Often prospective parents want to know how we teach science in our Logic and Rhetoric school classically. I usually tell them that we start with the four Aristotelian elements, Earth, Wind, Water and Fire and then move on to alchemy, giving each student a lump of lead to turn to gold by the end of the year. While this usually earns a polite chuckle, the question that they ask still remains. What about our science classes are classical? How do we look for truth and beauty in our science classes and what methods do we use?
We actually don’t study the transmutation of alchemy or suggest disease is due to an imbalance of Galenic humors; we study the science of today. We search for deep truths about how the rules of the universe that God has created work. A classical education uniquely prepares the students for a deep study of science. Through the emphasis on truth and beauty, coupled with a study of logic and rhetoric, the classical system equips students with the tools to excel in science. Rather than simply memorize facts, students must be able to use what they learned in their formal logic and rhetoric courses to clearly express difficult scientific concepts and experimental results.
That said, how do we actually teach these concepts in our science classes? It is nice to speak about truth, beauty, logic and rhetoric but what activities and structures do we use to re-enforce these ideas? In our science classes, we have the ability to grow and develop a deep appreciation for the proper use of logic and rhetoric while peering into the great mysteries and deep truths of creation. I would like to explain how we use three different methods and sources at NCA that reinforcing classical methods while delving into modern scientific topics. The three methods and sources that I have found to be the most useful for our school are in-class experiments, papers and articles from scientific journals and historical science papers.
In class, first we start with the experiment. Students analyze a particular situation and run an experiment, say to analyze what determines the frequency of a pendulum, or the velocity of a sphere rolling down a ramp. This methodology is borrowed from the modeling curriculum from the American Modeling Teachers Association and works especially well in a classical context. Students analyze and communicate the results of their experiments, first as an oral explanation to the class, then through writing of an in-depth lab report. Often in science class, students have a teacher explain a concept and then do an experiment as an example. While this can be useful, by performing the experiment first, students have the opportunity to use both their formal logic and trained imagination cultivated in the humanities. Students carefully design and analyze an experiment and communicate the results to their classmates. If students have different interpretations of the data from the experiment, they must debate each other, citing the evidence and their previous knowledge to see if they can determine the truth. The purpose of the debate and discussion is not to name winners or losers, but to be able to come to the deeper truth behind the experiment. In this, students are able to come to an understanding of scientific topics while leaning on and honing their reasoning and rhetorical skills.
After the class understands the experiment, we try to work towards the general principle or an equation that describes the situation. Socratic dialog between the instructor and the students and by the students analyzing the data themselves most often accomplishes this goal. By discovering the equation and principals for themselves, the equation and concepts move away from an abstraction into a meaningful description of the real world. The experience with the process is so much more meaningful than simply giving students equations and vocabulary to memorize. The process of experimentation and discovery allows for a deeper understanding of a topic.
Another way to reinforce that understanding is to take a look at current scientific journals. For the past three years at NCA, we have subscribed to either Nature or Science, two leading scientific journals. These journals are peer reviewed and present some of the most interesting and important new scientific studies and experiments. We use these journals as a tool to deepen student understanding of how science is conducted and communicated at the highest levels as well as how to interpret results. By showing a student a cutting edge study, you unlock the joy of discovery that fuels much of scientific progress. Students also see how much work must be put in to make these discoveries. By showing that a researcher tracked a population for two years to find their data, students are generally a little slower to grumble about the lab report that took them a mere two days to write! We also use these reports as a model of excellence and our lab report guidelines are based on the requirements for journal submission.
Looking at journals also allows students to have a deeper understanding of how data can be represented graphically. The students must constantly ask, “What is the story of this graph, how does the graph communicate study?? How does it relate to and communicate the thesis of the study?” The ability to to analyze a complex graph and accurately communicate the results represented is a skill that is becoming more and more important in our increasingly data driven society. That said, this is just another way to communicate evidence to a reader; it is telling a story. Students often forget that the skills that they use in the humanities of writing and supporting a thesis are the same skills used to communicate a science report. The same skills that they use to make sense of Dante are the skills used to break down a technical scientific article. Learning how to effectively communicate a point is crucial, no matter what the object of study is.
In addition to current scientific articles, we also look at historical papers in science. Students can track how we moved from earlier scientific understanding to the present. In Biology, we read the works of Darwin, Mendel, and more modern authors such as Watson and Crick and Rachel Carson. These articles help ground science as a human endeavor. The concepts that appear in their texts did not arrive as complete ideas. They were painstakingly researched by teams of men and women to be synthesized into our modern understanding.
From sixth grade until our students graduate, our students learn to appropriately practice and apply logical and rhetorical skills. These skills are not just expressed in the humanities, but are also crucial to our science classroom. By careful experimentation and report, Socratic dialog, studying journals of historical and current science, students can access some of the greatest truths about the workings of our world and the universe. While this pursuit may not turn lead to gold as the alchemist had hoped, we believe that it transforms the student into a person with a greater appreciation of the universe that God has made and the process by which man has uncovered these rules.