Wednesday, October 09, 2013

"Anything that you can do in chemistry is done with computers these days."

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded today. I heard this story on NPR (more info) this morning and one line at the end struck me:
Anything that you can do in chemistry is done with computers these days.
Now, I don't think he meant that completely literally. Clearly physical experiments are still done and the end result of chemistry research usually ends up in some kind of physical, manufactured substance. But just as clearly computers are an integral part of chemistry today.

And that got me thinking (as always) about K-12 education. We have a great deal of technology in my high school, and in chemistry they do use probes connected to computers to gather and analyze data. And they also use computers to run some types of simulations and do all sorts of collaborative work.

But we're still not doing anything like what real chemists are doing. Even if our curriculum/standards allowed it, and even if our teachers agreed it was a good thing to do, we don't have the equipment. We have a fair amount of technology, and just got a boatload of chromebooks and some new probes down in science, but that's not the kind of equipment these guys are using, nor is our curriculum designed to allow students to do this kind of work.

So I'm struck again by all the talk of "STEM" and "world class education" and "raising the bar" that dominate so many of the education conversations among politicians and business leaders, yet no one appears to want to fund what it would really take to do this. All those folks seem to want "accountability" - dubiously measured by test scores - but don't seem to want to be accountable for providing the resources (and the freedom) to actually help our students achieve these goals.

These scientists used powerful computers, collaborated across distance and time, and spent a good deal of their time simply being curious (and failing at what they were trying to do). Those three things are not adequately supported, encouraged, or often even allowed in our K-12 schools.

If you want our students to really learn chemistry, we can't do it by using "ball-and-stick model" resources and "carrot-and-stick model" approaches. We need the funding - and the freedom - to learn.

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