Today, we ask whether or not science should be fun.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A new debate has erupted over
science education. Educator John Silber recently
brandished a stack of mail from students at a
Plymouth, Massachesetts, grade school.
Massachusetts had done badly in national rankings,
and students wrote to say they'd do better if
science were more fun. Silber pointed out errors of
grammar and spelling in the letters. Then he curtly
said, "Not everything in life is fun."
Meanwhile, a British physics professor, David
Jones, is calling for all-out war on fun in science
classrooms. Silber and Jones define a rising tide
of sentiment against fun-based science instruction.
We need to see what these arguments are about.
The "fun-ification" of science might mean dramatic
demonstrations, competitive projects, or finding
things on the Web. Students can get deeply into
such fun, but that may not mean learning the math
and theory at the root of things. Here's an
I recently visited a hands-on science museum in
Florida. In one typical demonstration a child sat
on a pivoted stool. A docent then spun the stool.
If the child spread her arms, she spun slower. If
she pulled her arms in, she spun faster -- like an
ice skater. The children did indeed have a lot of
fun with that one.
So I asked the docent to explain what was
happening. She said when your arms are outstretched
air friction slows you. By folding your arms you
release the friction and speed up. Now: That isn't
just a half-truth. It's blatantly wrong. To
understand why you really spin faster you need the
concept of momentum, and momentum is a conceptual
hurdle. So, instead of a true explanation, the
children are given a false explanation that they
That case was pretty typical. When theatrical fun
takes over, truth can take a back seat. At the same
time, I'll tell you this: The reason I've spent my
life in technology and science is the enormous
pleasure of it. Science really is fun. The problem
rises when we look for fun outside science instead
of within it.
Joining the thought processes of science is
soul-satisfying. Those intellectual constructs tell
us to expect the unexpected and be prepared for
surprise. Simply showing children a dramatic
natural process has some value, but it still
engages them passively. It takes knowledge to enter
science's rich wonderland of self-discovery. And,
until you've experienced that pleasure yourself,
it's a mistake to try to replace it with the
theater of fun.
So the anti-fun people are right and wrong at the
same time. Students have to enter the theory,
logic, math, and memorization without which there
is no science. Those processes are not dry -- not
by a country mile. Our problem is finding ways to
show students that mental world of discovery which
gives such deep pleasure. Science lies inside
nature and inside the mind. It offers pleasure we
won't find -- if we do no more than pursue
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Zernike, K., Ideas of Fun Collide. Houston
Chronicle, Sunday, May 18, 1997, p 17a.
Browne, M. W., He sees no fun in science, so
e=mc**2 will never be a laughing matter.
Houston Chronicle, Sunday, May 18,
I am grateful to colleagues K. Ravichandar, N.
Shamsundar, and L. T. Wheeler in the UH Mechanical
Engineering Department for their conversations and
ideas on this matter. Ravi-chandar provided the
articles and suggested the topic.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |