I had two outstanding science teachers growing up, one in seventh grade and the other in twelfth grade. SInce I did not grow up to become a scientist, this may seem trivial, but the lessons I took from these teachers went far beyond the classroom, or even science itself.
For me, seventh grade was the first year of junior high school. Today, it seems that junior high school has been replaced by middle school, which begins in sixth grade. I mention this because it was a big transition for me, having a home room teacher, and going to different classrooms for each subject. My grades in science reflected this. I struggled a bit, but I think it had more to do with the new environment, and puberty, than anything else.
My seventh grade science teacher was Maureen Burrill, who I recently learned passed away back in 2006. She was one of those great teachers because she was patient with us. She encouraged me when I struggled. More than anything, through science, she taught many valuable lessons that stick with me to this day. It was, for instance, Mrs. Burrill who taught me how to take notes in a useful way. “Show your work” was a kind of mantra because science needs to be reproducible, and the only way it can be is if experiments are well-documented. I took this to heart and changed the way I took notes to better reflect what was going on inside my head. As a result, I think I began learning better than I had been before.
The history of science is replete with failure. Experiments don’t always work on the first try. The fact that a failed scientific result was worthy of publication was a kind of revelation to me. Knowing what didn’t work was just as important as knowing what did work. Put another way: you can learn from your mistakes. That was another important, life-altering lesson for me. I began using my notes as a way of learning from my mistakes. This carries through right down to today, when, for instance, notes for work resemble something more like a lab book than a neatly types set of bullet points in OneNote.
Sometimes, things can go terribly wrong. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded after launch, kill the seven crew members aboard. It happened while I was at school, and I remember walking by Mrs. Burrill’s classroom (she was no longer my teacher at this point) to see her sitting at her desk, crying. But those lessons about checking your work, finding out what wrong, correcting it and trying again stuck with me. I read the papers avidly, watching science and engineering unfold as the best experts weighed in on why things went wrong, how it could have been prevented, and how things could change to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. It was science at work.
In my senior year in high school, I took A.P. physics with Doctor Marshall Goldman. He was another fantastic science teacher. A.P. physics was, of course, and advanced physics class for high school, but Dr. Goldman made it interesting. We did a lot of hands-on work to bolster the concepts we were learning. Dr. Goldman was an expert at science analogies, making abstract concepts in physics easier to understand, in much the same way that Dr. Isaac Asimov did in his science writing.
Doctor Goldman taught us simple mathematical shortcuts that made the work easier–for instance, he taught us how to do simple first derivatives in our heads–but he also explained why they were shortcuts, and what an “order of magnitude” estimate was, versus an exact answer. This stuck with me, and to this day, I frequently use order-of-magnitude estimates for all manner of things in situations requiring quick decisions, later refining my estimates with more accurate calculations.
Doctor Goldman expected us to do our best work, and would often turn back assignments with admonisions that we could be doing better on some aspect of our work or other. In additon to teaching me physics, he helped me learn to think more clearly. Our physics homework often took me an hour or two to complete, and I needed total focus to work on it. In order to tune out everything else, I played Metallica cassettes (it was the 80s) on a Walkman while I did my homework. It helped me focus. To this day, when I hear “Ride the Lightning” or “To Live Is To Die” I see various physics problem floating around me.
These science teachers were great because they taught me a lot more than just science. They taught me how science worked, how that method could be applied to more than just science, and how by following a scientific method, you could never really fool yourself. In a time of truth decay, when basic facts are denied and debated, the methods I was taught by Mrs. Burrill and Dr. Goldman have helped me to make informed decisions. It is why I think science is so important. It teaches a lot more than just the speed at which an apple falls from a tree, or the names of the components within a cell.
Written on January 31, 2022.
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