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Avoiding the jargon sea of middle school science

March 22, 2012

Today, I saw the following tweet:

And here’s the question from the 8th grader that the tweet linked to:

Jupiter’s core is supposedly rocky but its composition is pretty much unknown. I’ve found that the size of its rocky core may be 1.5 times the size of Earth but I also found out it has mass of 12 times that of Earth, so it must be extremely dense. It is also wrapped in metallic hadron, hydrogen gasses are compressed by its enormous gravity that it turns into a metallic state. Hadrons are categorized in two categories, Baryons and Mesons. Baryons are composed of 3 quarks, while Mesons are composed of one quark and one anti-quark. A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter, such as protons and neutrons, the most stable quarks known. Corresponding to most kinds of particles, there is an associated antiparticle with the same mass and opposite electric charge. For example, the antiparticle of the electron is the positively charged antielectron, or positron, which is produced naturally in certain types of radioactive decay.  Radioactive Decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles. Antiparticles are produced naturally in beta decay, which is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle (an electron or a positron) is emitted from an atom. Now, what would happen if we took an Anti-baryon, and increased its size by 1.5, and we increased it’s mass greatly, and we put it on an accelerator with a Baryon, but the Baryon was going faster, if we collided them, what speed would the Baryon have to go at to eliminate the mass and size increased Anti-Baryon? What I’m trying to find out is if the Earth was flown off our rotational course around the sun, and we crashed into Jupiter, what force would it take for us to actually survive? Or would we be obliterated on impact?

First, I want to totally congratulate this student for writing this question and showing a tremendous amount of curiosity. I also think it’s fantastic that this student’s teacher decided to share it with the internet to see if anyone could provide additional insight to help guide this student. What an excellent way to show the power of scientific collaboration and communication.

But, I also want to take issue with the nature of the question. As Andy Rundquist said, this question really is a tour of the science jargon dictionary. Take a fact, find the first word you don’t understand, look it up, add that onto the question, and repeat, until you come away with something that sounds scientific, but is really, really, confused. Science isn’t jargon. The best explanations in science don’t overpower you with their arcane vocabulary, they captivate you with their simplicity and beauty.

Feynman said it best—if you know the name of a bird in every language, you really don’t know anything at all about the bird:

Now I often hear questions like this 8th grader’s question above from my students all the time, who all seem to have learned about quarks and strings before they really got any understanding of what an atom is, or how we know atoms exist. I think the internet often seems to make this phenomenon worse, since the Wikipedia entry of just about any common term in science turns into a detail-ridden, jargon-laced dive into arcana very quickly. But I want to be clear, my problem isn’t with the students who ask these questions—I love their curiosity. What I wonder is why can’t we redirect their curiosity to things they can understand, not by reading explanations on the internet that are likely over their head, but by doing a real investigation in the into the world around them. Each bit of trivia in the question above, such as the conclusion that Jupiter may have a rocky core, is the end result of a scientific investigation—a wonderful story that we should be empowering out students to explore. If you want to see this in action, read how Michael Doyle, the poet laureate of science bloggers suggests teaching the story of atoms to middle school students. It isn’t by having them memorize that neutrons and protons are inside the nucleus, atomic mass is the sum of the neutrons and protons, and atomic mass is the number of protons.

I worry that these easy explanations, the kind we pull up on our smart phones to settle debates between friends, or to quickly answer questions posed to by students, devalue these stories of science, and most importantly, they diminish the notion that students can write stories themselves by doing science—not reading about it.

Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Just yesterday, a question surfaced for me I’d never thought of before—”how do we measure the diameter of the Sun?”, thanks to the blog Bad Astronomy. The diameter of the Sun is one of those numbers that’s in the front of most astronomy textbooks, and a little bit of googling takes you to sites like this with all sorts of infographics to help you wrap your head around the answer.

But you never see an explanation of how we made this measurement, and you never see this picture:

A transit of Mercury across the sun, as seen by SOHO, a solar observing and orbiting satellite.

Armed with this photograph, the diameter of Mercury and its orbital speed, any high school student with a tremendous amount patience and persistence could use geometry to calculate the diameter of the sun to be 1,392,684\; \pm\; 65 \textrm{km}, and like any good story in science, answering this question yeilds a host of so many other questions, such as how do we know the diameter of Mercury?

In the age of Wikipedia, can we teach students to appreciate these stories? When you can download stunning images of Saturn from Cassini, how do we show students the joy in the much poorer image they can find for themselves using a backyard telescope?

Scientific jargon paints a false picture of science

My second concern is that I’ve had teachers of elementary and middle school science pass questions like these questions on to me before, with the implicit message that they themselves didn’t understand enough science to answer the question. I think think this is incorrect, and it plays into the false narrative of science as an inscrutable discipline beyond the understanding of normal people. I think this may also contribute to the lack of trust average citizens have for science.

I would love know ideas you may have for how we can subtly redirect students who think science is about knowing the names of all the quarks, or the difference between a baryon and a lepton, and instead, get those students to see see that they can get beyond these surface layer of science, and dig into the story itself. How do we help them to see that the story of story is unfinished, and always looking for more young, curious investigators to add a chapter or two?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. physjunkie permalink
    March 23, 2012 2:40 am

    Part of this issue of getting the students to dig into the story of science seems (to me) to be an issue of not a lack of trust in science, but an over abundance in trust regarding what is given as scientific fact (such as the near infinite pages on each topic on Wikipedia). This wealth of jargon then becomes a shield for the students to use as justification in their reasoning rather than true understanding. Undergrads do this as well. So to combat this, why can’t we give them a reason to seemingly mistrust what they are told should work?
    Give them a situation that doesn’t quite fit the model, much like Meyer’s fan challenge. Now instead of discussing the jargon involved, the student should be faced with the challenge of figuring out what it is that their current model is missing. Given enough opportunity, the students may begin to look for ways to “break” the models shown, which would be a much more valuable skill than memorizing a vocab list.
    However, I’m not sure how reasonable it is to purposefully plant mistrust in the hopes of fostering scientific curiosity.

  2. March 23, 2012 7:38 am

    We always have this problem in the math world as well. Terminology is important, because we have to be speaking explicitly in math, and we want to be understood, but problem-solving is messy, so we use all kinds of absurd words to refer to the concepts we’re holding up. They may sound a little jargony, but at that moment, comprehension and communication is all that’s important.

    Connecting to the vocabulary of the community at large is important, but it’s not a mathematical question. It’s a community/culture question.

  3. March 23, 2012 8:55 am

    I think you miss the point here. Let me start by stating that I am the one who posted the question originally, and my colleague had sent me the student’s question asking how we could, with the power of internet connections, guide this student to a question that is able to be researched/answered. The point of the post on twitter was to do exactly as you propose; find a way to channel this students’ curiosity into something he can actually learn, as this quote from the linked Google Doc indicates; “We are looking for a way to turn the question into something that makes a bit more sense…” so that we can guide the student to understanding…something.

    You seem to think that this student has some sort of problem, that it is bad that he is looking up this kind of information. I totally disagree. The student’s teacher had recognized that the student was curious and, not having resources or time with 30 other not-so-curious students in his classroom, let the student do some investigating of his own. Most 8th graders I know of would rather just play calculator games if they get to a point where they are done with the ‘required’ work in class; this student took initiative, to the credit of the teacher who encouraged him to do so. So what if he came back with a ‘nonsense’ question? HE IS IN 8th GRADE! Let the kid explore, then let’s work together (again, the point of the original post) to guide him to a question he CAN actually investigate.

    You say above that “Armed with this photograph, and the diameter of Venus, any high school student with enough patience could use geometry to calculate the diameter of the sun…” My experience is that “any high school student with enough patience” ends up being only a couple of kids out of hundreds. And that is at the high school level. This is a tough problem. The path is a cord, requiring knowledge of circle geometry. Venus clearly is not at the surface of the sun, so knowing the distance to Venus and from Venus to the sun to set up similar triangles would be necessary. This is not a trivial undertaking. Similarly, PhysJunkie posts above, “Give them a situation that doesn’t quite fit the model, much like Meyer’s fan challenge.” Meyer’s fan challenge had a significant number of people with degrees in physics struggling with how to actually come up with a meaningful answer. We’re talking about 8th graders here. They don’t have the mathematical background to undertake questions like the two suggested. My point is that one of the problems, at that level, is that most (many?) ‘real world’ investigations require math and background knowledge that is far beyond a student at that level. Theoretical investigations, however, when the student is actually motivated by them, are within their capabilities. This student could certainly investigate the Standard Particle Model and learn about Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces without diving into the significant math involved in actually calculating things at that level. Why not encourage that?

    I see no problem whatsoever with this student, his investigation, or how the teacher handled it. We are still in the middle of the process…the next step is to guide the student to a question that does actually make sense. So let’s work together to get to that next step.

    • March 23, 2012 9:51 am

      Thanks for the comment. First, I totally did not mean to offend you, the teacher or the student. I do think this student’s curiosity is commendable, and I think it is excellent to post this question to the internet for help. It’s pretty amazing that within 30 minutes, the google doc got a response from a physics professor, and I would imagine that would be quite a thrill for any 8th grader.

      You are also right that both the fan problem and the transit of Venus are too complicated for all but a few high school students, and certainly not appropriate here. But I don’t think this means there are no questions an 8th grader could tackle. Maybe s/he could conduct a backyard investigation to track the path of Jupiter through a telescope. Or maybe use similar triangles to estimate the size of the moon by obscuring it with his/her little finger.

      As I tried to say in my post, I teach many students like this who come to my class from with who have read or been told all about quarks and subatomic particles, without really being able to make a good argument of why there are atoms. I don’t think this is any teacher’s fault. I think it is actually a symptom of a society that equates science with amassing facts and trivia, rather than seeing science as a process of asking questions and conducting investigations. I also don’t want to sound all curmudgeonly, but I also worry that the real investigations I describe above, like looking through a telescope, are far less sexy than just googling for an image of Jupiter from Hubble, or watching the latest NOVA special on string theory by Brian Greene. I think Hubble and Brian Greene are wonderful, but I wonder how we can use tools like this to inspire students to begin their own investigations, which inevitably are going to be way less flashy, but ultimately more rewarding.

      One thought I just had is as much as the internet is empowering us to be able to look up the answer to almost any question one can imagine, it is also empowering us to share our investigations like never before (that’s why the the internet was invented in the first place). I think of blogs like Rhett Allain’s dotPhysics as an excellent example of this—in a recent post, he put a technological twist on the classic how long do batteries last middle school science experiment. It’s encouraging to me that a Physics professor would take the time to write blog posts like this, and the fact that this particular post, on a subject as mundane as AA batteries, went viral, landing on the front page of Reddit and Hacker News, makes me think that there is a hunger out there for seeing the process of science. Could we get more students keeping records of their own investigations and getting feedback from the larger scientific community? This seems a lot like the capstone idea I’ve been trying to get going, with very modest success, with my own students.

  4. LSquared permalink
    March 23, 2012 12:52 pm

    When I read the student’s question, I read the first bit (found out that the student had been reading a lot about Jupiter and special states of matter and stuff), and then I skipped ahead to the question, and what I was struck by is how many different ways there are to think about that question. What do you mean survive? What do you mean by totally destroyed?

    Digression…My favorite kids show to make fun of is Dragonball, because they twice, in order to pacify a monster about the size of Godzilla, destroy the moon in a way that breaks the moon into several large pieces (no, I don’t know how the moon magically got put back together between series 1 and series 2 so they could destroy it again). Anyway, in Dragonball, you can tell that the moon has been destroyed because instead of having a sphere floating around in the sky, you have several chunks of what was once a sphere.

    So, when you mean survive, do you mean people survive? When you say destroyed, what do you mean by destroyed? How about the surface of the Earth–does it count as the Earth being destroyed if the top mile of crust is blown off? How small do the pieces have to get before it counts as Earth being totally destroyed? What about Jupiter? What sort of a collision would destroy Jupiter, and how would you be able to tell it had been destroyed?

    Maybe the next thing to learn about is impacts–Meteors and craters and stuff.

  5. Dave Driver permalink
    March 23, 2012 1:09 pm

    Thanks all for your thoughtful time and repsonses on this. I am the teacher of the 8th grader. He will be thrilled that his inquiry spawned such online debate. I do not know where your discussion will lead him, but I am certain he will accept the challenge of digging deeper. He quickly traverses vocabulary on his way to thought provoking questions and greater understanding.

  6. March 23, 2012 1:56 pm

    A little more light on the subject. Our next unit is the Solar System. The 8th grader was done with his Weather Final and set off to see whether an object (the earth apparently)could go all the way through gas planets. He came back with 2 things on his mind: the knowledge that Jupiter has a solid core; and the question whether there was a speed at which energy negated mass. He wondered this because in his scenario the earth was destined to collide with Jupiter, and given their relative sizes, could the earth remain intact. His next thought was to wonder if we could duplicate that scenario in one of our accelarator labs. As his teacher I thought, “well, that’s a bit more sophisticated than My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.” Without editing I sent his question on and @rutherfordcasey graciously passed it on to Twitter. The responses will be at the same time encouraging to him (thank you) and condescending (no judgement here, just observation). So to stay in the discussion, let’s agree to focus on amending his science knowledge not his brainstorming or his source for ideas.

    • March 23, 2012 2:33 pm

      Thanks for the background. I don’t at all mean to be condescending. I see questions like this from my students all the time, and try to think about how to purposefully redirect them like you are. But the context gets me thinking. I like the question of “could a solid planet pass through a gas giant?” but it also makes me wonder about what conceptions students have about gases and how this informs their interpretation of the term “gas giant planet”. Does knowing the name “gas giant” implicitly tell our students that these planets are somehow less dense, and less solid than our own earth, and therefor a solid object must be able to pass through them just like a baseball through a fog? This is just a complete guess, but I wonder if the name “gas giant” coupled with the common ideas many students (and adults) have that gases do not have mass, makes it hard to see that all that gas attracts all that other gas, and inside the interior, this attraction creates very large pressures that ultimately cause gases to liquify and solidify, so that the core of the of the planet is probably far more dense than our own planet.

      It reminds me of the excellent video series, Minds of Our Own, where researchers go to the campus of Harvard and MIT, and interview graduates, asking the question “how does this small seed become a log?” Essentially, they’re asking the interviewee to explain what fraction of the tree is composed of all the things that might make up the tree—dirt, air, water, etc. What they find is almost every respondent (even biology majors who can write out the full equation for photosynthesis) says something like the tree is mostly dirt, or water, and completely leave out the idea that any part of the tree is made up of material that was once a gas. But it turns out that Carbon Dioxide makes up the vast majority of the composition of the tree, well more than 95%. After more investigation, the researchers conclude that the key missing ingredient for understanding this is that most of the respondents didn’t fully grasp the idea that gas has mass. And so when they devise a lesson to teach this—getting a child to play with dry ice, and see that solid CO2 is indeed very massive, this misunderstanding goes away.

      Anyway, I don’t have a degree in Astronomy education, but my pure speculation tells me that the common idea that gases do not have mass may mean they don’t understand the real meaning of what a Gas Giant planet is, and in particular, that its density is non uniform. The more interesting question to me is what sort of experiment would help a student to come to this conclusion on his/her own?

      • March 25, 2012 10:39 pm

        Thanks, John.
        I suppose I am trying to protect this student from comments that might discourage him. But then, by my very defense, I, too, am being condescending toward him. When we return from spring break I will walk through these responses with him. Many, many great ideas and suggestions – yours and from others. And yes, I believe you hit the nail on the head, the misconception of a gas planet is that it is all atmosphere with no solid nature to it.

  7. DocMO permalink
    March 23, 2012 11:00 pm

    Wonderful question. This really opens a can of worms.
    (1) It’s Mercury, not Venus.
    (2) How is it that we know more about Mercury than our own sun?
    (3) Can you really use the diameter of Mercury?
    (4) How about the orbital velocity of Mercury?

    I personally tried to make the measurement using GeoGebra. It was easy to find the center of the sun and estimate that the radius of the sun was 0.55*transit length. I was unable to use the tiny dots as a scale factor because they were too small. I tried to use the known orbital velocity of Mercury — but who knew that it varies from 38-58 km/sec?! Amazing.

    There was another annotated image indicating that the transit took about 4.75 hours, but using that the max velocity got me an estimate that was about 20% low so maybe I needed to pay more attention to the geometry of everything (Earth moving, orbits elliptical, …?).

    My conclusion: it’s really hard to do good science, and kids don’t really get any sense of that. It is a source of amazement and wonder to me that even with all of the tools I have and everything I know, I can’t get an estimate closer than 20% off just off the cuff.

    The most unusual thing for me: for some reason I assumed the transit went from right to left, so watching the video (instead of the stills) actually startled me as I saw the transit move right to left!

    • March 23, 2012 11:02 pm

      Doh. I feel so silly. Thanks for catching all those errors. Fixing now.

  8. March 25, 2012 9:15 pm

    Wow. Interesting conversation. I see two questions here:
    1 — how to help this particular student refine their question
    2 — how, in general, we as teachers should think about or respond to patterns of reasoning similar to the one above. Some of the disagreement above may be a result of trying to do both at once.

    The student’s curiosity is commendable, but I am infinitely more impressed that he did not get lost in the definitions. He asked what I think was a clear and relevant question, even though there were (by my count) NINE steps of reasoning between the original premise and the question arising from the premise. That shows a tremendous ability to hold a train of thought and express it without gaps. My students (high school grads) typically max out at three.

    Furthermore, the student is beginning to engage with the physical cause of the ideas — he is mostly describing the ideas but there are several places where he hints at the processes that physically forced them to be the way they are. Asking “what causes that” could yield dozens of questions here.

    Question #1: it seems that the student is asking a few questions.
    a) what happens exactly when a particle and its anti-particle meet? The info he references does not state that they will be destroyed, only that their charges are opposite. A student with basic knowledge of electric charge might conclude that these particles will attract. Where does the idea of destruction come from? If he is imagining them accelerating toward each other because the strength of their attraction is related to (the square of) their separation, it might seem that when they are touching, they will have infinite acceleration. It’s easy to see why someone might imagine that as catastrophic. But what kind of catastrophe? Do they merge? Send quarks flying in all directions?

    b) What is the relationship between size, mass, and speed? If you increase a particle’s size by 1.5, does that increase its mass “greatly”? If so, how much? What does it mean to increase a particle’s size exactly — does it mean spacing the quarks out further from each other? Or does it mean injecting more quarks into the baryon, to make the volume larger? Is that physically possible? What would happen if you did this? Has anyone tried? What is the volume of a quark? Are they solid all the way through? Do things get more massive when they go faster? If so, how much? This could help us find out how much faster the baryon would have to go in order to match the mass of the “inflated” anti-baryon.

    c) What happens when particles crash into each other? Does this happen naturally, or do you need a particle accelaretor to do it?

    d) How much force would it take to split the Earth apart? Meteorites crash into the Earth at high speed but they don’t make it crack apart. Do planets ever crack apart? Do we have evidence of this happening in the past? If so, there should be pieces of broken planet drifting around, in the shape of part of a sphere. Are there? What would happen to the pieces? What would happen to the people? (See the Wikipedia article on Giant Impact Hypothesis for some interesting reading on this subject).

    Question #2 has been one of my major preoccupations since September. The way I am approaching it is to work with students on learning to evaluate reasoning (their own and others’). They often go “down a rabbit hole” like this one but, unlike the student above, they do not come out the other end. They will give a presentation filled with fancy words that they do not understand, even though they can read off definitions (which they also do not understand). I have tried various approaches, such as pressing for clarity (“what does the author mean by metallic exactly?”), asking for implications (the student has done this when he concludes that Jupiter must be denser than Earth), asking them to summarize in their own words, or using Cris Tovani’s “pencil test” (underline each word — in pen if you can explain it to the class, in pencil if you can’t). Each approach is designed to get the students to notice whether they do or do not understand what they are saying. Sometimes it helps, other times not. My goal is for them to get in the habit of noticing whether they are making sense of the information they are gathering. I am failing at this, mostly because I’m having a hard time defining “making sense”.

    • March 25, 2012 11:08 pm

      Thanks, Mylene,
      I will use many of your questions to keep him challenged at a level more geared to his abilities. He’ll have time in that gap between when he gets basic Earth Science and when his classmate do.

  9. March 26, 2012 2:54 pm

    That is NOT a ‘normal’ question (no matter how flawed) from an 8th grader, and therefore we are not dealing with a ‘normal’ 8th grade student. *Mainstream* middle and high school science education (or indeed ANY education in a specific discipline) is not about nurturing that kind of curiosity, it’s about providing a solid basis of factual information and scientific habit that can LEAD that kind of curiosity toward more ‘sensible’, pragmatic questions. If mainstream high school science education starts to focus on the type of kid that asks that kind of question and their thought process, then the overwhelming majority of the population will be leaving high school with fanciful, ‘mad scientist’ ideas about chemistry, physics and biology, and will have absolutely no foundation on which to do any meaningful (curiosity filled, groundbreaking) work in the future.

    You have to walk before you can run, and you have to know some chemistry before you can solve the world energy crisis. It’s not a random process of clever inspiration and visionary ideas that solves science problems, it’s a systematic process based on hard facts that need to be LEARNED at the beginning. I know that upsets people that subscribe to the the ‘Bill Gates’ model of entrepreneurial genius, but for every one of him there’s millions of others plodding along, solving problems in a VERY boring way, based upon a load of ‘facts they learned in high school’.

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