Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Religion and Science Education

Beautiful images - in this case, a volcano erupting - are definitely a great way to start a conversation about science, but also a great way to start a controversy.  Available via NASA's Earth Observatory.

Some of the tensest times working as a science teacher in any capacity are when subjects like the age of the Earth or evolution come up.  When the content in a classroom intersects with (and runs counter to) deeply held beliefs, life can suddenly get really difficult.  In particular, in my capacity as a sort of 'unofficial' teacher without a set curriculum or state guidelines to follow, I always have a little bit of internal debate about just how controversial a topic I want to teach.  Because, while I love teaching science to kids (and I think that the fact that the Earth is over four billion years old is really cool) I'm not a huge fan of dealing with irate parents and guardians.

The mere fact that this is a problem, though, is part of why science education and literacy are so crucial.  It's no secret that conversations between the religious and scientific establishments can get nasty in a hurry.  Like so many public debates, the most extreme voices on each side seem to dominate the whole proceeding.  The result is hurt feelings on both sides.  Scientists feel that their important - environment-preserving, paradigm-breaking, life-saving - work is lost in a chorus of religious backlash.  Religious groups feel that their concerns are responded to with condescension and dismissiveness (after all, in the words of Richard Dawkins, God is a delusion).

If, as a society, we're going to solve a problem like global warming, we need a lot more than just scientists.  That means that communications between a large group of Americans, like conservative Christians, and scientists have to get less acrimonious in a hurry.  By increasing scientific literacy by improving science education, it will be easier to communicate the necessity of reducing carbon dioxide emissions or the benefits of solar power.  Plenty of the children who go through science education through the next few decades will grow up to disagree with scientists on subjects like evolution.  But if we increase the number of adults who understand the scientific method, it gets easier and easier to facilitate civil conversations dominated not by extreme voices, but by people who are prepared to negotiate the boundaries between religion and science with respect and purpose.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Teaching Science to Kids

In addition to my normal research this summer, I'm working as a teacher for a local science center.  This science center serves a lot of functions in the community, but I primarily work as a camp teacher, introducing various aspects of science to elementary and middle school aged children through the vehicle of day camps.  The camps are intensively hands-on and tons of fun, and I think they do a great job making science into something that the kids can really get excited about.

I've always been really interested in science education.  It's sort of a natural extension:  because I love science, I have a hard time understanding why people don't connect to it.  I really enjoy sharing my excitement about these subjects with the kids.  But I think there's also a broader, and more pragmatic, view to be taken:  science literacy is increasingly necessary to fully understand both public and private life, and it's a lot easier to teach people about things they like and think are cool first.

There are huge divides in this country over issues that are, at their root, scientific.  These include global warming (of course), nuclear weapons and evolution...the list doesn't really end.  A really large part of the population (probably a strong majority) doesn't understand what the science behind these issues actually says.  Furthermore, many of these issues impinge on religious faith and cultural norms.  Convincing people to change their behavior over problems that they do not understand and feel threatened by is always going to be incredibly difficult.  If we do science education right, however, we could end up with a new generation that has a better grasp on issues like these - and a generation that has a passion for solving these problems.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Moving Forward

As of today, I am finished with my requirements for my undergraduate degree at Big State University.  It's very much a weird feeling.  At this point in my life, four years is a significant chunk of time.  More to the point, graduation sort of sneaks up on you.  You get so absorbed in the day-to-day life of being a college student (problem set, problem set, paper, midterm) that you forget that the terms are going by and goodbyes are looming closer.

I'm not leaving my current city just yet - I have a couple jobs here for the summer, and so I'll be hanging around for a few months.  That alone makes the idea of graduation a little easier to deal with, since it becomes more of a process than a single day.  On one hand, I am really excited about being finally DONE.  The sense of accomplishment is tremendous, just because graduation is an acknowledgement that, in my case, I've gotten myself through some really tough classes and had some really great learning experiences.  On the other hand, I'll be really sad to leave this place:  like most college students, I've met my best friends here, and I've grown attached to the place where I live.  I have an awesome church community and a great, supportive department, and leaving all of these things behind is bittersweet.

The picture here is of the star Mira, a well-known object that's streaking through space incredibly quickly - and leaving a huge trail of luminous gas behind.  This image was taken with the satellite GALEX, or the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, and is available through NASA.  While the connection is tenuous at best, it really reminded me of the way my life feels right now - moving just a little too quickly for comfort.  Plus, as always, it's just a beautiful image and a really amazing object. 

So while I'm truly excited to be moving on to graduate school, my thoughts will be lingering here for just a little bit longer.  Before the ceremony this weekend, I'm enjoying the time to hang out with some of my best friends and savor the feel of being on this campus.  There's always a little time to look back before moving forward.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Hello!   Welcome to Light Echoes.  This blog was started as a writing exercise and an outlet for some of the things I think about a lot but don't often spend time articulating.  I hope that a lot of this stuff will be interesting to other people, but I'm also hoping to re-learn to write for fun -  it's not something I've done in a long while.

So, a little about me:  I'm a student about to graduate from Big State University with a degree in astronomy and physics.  I'm going to graduate school for astrophysics next year, at another state university.  For anonymity reasons, I'm keeping the names of these schools to myself.  My name is (obviously) not Caroline Herschel - but as an aspiring female astronomer, I admire both her work and her determination.

I am a scientist, a feminist, and a Christian.  If these sound like uncomfortable bedfellows to you, you're right:  these aren't necessarily identities that inherently get along with each other.  I've spent a lot of time negotiating the boundaries between these groups and figuring out where each of them fits into my life.  Much of the content here will deal with these identities - both individually and where they intersect.

The name of the blog comes from my favorite astronomical object:  V838 Monocerotis.  This is a variable star of more or less unknown origin, and it has a well-known light echo around it.  In addition to all of the scientific questions it provokes, it's just a beautiful object, and that's mostly what I love about it.  It's in the picture with this post - the image comes from the Hubble Space Telescope, and is available via the Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks for reading!