Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1244:
MAKING SCIENCE FUN?

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1244.

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 example:

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 can understand.

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 pleasure.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


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, 1997.

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. Lienhard.

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