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  • Impressing the Science out of Children

    This is Chapter 13 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    The Science and Engineering Television Network (SETN) would like to help science teachers. In a draft Internet announcement, /1/ SETN's president, Gary Welz, talks about the moving pictures that scientists and engineers create, ranging from "dazzling supercomputer animations produced by mathematicians and physicists to the video images of living cells shot by biologists through powerful microscopes." Teachers lack access to this "exciting visual material" -- which he thinks a shame, for "it is precisely the stuff that could stimulate a greater interest in mathematics and science." His proposed solution? Employ the Internet's video capabilities.

    The assumption here is dead wrong. Video images, of course, will have their worthwhile uses. But high-tech dazzle is not what stimulates interest in math and science. Such a notion nevertheless seems implicit in much of the push for online science lessons today. Unless nature comes packaged with cinematic drama and slick technology -- unless we find some way to capture the most remote and astounding phenomena (so our fears seem to run) -- we'll lose the kids.

    Yes, supercomputer animations of subatomic transactions and video images of strange, unseen interiors possess a certain wow factor. But they do not foster in the child either an understanding of the world or a more eager pursuit of scientific discipline. One doubts, in fact, whether these productions are received in any different spirit than Saturday morning cartoons and Hollywood's special effects. What they are likely to do is create a demand for the next advance in our ability to deliver a high-impact image. Most of us probably need only refer back to our own experience in order to satisfy ourselves that television nature programs -- presumably much more impressive than the city park or the woods out back -- offer no particular encouragement for children to become naturalists.

    The fact is that efforts to impress children into science are more likely to do the opposite. The crucial requirement is not that the child receive maximal impact from some display, but rather that he actively discover within himself a connection to the phenomena he is observing. In this connection --arising from a properly engaged imagination and not from a surfeit of stimulation -- are to be found both the need to understand and the terms of understanding. But the supercomputer animations and strange videos visited upon him by technology preempt the imagination and operate at an abstract remove from the child. Just as he may have few grounds for distinguishing the evening news from the ensuing movie -- and therefore little cause for personally engaging the issues over which the reporters seem so distantly exercised -- so, too, he may find h