How to Learn Science: More ‘Big Bang Theory’, Less Memorization

These past months have been tough. After the “precedented times” pre-2020, we’ve found ourselves getting hit by crisis after crisis. COVID-19. The lockdowns. Economic losses. Despite the world’s heroic push for vaccination, we’ve still been hit by one variant after another. Delta. Omicron. In the Philippines, we’ve also faced super typhoons, and let’s face it: climate change has something to do with disasters like these and with equally destructive things happening in other parts of the world.

What has made these crises even harder was the challenge of navigating through the data around them. Social media and our digital age have given us access to more information than we’re prepared to handle, but a big chunk of that information has been proven to be untrue, misleading, biased, damaging, or all of the above.

The problem is we can’t turn our back on that information. We need it. To survive in an uncertain world, we need all the facts we can get. We need to understand what we’re going through. We need to have a working grasp of the science behind it all.

But how can we if the science is buried under an avalanche of fake news, disinformation, and propaganda?

Comic by Tom Gauld

The Mitochondria is the Powerhouse of the Cell

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Carl Sagan

You don’t need to look far to find evidence of how poorly we are grasping science these days. On one end of the spectrum, some of us completely deny the consensus on certain topics such as vaccines and refuse to comply with what the science is telling us to do – even though these interventions may save our lives. In other parts of the spectrum, many of us still doubt the science around topics like climate change, or feel that it may not be important enough to warrant our attention. And most of us, I think, find it hard to conjure positive emotions about science and the scientific method.

And all these may have started with how we learned science in the first place – when we were told that the mitochondria is the power house of the cell.

Many students in the world remember this line word for word. And it’s wonderful if we can all actually recall how the mitochondria and the different parts of the cell functioned, but many of us probably remember this line because we were asked to memorize it.

In too many science classes in the Philippines and in the world, kids end up memorizing parts of the body, elements in the periodic table, names of scientists, and dates certain inventions were made without actually being given the space and the time to explore, to relate, and to be amazed at the great discoveries and processes that these ideas represent.

But this tendency to place memorization over understanding is just a symptom of the problem. The root causes also lie in our obsession with earning those high grades over actually learning something in the classroom; with the systemic inadequacies of learning systems around the world; with prejudices such as the strange notion that women aren’t good in STEM; and even with societal norms that discourage inquiry, curiosity, and the search for the truth.

This is tragic, because every child is a born scientist. As scientist and educator Carl Sagan said, “I don’t think science is hard to teach because humans aren’t ready for it, or because it arose only through a fluke, or because, by and large, we don’t have the brainpower to grapple with it. Instead, the enormous zest for science that I see in first-graders and the lesson from the remnant hunter-gatherers both speak eloquently: A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places, and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When, through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future.”

Science as a Lightsaber in the Dark

As someone who has a degree in engineering and studied in a science-focused high school, I’ve always been exposed to science. But I’ve only recently rekindled my childlike wonder of science – amid all the conversations against science – when I read Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The book was a revelation: it reminded me not only of how important science and the scientific method is but also of how important science communication is.

But if Sagan’s book rekindled my wonder of science, it was watching The Big Bang Theory that made me fall head over heels in love with science all over again. The TV comedy (which is on Netflix) starts out with a group of three physicists and one engineer dealing with their careers, personal quirks, and the bigger quirks of life. From the first episode alone, I knew I found my tribe.

Just watching these past weeks, I’ve picked up things I love about science from snippets in the episodes: random experiments to make things blow up, the unnerving theories around the creation of the universe, the scientific probability of sci-fi worlds, the cameos of beloved figures in the fields of science, and more. Of course it’s not a perfect show (and honestly some jokes were just plainly offensive) but the series is the first thing I’ve seen in years that put the fun, laughter, curiosity, and wonder back in science.

And fun, laughter, curiosity, and wonder are things that can help kids – and even adults – appreciate and understand better the critical scientific facts that explain our lives and our place in the universe.

A neutron walks into a bar and asks, “How much for a drink?”.

The bartender replies, “For you, no charge.”

Dr. Sheldon Cooper, A Big Bang Theory
Who doesn’t love a great educational meme?

Putting the Saya in Science

So how do we put joy (or “saya” in Filipino) back into science? I’m sure scientists and educators will have more ideas to share to answer this question, but as a lifelong student of science, I would like to see:

  • Science / STEM being headlined and featured in fun, engaging ways in the platforms that young people use the most (e.g. YouTube, Tiktok, Discord)
  • More scientists and science professionals being featured in mainstream media and pop culture
  • More interactive and immersive spaces and activities that let kids explore and experiment with different facets of science – such as the Mind Museum we have in Taguig City
  • More exciting ways for adults to continue their learning journeys in science, whether through government initiatives, alternative learning systems, and information campaigns
Yes, we need more fun science museums!

Apart from these, we obviously also have to work on the glaring inequalities and deficiencies of the education system in general, as well as our own biases and beliefs when it comes to STEM.

After all, the work of promoting science isn’t something that we leave to the government or to schools; it’s something that every one of us can do. Every time we try our best to answer a child’s curious question about why the sky is blue or why water becomes ice, then we’re helping the cause of science. Every time we pause to think whether what we’re reading online is really true, then we’re helping the cause. Every time we take the time explain how and why vaccines work to someone who may not be knowledgeable, we’re helping. We’re helping a lot.

As science is indeed a candle – or a lightsaber – in the dark, then so are we. We just have to share the light.

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