Recently, the seventy one year old British physicist, Stephen Hawking questioned his original notion about black holes. The January issue of Nature.com reported,”Hawking’s new work is an attempt to solve what is known as the black-hole firewall paradox, which has been vexing physicists for almost two years.” In his yet to be peered reviewed paper, he struggles with a “paradox between the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics.” How awesome! One of the most noted scientists of our time continues to question his own thinking, and does so publically.
How we struggle to hold to what we know. For so many, the introduction of a new thought or a question is so threatening. Isn’t this reminiscent of Galileo’s experience centuries ago? As a species, our knowledge has moved forward faster than our ability to live in a world with increasing few absolutes. Isn’t it ironic that Dr. Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death!
Those who are embracing STEM as an essential foundation for learning are at the forefront of this issue. Business, the world economy, political and community leaders and students and parents are speaking with one voice. We need graduates ready to work in these fields. Science is the frontier on which project-based/problem-based learning has a home. Science is not a static body of knowledge. Thank goodness. We are all beneficiaries of that wonder. We need arenas where exploration, experimentation, curiosity, and innovation flourish. It is how we progress as a species.
Scientists challenge the current beliefs as a regular practice. What we know now may be able to be reshaped or repurposed. That happens in experimentation all the time when researching the development of a drug. Drugs invented for one purpose, sometimes are discovered to be useful for a totally different purpose. Consider our historical experience of illnesses...cholera, polio, measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, etc....all have been stopped with vaccines. There were decisions to not do certain chemotherapies or surgeries because of people’s age. Science pushed up against that boundary and has changed some age limits for certain surgeries. We taught children to remember the planets by reciting, “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas.” Now we know Pluto is actually not a planet. We fly through the air in silver tubes propelled with jet engines. Life problems can be solved by science, technology, engineering, math and innovation.
Dr. Hawking is using knowledge that he gained along the way to question even his own thinking and continues to grow his work. We, in education, do this on some level every day. We watch how children are learning and adjust our method in order to help them learn. The longer we are in the field, the more capacity we must have to change. This is the challenge technology brings to our doors even if it is uninvited. The future will be driven by the cutting edges in science, technology, engineering, and math. Few disagree that today’s students need to be skilled in these areas in order to find meaningful and productive work and keep our nation competitive.
Diagnosed with ALS at 21, Dr. Hawking was not given long to live. Fifty years later, supported by the technology that accommodates his frozen body, his mind remains free and active. His question, the question that drives his work, is based in a set of wonders. “My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” And how extraordinary is it that he has not stopped? Now, he may be changing his mind and continues to struggle with a paradox. That is exactly what we need to do in our leadership, our teaching, and our curriculum. Our work is also a paradox. There are no absolutes and what we knew worked in the past is giving way to another question and new possibilities for answers.
The best STEM programs are the ones in which the motivation to prepare students for this century’s scientific, social and environmental challenges are coupled with a deeply held belief that interdisciplinary, problem-based, project-based learning. That is what education needs to offer now.
Nonroutine problem-solving skills include a skilled individual using expert thinking to examine a broad span of information, recognizing patterns, and narrowing the information to diagnose a problem. Moving beyond diagnosis to a solution requires knowledge of how the information is linked conceptually and involves metacognition--the ability to reflect on whether a problem-solving strategy is working and to switch to another strategy if the current strategy is not working (Levy and Murnane as cited by Bybee. P. 39)
In his book, The Case for STEM Education, Roger W. Bybee captures not only a scientific practice, but something that is our reality as leaders. Everything changes. Charles Darwin determined that species that adapt best to their changing environment have the best chance of surviving. We add, that in the 21st century, we need to be prepared to make change happen through the use of nonroutine problem-solving skills, expert thinking, recognizing patterns, and narrowing information to diagnose a problem and then solve it. We need to adjust to the idea that absolutes are a mirage and that our challenges of this day may be solved tomorrow. This is science. It is hope. This is leadership. It is life.
Bybee, Roger W. (2013). The Case for STEM Education. Arlington, Virginia: National Science Teachers Association
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