Girls Do Science!


Or, Learning Meaningless Utilities

Today, via the local newspaper (Bloomington’s The Herald-Times), comes an illustration of the modern mind “on science.”  My friend Monkeywrench is in my ear…slow down, find some common ground.

It’s not easy, Wrench.

We are given an incomplete presentation (as our apperceptions always are) and asked to believe in it as indicative of a wholeness or right mindedness, asked to believe it is at the very least the right thing to think.

Well, don’t argue before you offer the illustration, man.  Yes, yes, Wrench, right again.

“AP biology class puts research project on plant DNA into South students’ hands” by April Toler

As this is a restricted access site, but also a paper and a story you could read at a coffee shop, or doctor’s office, or on a bus by simply picking it up in the course of your physical ramblings I will offer it here.  I won’t share the pictures as you can see one at least online with a subscription.  But do look because it is a kind of coercion too.

The pictures first: All of young women.  Science and science education specifically aimed at and for girls and young women is a hot topic (or has been and still is).  This story pushes that–here is an Advanced Placement class–these are the smart and ambitious achieving young women.  Our future.  Be sure I’m not arguing against gender equality…just pointing out the focus of the pictures and the story.  Women, biology…women and biology; there must be an irony there somewhere.

Because I think it’s important to interrogate meanings as they come–within the structure of the thing you read, because they are there without our awareness usually, because a story often masks the message conveyed and we can never really say if those messages are intentional–they simply exist within the words and images–I will comment on the text as it was written for the newspaper.

For students learning about science, classes can be less about conducting new research and more about a history lesson of what’s been done before.

I honestly got frustrated immediately here with the idea that students “learn about science.”  This implies that it is a thing, a phenomenon, to examine in and of itself.  In one sense it is–this is called “the history of science” or the “philosophy of science” and it requires knowing how a method and practice evolves over time and it involves knowing so much more about human social organizations than we find available within our education systems.  Science, as a word, simply means “knowledge” and that in itself is an ambiguous idea as humans tend to confound what we “know” with what we believe to be true.  All terms fraught with their own baggage.

Then there is the implicit privileging of “new research” in this sentence.  (Next IU Themester–“Innovation and its discontents.”)  The new is to take precedence over the “old” that is a “history lesson.”  Now I won’t deny that I believe the “hands on” work of practical being is essential for attentive living–that you learn with your hands the ways to DO things that make life, well, livable.  But as we must know, it is our ignorance of the past that drives us to innovate without consideration.

But Bloomington High School South students in Kirstin Milks’ advanced placement biology class recently had the opportunity to take part in real scientific research, seeking answers that couldn’t be found in a biology textbook.

Again, we are given an objectionable perspective that seems to be trying to convince us of something.  (And I thought reporters were “neutral.”)  Toler’s construction, building on the rejection of “history lessons” above, seeks to define “real” research against seeking answers in a textbook.  The denigration of the past and the book is the framework.  I would stress that I am not for seeking “answers” as a kind of “solution.”  I am for encouraging questions.  But I’ll admit, that my first question of any experiment is “why do it,” what is being sought–and why is it being sought?

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. Milks gets us involved with real research instead of just doing a planned out experience where you can find everything online,” said junior Connor Crowley.

Again, “real” is used…but it is begging the question, if all of human knowledge is available online (not in texts?), then “science” is most “real” in seeking “new” knowledge?

As part of the project, students sprouted two sorts of seeds: those that have a specific region of their DNA altered and normal seeds. They then measured those sprouts to see if the mutation in the DNA had an effect on how long a seedling would grow.

The very fact of this precludes a first question of ethics, or instead asserts an ethical position: DNA alteration as acceptable fact; as practice; as approved practice.  How can we manipulate life so as to become perfect?  AP Bio students will soon rule the world the way Monsanto rules seed production.  Do you think this experimentation starts with this discussion: What are the ethics of experimentation?

The students worked in conjunction with Sidney Shaw, assistant professor of biology at Indiana University, who provided the seeds and petri dishes.

Shaw, and Jessica Lucas, a postdoctoral researcher who works in Shaw’s lab, also helped introduce the project to the students and the ideas behind statistical analysis needed for the project.

Milks, who previously worked with Shaw at Stanford University, sought out the IU assistant professor to work with her students.

Neither Milks nor Shaw knew what the experiment’s conclusion would be.

“The one thing I’m most excited about is, this is real research,” Milks said. “A lot of times in teaching we give questions that we know the answer to. This is something that Sid (Shaw) doesn’t know the answer to, although he has his guesses, and I don’t know the answer to.”

Education production line–knowledge production line–systems ladders, serving the next wrung in experimentation.   Again, you see and hear what is “real” is the experiment that seeks to conquer an unknown.  But it is the excitement of fresh experience that is learned as well.  The New and Improved Science Experiment.

The project, she said, not only gives the students more control over their work, but it also allows them to conduct research on a level not usually found in high school. “They are definitely doing work that I could not do when I was an upper-level undergraduate,” Milks said.

As she studied the petri dishes full of sprouts, senior Philippa Tanford said she definitely enjoys the idea of conducting research that is fresh. “These are much more real experiments,” she said. “They’re not just canned things you get out of the book.”

Again, what is not usual in looking at petri dishes full of sprouts?  What is the only “new” thing here?  The altered DNA?  It isn’t clear.  What’s clear is the “freshness” and “reality” of these experiments that are not “in the book.”  Oh, and that South is providing an unusual research advantage.

She admits that being a part of new research also creates a little more work on her part. “I think it does (make it more challenging), but also much more interesting,” she said.

I’m pretty sure “innovation” only really means “for the sake of the new.”  Erasure America.  US of Erasure.  You did see that some other great scientists are working on ways to erase your unwanted memories, right, a la “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (great film, by the way)?

Tanford, who would like to pursue biology after high school, said she learned a lot about the scientific process, including how inconsistent it can be.

Possibly the only truth here–inconsistency.  What is that telling us against all the other assertions?

But being a part of innovative, scientific work also made her feel a little more prepared to pursue science in the future.

Training for petri dish living.  So narrow, these things called humans.

“Since it’s so much more real, it’s actually what real scientists and real graduates are working on, I think it makes me much better prepared for a possible biology major,” she said.

What’s real IS what has been done before and the results of that doing.  Going into “new” research without a very firm grounding in “old” research creates a dangerously ignorant arrogance.

For my own part, I believe we have been racing towards a kind of  “unbecoming.”  I look always for aid in history lessons; I turn to my books.  Our greatest scientists have also been great literary masters as well.  Great readers.  As one of America’s real (did you like that?) founders has said

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know, that, as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge.

This seems an apt description of the kinds of “food” we are offering in our new and improved world–as impoverished in its profounder nutrients, those bearing the composting of millenia, as the current state of our topsoil in Iowa.

And great and heroic men have existed, who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” (“The American Scholar“)

But we would also find that the greatness of mind springs from patience and no other end but to know; perhaps Darwin and Thoreau are our finest examples of this patience.  By marked contrast our “science” has a different end entirely–to make at speed.

To know by patient observation educates a soul; to know as a means is a prompt to unmaking as if the state of our world was only different by degrees from a child’s tinker toys.

Photo Credit: dok1

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