Behind the equals sign

In all my years in science and math classes, there was always one question we weren’t allowed to ask. Any mention of it would almost guarantee you an eye roll from the teacher. The question comes in many flavors: “Why do I need to know this?” or “When am I ever going to use this?” or “Which jobs actually require this?” But underlying all of them is a simple feeling of exasperation; many kids don’t enjoy manipulating what seem like meaningless symbols all for the purpose of receiving another meaningless letter on their transcripts.

Baseballs, Marbles, & Cylinders

Enthusiastic textbook authors have come up with a few strategies for pre-empting these frustrations. One is the infamous story problem. The idea seems to be that students will find the material more relevant if the assignments are packaged in short stories rather than plug-and-chug equations. And as a result, kids across America have determined the trajectory of millions of baseballs, the probability of thousands of marbles, the water level of hundreds of cylinders.

Another strategy of these textbook writers is the “Real World Application” sidebar. These lonely blocks of information sit quarantined in their own little page corners. Most students love these sidebars not for their exciting anecdotes, but because they make the assigned reading pages seem that much shorter. The bigger the sidebar, the better.

Science & Storytelling

The standardization of science and math education has robbed the subjects of their philosophy, their narrative, and their historical context. In the name of efficiency, most curricula seem to ignore the personalities and emotions behind the theories. All that remains is a collection of equations that can appear pretty dull when compared with the epics of a good history or literature course. In its quest to Leave No Child Behind, the system has done kids a great disservice.

Instead of making kids read only stodgy story problems and cursory textbook sidebars, why not also incorporate the stories of the people who dreamed up the concepts in the first place? They’d certainly be more interesting than baseball trajectories and might even be more enlightening, to boot. Behind every equals sign there are many lifetimes of rejection, pain, and discovery. To keep those narratives from students is to strip them of an incredible educational opportunity. What better way to understand theories than to learn about the motivations of the people who devised them, the philosophies and ideologies that gave rise to them? Science doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. It involves real people seeking the truth about real things. But that can be easy to forget when you’re a middle schooler hunched over a wide ruled notebook with a daunting number of equations to solve.

Grokking the Bigger Picture

Ludwig Boltzmann, a physicist and philosopher, is just one of many scientists whose story seems worth relaying to students. His kinetic theory of gas presupposed the reality of atoms and molecules, but many philosophers and scientists disagreed with him. He spent the last years of his life trying desperately to defend his theory against the many attackers it faced. Science was his life’s work and his hypothesis was more to him than just a number on a chalkboard. He eventually became so discouraged with his progress that he resigned and hanged himself while on vacation with his family.1 All that’s left of him in most middle school and high school classrooms is 5.67 x 10-8—the value of his constant. There are hundreds of scientists like Boltzmann, all with compelling stories that students deserve to hear.

Of course, not all science classes can turn into a full-on history or philosophy lecture, nor am I suggesting they should. But it wouldn’t hurt to give students (especially younger ones) a little bit of context. Interesting anecdotes about scientists and mathematicians would go a long way towards keeping the less numbers-inclined students engaged and would help everyone grok the bigger picture.

The solution to kids’ disenchantment with science and math is not more test taking or longer problem sets, but more storytelling. Many scientists would probably balk at the bland way in which their theories are taught today. Students spend far more time memorizing these topics than they do thinking critically about them. They may be able to complete their practice problems, but I can’t help but think they’ve lost something important along the way. Textbook authors don’t have to make up story problems to keep kids interested; all the most interesting stories are right under their noses, just waiting to be told.

  1. “Eureka! Science’s greatest thinkers and their key breakthroughs”, Hazel Muir, p.152, ISBN 1780873255