This tweet really got me thinking recently:
In the Global Physics Department we talk about this quite often, though we usually focus on students who will continue with physics or at least science. For that audience, we seem to always come to the conclusion that depth is better than breadth. For me it comes down to noticing how strong students can be in college if they’ve done a deep project in high school. That’s true even when that project restricted their depth a little. It seems that when they’re presented with something in college that their classmates have seen before but they haven’t, they seem to take it in stride quite well.
Casey asked later in the twitter conversation about non-majors, though, and I’ve been thinking about that too. Again I think I land on depth. I want students not to just know the results of science, but to understand how we got those results. If a student studies something, anything, deeply, they’re likely to really understand the scientific process. They’ll stumble, they’ll grope, they’ll make leaps, they’ll see connections, and they’ll see how our crisp, clean textbook results are really dirty, messy, and hard.
One of the physics teachers at the school my kids will go to has come to the Global Physics Department a bunch. He’s heard us have these conversations and he’s decided to try to find more ways to give students opportunities to do these messy, deep projects. I’m not sure if they necessarily take away from the breadth he covers, but I don’t care. I’m happy they’re doing science, not just taking it. (By the way, his name is Peter Bohacek and he just won a very cool award.)
Two things seem to creep up in conversations like these. The first is those dumb Harvard students on graduation day who don’t know what causes the seasons.
My friend Brian Frank has taught me that you can use those misconceptions to really talk about science and to learn about other possible explanations. Here’s my point: I don’t care if people know what causes the seasons (heresy, I know). What I care about is whether they can talk about it and think about it and brainstorm about it. Can they think about what evidence they have, seek out other evidence (not just do a google search for “the answer”), and/or ask good questions? It would seem that doing a deep project would prepare them well for that.
The second issue that creeps up is the AP physics curriculum and exam. I will certainly stipulate that you need breadth to do well on those exams. But I don’t care. Yay, you got a 5 and can skip a course in college. Skip an opportunity to build relationships with physics faculty and students. Skip a chance to see material in a different way, with different questions, with different labs. Great. Good for you. And to do it you had to go at a breakneck pace in high school to see all the physics “facts” that are available. No, I say. I say do a cool project. Look into how a slapshot really works. Wonder whether Godzilla can iceskate. Twirl some beads.
I know some of this won’t sit well with some. And that’s ok. I wanted to get my thoughts down so that a conversation could continue. Here’s some starter comments for you:
- I agree. We should just not teach science at all. Instead we should . . .
- I disagree. Students need to be facile with all kinds of things. Here are some examples . . .
- I agree. AP is overrated and also . . .
- I disagree. AP is the single greatest thing since sliced bread and here’s why . . .
- I agree. Just teach them Mathematica
- I disagree. If we just do AP physics in 9th grade, they’ll be set up AP chem and then AP bio after that.