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A Science Educator’s Lament

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In 2009, while I was teaching physics at Ryerson University my students (future Architects) built this demo to illustrate the idea of intertia and Newton’s first law. You can see that a marble rolls along a circular path. A quarter of this circular path can be removed so the marble is free to continue. The question is: How will it move after leaving the circular path? Will it be path A, B or C?

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The answer to this problem might be surprising for some. Many people think that it will continue rolling along a curved path – such as B or C. Yet, it rolls along a straight line. This makes sense if you recall Newton’s first law: as long as all the forces acting on an object balance out (the sum is zero), the object continues moving along a straight line with a constant velocity (the same speed and direction). This is what you see. I caught the marble rolling along path A.

As I have been preparing for my┬áSaturday Mathematics for Parents and Children Workshop, I started thinking again about why it is so important to engage adults and children in meaningful mathematics and science studies. Do we do it to have more scientists and engineers? Do we do it to have a scientifically literate population? Do we do it because these courses are convenient gatekeepers for university entrance? As these thoughts occupied me, I recalled a famous paper (book) written by Paul Lockhart – called “A Mathematician’s Lament“. In this paper he argues that a current educational system removes all the beauty from studying mathematics and turns it into a set of rules and procedures the kids have to go though in order to succeed with their future studies. I think it is a big problem. I was reflecting on my own math and science education and how my parents, grandparents, and my extended family were able to share with me why THEY loved math and science. I am very lucky here as most of my close family members are engineers, scientists, mathematicians and Teachers of math and science. My mother (I am named in her honour), for example, who is a mathematics and physics teacher often brought to us (my sister and myself) math and science puzzles which none of us (including her) knew how to solve. So we struggled with them and I distinctly remember the feeling of being able to figure something out. We saw beauty in proofs, in figuring something out, in noticing something… This brings me to our current education system here in Canada, where most kids have never had a chance to experience these feelings. They go through the motions, get grades, pass courses, but do they have a glimpse into the beauty of mathematics and science? And how do we (parents, teachers) help them experience it if so few of us have experienced it ourselves? This is a challenge I am thinking about while preparing for my Saturday mathematics workshop. I hope I will be able to inspire parents and children to find beauty in mathematics the same way my parents inspired me to do that many years ago.

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My family: My sister Svetlana (who teaches statistics now), my parents and myself. Our parents instilled a love and appreciation of math and science into both of us.

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