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.