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Minds of Our Own
January 8, 2006 10:25 AM   Subscribe

"Why is it that students can graduate from MIT and Harvard, yet not know how to solve a simple third-grade problem in science: lighting a light bulb with a battery and wire?" "Minds of Our Own shows that many of the things we assume about how children learn are simply not true." Three one hour streaming video programs on teaching science. (low hassle reg. required, or try login:metafilter@mailinator.com, password:metafilter)
posted by Chuckles (39 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
The first program is brilliant! If you can spare an hour don't miss it. I was going to try to craft something larger on the topic, but seeing that this is a slow Sunday hereabouts I think I'll offer it up.

Previously on MetaFilter:
How science should be taught in school has come up before, of course. Less than I would have thought actually... The programs might cast How not to clean a tank car in a new light. Sadly the links in Americans score low on science savvy have expired.

Finally, another positively brilliant program if you can find, BBC Horizon's interview with Richard Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. The link refers to it as "a vivid and entertaining insight into the mind of a great scientist at work and play.", but I think it is much more interesting when viewed in the context of teaching science. The torrent should be pretty common.

Ooops, forgot the <more inside>
posted by Chuckles at 10:25 AM on January 8, 2006


I remember the day I realized that trees were made of air.
posted by kuatto at 10:37 AM on January 8, 2006


"Why is it that students can graduate from MIT and Harvard, yet not know how to solve a simple third-grade problem in science: lighting a light bulb with a battery and wire?"

As an MIT alumnus, may I answer this one? The answer is because the location of the contact points on a light bulb are not obvious to someone who does not install lighting systems on a regular basis and are most unlike the contact points on just about any other electrical device.

What the producers of the program are trying to express is that science is non-intuitive and it is hard to understand why simple phenomena work the way they do (e.g., why do heavy objects fall at the same rate as light objects?). However, lighting a light-bulb with a battery and a wire is one of those things that only tests one's familiarity with commercial batteries and light-bulbs.
posted by deanc at 10:41 AM on January 8, 2006


I don't agree with you deanc.

Although I can agree that a lightbulb's wiring is somewhat counterintuitive, it should become plainly obvious to anyone with a simple working knowledge of electricity that sticking two wires on the same peice of metal won't create the circuit. Lightbulbs are similar to most other electrical devices in that their positive and negative contact points are seperate.
posted by twjordan at 10:48 AM on January 8, 2006


Deanc, it has nothing to do with where the contacts are at all...

Turns out the battery and wire thing is a trick question -- they're giving students a regular 120V light bulb and a D cell, but the question they ask is "can you light a light bulb with a battery and a wire" (i.e. they don't seem specify what kind of light bulb or battery in the question). I would have said yes too before I saw the battery and bulb.

On the other hand, after they hand you the 120V bulb, Ohm's law tells you why it shouldn't light up: assume it's a 60W bulb, then at 120V, you're getting 0.5 Amps of current through a 240 Ohm resistor (basically). Now at 1.5V, your 240 Ohm resistor is letting 1/160 Amp of current through, which is barely enough to tickle the filament.

Some of the other questions are less tricky, like asking middle schoolers if you can see in a totally dark room (answer: no), and asking recent grads whether you would move closer or further away from a mirror to make yourself appear smaller in it (answer: you are always the same size in a plane mirror no matter how close or far from it you go).

But I still get a "tricky" feel overall. I hate the we're-all-dumber-than-we-thought types of science writing/journalism that pop up every once in a while.
posted by ubermuffin at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2006


This sounds really interesting. I haven't figured out how to find the client that finds bit torrent files, however (although I know how to make a flashlight work, although I didn't go to MIT or Harvard...)
posted by ParisParamus at 10:54 AM on January 8, 2006


ok. found the client. download, anyone?
posted by ParisParamus at 11:00 AM on January 8, 2006


Re. light bulbs, given that you know how electricity works, you should be able to figure out how to wire any bulb and any battery, regardless of what they look like. The question was not an example of recalling and reproducing a specific piece of knowledge, but of applying general principles to a new situation. (It's not just the light bulbs - asked where plants get the materials to grow, they answered 'dirt,' for example.) The programs are not so much about the lack of specific pieces of scientific knowledge, but a general lack of scientific thinking. Your family can buy you all the tuition they want, and put you through school, and you jump through all the hoops, but this doesn't necessarily make you smart at the end of it.

ParisParamus - FYI - learning.org also have this as a free dvd. I picked up a copy at a science teachers' convention; maybe they will mail them out too.
posted by carter at 11:01 AM on January 8, 2006


agree with twjordan. is the author saying that said graduates couldn't mechanically do it, or that they actually had no intuitive understanding that it is even possible to light a bulb with a battery and wire?
posted by quonsar at 11:01 AM on January 8, 2006


What if the information age doesn't really make us smarter? Edge 2006 answer by David Gerlenter...
posted by zpousman at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2006


When did it become popular to hate on MIT? A few years ago I guess the unthinking adoration peaked, and now we're in the backlash phase...
posted by phrontist at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2006


quonsar - I take it all back what I said before -- those light bulbs the MIT kids were using were small enough -- most of them just didn't understand how to make a circuit with the bulb, battery and wire. Looking closely, it seemed like a few of them were just trying to string the wire from the battery pole to the light with no completed circuit.
posted by ubermuffin at 11:08 AM on January 8, 2006


I have a feeling the kids at the Sudbury Valley School would've figured it out, no problem.
posted by ori at 11:23 AM on January 8, 2006


Were these the MIT French majors? Seems kind of shocking that someone who goes into a science didn't play around with a flashlight, batteries, electric train, SOMETHING! as a kid...

Maybe my acceptance letter to MIT was lost in the mail? Nah...
posted by ParisParamus at 11:25 AM on January 8, 2006


agree with twjordan. is the author saying that said graduates couldn't mechanically do it, or that they actually had no intuitive understanding that it is even possible to light a bulb with a battery and wire?

There's practical and then there's understanding science. I know some (and there are tons of famous examples) of brilliant theoretical physicists who couldnt string a wire together.
posted by vacapinta at 11:31 AM on January 8, 2006


Deanc: "The answer is because the location of the contact points on a light bulb are not obvious to someone who does not install lighting systems on a regular basis and are most unlike the contact points on just about any other electrical device."

Bayonet or screw-in lightbulb? Pretty obvious on a bayonet bulb: like the contact points on a 9v battery. And pretty obvious on a screw-in too, for anyone who's ever taken a torch (US: zucchini) apart. Do kids not do that any more?

Neon tubes, now there we're in a whole other area, but that's mostly because everyone knows neon tubes work by magic.
posted by Hogshead at 11:34 AM on January 8, 2006


Yep, vacapinta and deanc have it (I'm an MIT alum as well and my one foray into the electrical engineering lab resulted in an op-amp that had less gain than a wire.) There are lots of different ways to understand science. Some scientists like to tinker; others like to solve math problems and then come up with reasons why they're (tenuously) related to something practical.
posted by transona5 at 11:37 AM on January 8, 2006


The programs are not so much about the lack of specific pieces of scientific knowledge, but a general lack of scientific thinking.

My point was that this is a valid issue, but that the light bulb question is more a question of reproducing a specific piece of knowledge rather than a question of applying principles.

There are three ways to present a problem, so that we could break it into its component parts:

(A) Present someone with a light bulb with wires soldered onto the contact points and a battery. Say "light the bulb." Almost everyone would, hopefully, get this right.

(B) Present someone with two wires, a bulb, and a battery. If they don't know where the contact points are on a bulb, they won't get it.

(C) The problem presented in the program, which requires the student to use the wire to connect the battery to the contact point on a bulb and rest the other contact point of the bulb on the other end of the battery.

There's going to be a group that would fail B and C because they have little or no direct experience wiring light bulbs. I suspect that group is larger than the group that simply didn't remember that completing a circuit does not require wires, simply a conductive connection.

(aside, when I was at MIT, there were 3 different types of required physics classes available, and the one that most people take doesn't require people to wire things up when the students study the principles of elecromagnetism. Caltech, by contrast, required all students to do such basic experimentation for their intro physics classes)

Heck, I know computer science theorists that don't know how to upgrade the memory on their computers, but if you asked them to walk step by step through relativity or the principles of gravity, they would reflect the scientific thinking/mindset that we would expect such a person to have.

That said, I like the plant growth question a lot better. Even if you have no idea about photosynthesis, you should be able to intuitively step through the process of what plants require.
posted by deanc at 11:37 AM on January 8, 2006


I have a feeling the kids at the Sudbury Valley School would've figured it out, no problem.

Yeah, at their own pace, if they felt like it.

I'm surprised that someone going into engineering would never have played with the simplest, safest, most common electrical components you'll find in a home: bulbs and batteries. I could have solved this before I was a little kid because I experimented with batteries and bulbs (and household current and circuit breakers and explaining why the lights all went off).

Is there any way to download these videos?
posted by pracowity at 11:49 AM on January 8, 2006


I saw parts of this on WNYE last year. It was absolutely fantastic.

One of the parts that I found most illuminating was when they were discussing the children's understandings of how vision and light worked. Many of the children believed that the light rays emanated from their eyes because they had seen cats' and dogs' shine in the dark. After the science was explained to them, they were asked if they would be able to see an apple in a perfectly dark room, and almost all said that they would, after enough time. But the funny thing was, after they personally performed the experiment, and found that they couldn't see the apple no matter how long they sat in the dark, they still maintained that if they had just waited longer, eventually they'd have been able to see it.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by cytherea at 11:51 AM on January 8, 2006


(In other words, you'd expect people to stick with a poor model of the world even after being exposed to a different or better model, but they persisted in clinging to their model even in the face of direct, experienced evidence that it was not true.)
posted by cytherea at 11:57 AM on January 8, 2006


zpousman, 'What if the information age doesn't really make us smarter?' links to http://www.metafilter.com/ - is that a mistake, or a pointed statement? ;)
posted by Drexen at 12:17 PM on January 8, 2006


US: zucchini

US: flashlight
a zucchini is a sex toy.
posted by quonsar at 12:23 PM on January 8, 2006


vacapinta, you certainly have a point. This series is too set on the experimentalist side and they wouldn't ever be able to cover the kind of material required from a degree program in science or engineering. On the other hand, at every academic level, we miss the importance of falling back on the guts of science, which is trying it out to see what happens!

carter: Your family can buy you all the tuition they want, and put you through school, and you jump through all the hoops, but this doesn't necessarily make you smart at the end of it.

I think words like smart and intelligence load the topic with baggage that isn't helpful...

phrontist: When did it become popular to hate on MIT? A few years ago I guess the unthinking adoration peaked, and now we're in the backlash phase...

This program is from 1997. For me it was Electrical Engineering at the University of Toronto that was astonishing in this way. One day I was in conversation with a couple of 4th year students about a pot. They said they hadn't heard the term, so I suggested the alternate term, variable resistor. They had heard of that, but they had trouble understanding how it related to the problem we were trying to solve - measuring rotation about an axle... I could go on and on about this encounter, they were perfectly intelligent people, and they had reasonably good marks.

Later, while TAing, I can remember spending time pointing out to students that they did in fact have the tools to understand why a certain simulation program's results looked non-physical. They would look at the result and through up their hands in exasperation...

deanc & ubermuffin, what I found interesting about the program has nothing to do with trickiness aspect - certainly the mirror question seems tricky to me, being an electrical engineer the wire-bulb question is too trivial to be tricky...

What impressed me is the way the children would latch on to an idea (we could call it belief, but that has its own baggage) based on the information they were given in class. Even though they could reason fairly well, they would stall when they realized that their reasoning was in conflict with the idea that they had interpolated from the lesson. Many believed that the bulb holder was an integral part of getting the bulb to light up, for example. Once they reached that kind of impasse they didn't have a strong instinct to get down to experimenting to see what would actually work.
posted by Chuckles at 12:25 PM on January 8, 2006


Sorry about the compatibility issues, by the way... I actually watched it when it was on WNED recently. You might try searching the schedule of your local PBS affiliate.
posted by Chuckles at 12:37 PM on January 8, 2006


"Why is it that students can graduate from MIT and Harvard, yet not know how to solve a simple third-grade problem in science: lighting a light bulb with a battery and wire?"

I don't think gaining admission to/graduating from colleges like Harvard and MIT requires you to be much smarter than the average person. It's got more to do with being ambitious and driven to the point of obsession.
posted by MarkC at 12:37 PM on January 8, 2006


No, it has to do with having parents who pushed you, and taught you how to study and learn. Because, G-d knows, most teachers don't do that.
posted by ParisParamus at 12:40 PM on January 8, 2006


deanc: Present someone with two wires, a bulb, and a battery. If they don't know where the contact points are on a bulb, they won't get it.

I understand your argument deanc, but I don't buy it. You have two wires, and the bulb has only two distinct patches of metal. It doesn't take much of a leap of intuition to figure it out.

That said, I think the lesson isn't that our education system is failing, but that different people learn in different ways. The grads in the video may not be much help when I'm trying to fix my car, but then again, I'll never have the patience of mind to solve a wave equation either.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:45 PM on January 8, 2006


I think words like smart and intelligence load the topic with baggage that isn't helpful

Apologies - maybe 'educated' or 'trained' would be more diplomatic terms - but at the same time a good education has a central role in bringing out talent and smartness and skill, in whatever person, in whatever field, whether you want to be a writer, an engineer, or a surgeon; and if it doesn't do this, then I think it has failed the students.
posted by carter at 1:05 PM on January 8, 2006


On the other hand, after they hand you the 120V bulb, Ohm's law tells you why it shouldn't light up: assume it's a 60W bulb, then at 120V, you're getting 0.5 Amps of current through a 240 Ohm resistor (basically). Now at 1.5V, your 240 Ohm resistor is letting 1/160 Amp of current through, which is barely enough to tickle the filament.

that was really quite shocking to watch and understandably there's an amazingly strong sense of disbelief being exhibited in this thread. they were simply asked to construct a very basic circuit.

even a hardcore theoretician knows what a circuit is. one made a good attempt by putting the base of the bulb onto the battery's positive anode and bent the wire back from the base of the battery to make contact with the bulbs outer metallic sleeve.

the others if you notice, held the bulb in one hand, the battery in the other and the wire going between the two. they won't even halfway close to constructing a circuit. a real theoretician would have explained what should have happened (in principle) instead of the cluelessly lame attempt followed by grins of embarrassment at the conclusion of the test.

the mortar board dummies were shown to be incurious. it's a mirror of reality. you can be totally incurious and get a degree.
posted by rodney stewart at 1:09 PM on January 8, 2006


In The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker posits that we may have some basic misunderstandings of the physical universe that got hardwired into us during our evolutionary development, stuff that "makes sense" to anyone who has no clue about atoms and gravity and germ theory... like your average elementary student. This might explain the inability of students to get over the idea that they could see in the dark, as well as other science howlers that the press seems to turn up with regularity.

That said, I think we in elementary education need to revamp the way we get children to learn these things.
posted by ancientgower at 2:19 PM on January 8, 2006


I just finished reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which everyone should read), and I'm going to have to agree with Kuhn in regards to this: Scientists doing normal every day science don't need to know general scientific knowledge, or understand why things work outside of their specialty. The science educational system encouarages learning a small subfield and filling in the experimental and theoretical gaps there, and ignoring the rest of reality. Thus, this is totally expected.

The book makes me glad I didn't go into academia :)
posted by JZig at 3:08 PM on January 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


When did it become popular to hate on MIT? A few years ago I guess the unthinking adoration peaked, and now we're in the backlash phase...

It was after the CalTech and Stanford acquisitions. A lot of people were laid off, and now they're talking to the media.

Seriously, it would be interesting to conduct this experiment with different groups -- such as students in India.
posted by dhartung at 3:22 PM on January 8, 2006


As an MIT alumnus, may I answer this one? The answer is because the location of the contact points on a light bulb are not obvious to someone who does not install lighting systems on a regular basis and are most unlike the contact points on just about any other electrical device.
Oh good grief, that has got to be the lamest excuse I've ever heard. Light bulbs are generally comprised of two materials: glass, which any third-grader would know is non-conductive, and metal, which any third-grader would know is conductive. Thus, a simple examination of the bulb will quickly reveal that there are two distinct metal parts, which are clearly isolated from each other by a band of non-conductive materal. A simple experiment will then reveal that supplying electrons to one of the metal sections, and draining electrons from the other results in the bulb lighting (or blowing, if the voltage is too high.) If you can't figure this out on your own, then you are well and truly stupid.

So ... how many MIT grads does it take to screw in a light bulb?
posted by nlindstrom at 3:46 PM on January 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is an awesome post. Thanks!
posted by knave at 4:27 PM on January 8, 2006


A simple experiment will then reveal that supplying electrons to one of the metal sections, and draining electrons from the other results in the bulb lighting (or blowing, if the voltage is too high.) If you can't figure this out on your own, then you are well and truly stupid.

Having spent the last few months going to job interviews with a bunch of finance companies, I can tell you there's quite a difference between putting you in a room with the appropriate materials, shutting the door, and letting you figure out a problem versus shoving a microphone (or interviewer) in your face and asking you to come up with the answer on the spot. In the latter case, you either know how a light bulb works, or you don't, and unless you've manually wired a screw-in light bulb yourself, before, you won't know.

So ... how many MIT grads does it take to screw in a light bulb?

According to my sources, five - one to design a nuclear powered one that never needs changing, one to figure out how to power the rest of Boston using that lightbulb, two to install it, and one to write the computer code that controls the wall switch.

More to the point, I have to echo ancientgower's post-- we have a few intuitive ideas about how the world should work that don't actually reflect the laws of the universe, and the point of scientific thinking is to train people to overcome their "common sense" and puzzle through a problem step-by-step to get to the right answer.
posted by deanc at 7:40 PM on January 8, 2006


pracowity: I could have solved this before I was a little kid because I experimented with batteries and bulbs
Uh... you mean you could have solved this in vitro?! You, sir, are a freakin' genius!

I'm with deanc, but with reservations. I am not a college graduate with a fancy degree or book larnin', but I know some people from MIT, and the ones I know are smart as all get out. They also happened to be on my Puzzle Hunt team (the Microsoft version of a similar puzzle challenge, and an offline, more involved version of "Puzzle Boat"), and if anything will test your cleverness and adaptability and applying principles and intuition and etc, etc, etc, it's a few years of Puzzle Hunt.

I used to work at Microsoft in a technical role, and I met some people there who were brilliantly clever, and some people there who were dumb. Like rocks are dumb. These are the people I call the "first thought" problem solvers: the people who, if you give them a problem to solve, they'd stumble about and the very first way they had that might solve the problem- that's the way they went. They just shut their brains off if they found a seemingly intractable problem, or a problem where their first solution was a higher tech equivalent to duct tape and baling wire. It was good enough, they stopped, and seemed peeved if you suggested that maybe a more elegant, beautiful solution could be devised with a little more effort. It isn't related to mathematical or engineering fields: you see it in all walks of life, people who don't even try, they see a problem and instantly their brain lumps it as "don't bother" or "not solveable" and give up, or give a half-assed effort.

I contrast this attitude, which is not correlated to education, degree, or socio-economic status, to that style of thinking that led to my unofficial title was among my co-workers: "Elegance Engineer". :) I believed that you solve a problem at its roots, by really comprehending the larger state of the problem, so that your actual solution is one that is flexible, extensible, and adaptable. Some people seem to very much be about solving a problem at its roots. You give them a puzzle, they solve it perhaps through a little brute force... but then, unprodded, they continue 'solving' a solved puzzle by trying to find the "generalized" solution that would allow them to solve this and similar puzzles quicker.

Oh- and yeah, the "first thought" group seem to be legion over at MS, especially in the untechnical PM/managerial core, so that probably accounts for a lot of their product development and online services at this point. Truly clever, smart people have no reason to work at MS at this point- you'd be a fool to do so, when better, higher paying, more rewarding jobs exist out there.
posted by hincandenza at 3:04 AM on January 9, 2006


This reminds me of my days at UofM where I attended, for a short while, their music school. Mind you, UofM has a fairly prestigious music school, with a full orchestra and suchlike...

I was taking a mid level "Composition" class. Basically it's a class where your are instructed to compose some music given certain criteria and you are judged on how well you meet those criteria and also, on whether or not your music sucked. The same class was available for first and second year students as a "200" level class and as a "400" level class for those in their last year. Despite being a 200 level class, it was still the FIRST composition class you could take.

In a room of about 20 people, all of whom were planning on being professional musician, only 3 had ever written a piece of music before. NONE of the 4th year students had ever written music before. How does one attend a music school for 4 years without writing a single piece of music?

I'm guessing the reasons are similiar to why an MIT graduate would fail at completing a lightbulb circuit.
posted by jaded at 6:15 AM on January 9, 2006


As an educator, I loved this post (and for some reason I did not have to log in; perhaps there is an institutional subscription here at work). The mirror question bothered me so much I had to stop the video to prove the answer given was really correct. I thought the lightbulb question was actually harder than third grade level, as in the third grade you usually have a socket for the bulb, a switch, more than one wire, and so forth. Still, I was surprised that college graduates struggled so much. The seeing in the dark question was interesting to me because at a fairly young age I went on a tour of Mammoth Cave where the guide turned off all the lights deep in the cave to demonstrate total darkess.

I think this all demonstrates that people's views of the world and how it works are molded to shape their mental models of the world. Most people are extremely reluctant to give up these models; this can be seen on any number of levels. The truly educated/wise person understands this:
"True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us."
-- Socrates
posted by TedW at 6:44 AM on January 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


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