s success is often related to their test scores, athletic participation, or social involvement. I’ve discovered it is highly unusual to find 12-year-olds hiking in the woods or fields unassisted by a motorized vehicle. It is apparent that cell phones, television, and computer games supply a large portion of “adventure” for our young folks. Instead of observing the naked eye beauty of the stars and planets of the night sky and their motions, most children, unable or unwilling to observe the real thing, may experience the night sky in a picture book or computer simulation.

Why am I concerned about these “signs of the times?” We cannot afford to forfeit the sense of wonder to be gained from first-hand knowledge of the designed intricacy and fascination of our surroundings. Powerful knowledge of our surroundings is revealed through a microscope, a telescope, carefully observing the animal and plant life in our neighborhood, or even diving into some of the thousands of wonderful resource books. We are in danger of missing out on the reality of the Creator as revealed in the creation. In other words, we may suffer the tragic loss of the “wow” factor.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Act of God or Act of Man?

Discussions of normal, everyday weather events have retreated to obscurity in the past several weeks. Instead, we have had enough tragic cyclones, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes to provoke gasps. The usual questions about whether God is “telling us something” have dominated our discussions. We do not think with the infinite mind of God. However, I will confess I am not convinced that natural disasters are rewards for man’s evil or disobedience. I am persuaded that the Creator wants us to learn how our various Earth systems should function. In gaining this understanding, we are better able to avoid injury, prevent disasters, benefit our environment, and enrich our own lives.

The midwestern floods provide a good example of man’s departure from sound natural management practices. Residents would rather attribute this disaster to an Act of God--the proverbial 500-year flood. The last 500-year flood swamped the area in 1993. The current tragedy is, in fact, an Act of Man. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post staff writer, reviewed many of the points we’ve heard before in his June 19 article. Plowed fields have replaced tall grass prairies. Fields have been drained with underground pipes to lower the water table, causing water to move quickly toward streams and rivers. Vanished wetlands no longer act to absorb water. Flood plains are filled and developed with farms and residences crowding the rivers. The most profitable crops, without deep roots, are planted year after year. Sediment chokes streams, some of which have been artificially straightened.

During the height of the Iowa floods, our son called to report that his home church had flood water nearly up to its roof. Having worshiped many times in that church, I found the news incredible. But sadly, it was true. In the days since then, many downstream levees channeling water through lower elevation villages and farmland have burst, with tragic consequences.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1 KJV). God created man to enjoy and benefit from the resources of our earth. Our management of the earth and its resources must transpire with loving care and applied knowledge, not mere exploitation. We are partners with the Creator in this grand venture.