Friday, August 29, 2014

Why the Questions are More Important Than the Answers

I haven't posted anything in a long time, but it isn't for lack of material. There is so much going on in the world right now, from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO to the ongoing wars in Syria and the Gaza Strip and Ukraine to the CDC whistleblower coming out to say that statistically significant data sets were withheld from studies on the MMR vaccine over a decade ago.  I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and saddened by the ongoing polarization I see every single day. That said, the fact is, I am guilty of adding fuel to the fire from time to time.

A very close friend of mine helped me realize that yesterday.  I had posted a video on Facebook related to the CDC whistleblower case and remarked that the notion that a group of government scientists purposely omitting an entire set of data from a study was something I found horrifying.  This friend of mine, whom I've known since we were 15, commented that she didn't believe a word of it and went one step further to post a pretty snarky essay written by someone who not only doesn't believe it, but resorted (in the first sentence of his piece) to name-calling and went on to write sarcastically and with true nastiness about "those people" who put any stock in this story.While my friend and I ultimately had a very civil (very public) discourse about the issue, I was prompted to recognize that the video I posted was incendiary and I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I could have done it differently throughout the rest of the day.

On a very related topic, there was a study published in the New York Times that made its way around Facebook yesterday stating that most people are not willing to post controversial things online for fear of creating debates that might turn ugly. My concern is not that people won't post those things, but that when they do, they are fully unprepared to have a respectful exchange of ideas with regard to them and it quickly devolves into hateful rhetoric where there are more answers than questions.

When I meet people in my daily life who are utterly convinced of their own positions on everything, I am prompted to steer clear. Anyone who says to me that they know that something is absolutely true is someone who hasn't asked enough questions. Anyone who is willing to disregard any new theory that might raise an area for further study because they think we know enough isn't someone I need to talk to. I am most often amazed by folks with very little scientific background or training beyond high school biology or chemistry classes who are steadfast in their determination that some ultimate truth has been proven somewhere and everyone who disagrees ought to just be quiet now.  I am wary of folks who assume that deeper inquiries are a personal challenge or that they are altogether unnecessary.

The video I posted was designed to be incendiary and attention-grabbing and even, perhaps, fear-mongering and that is something that I have spoken out against many times in the past. I can see how my posting it would seem to be an endorsement of these tactics and, for that, I apologize.  But I will never apologize for continuing to be inquisitive, for keeping an open mind and struggling to understand why any scientist worth his or her salt would choose to avoid asking or answering certain questions. I will never apologize for believing that corporate interests ought to be kept as far from scientific discovery and testing as possible for fear that they will create undue influence. And I will never apologize for supporting others who are simply asking that their questions and hunches and parenting instincts be taken into consideration by those who could potentially make a difference. We can be stronger and smarter together forever, but only if we start listening with the express goal of understanding each other instead of simply waiting our turn to spout our own position. If you can't be bothered to read an entire article or essay (or watch the whole video) without assuming you know what I'm trying to say and responding with dismissive, sarcastic, snarky comments or name-calling, then you don't deserve to be part of the conversation and you probably don't want to, anyway. I suspect you're just angling to be "right" about something and I'm not interested.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What's Missing in the Push for STEM Education?

Trends in education come and go, like anything else. Letter grades, number grades, no grades, "old" math, "new" math, multi-age classrooms, inclusive classrooms, AP classrooms. It's hard to keep up, but one trend that has been around for my girls' generation is the STEM focused curriculum and while I understand it, it does give me some pause.  Mostly because I think that doing anything in a vacuum, for the sake of doing it or jumping on that moving train is not necessarily a good idea.  It seems that the United States has fully embraced the notion that we can all live better lives if we pursue jobs in math or engineering or science fields. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid that tells us that technology is the saviour of the future and those individuals who understand it and shape it will be kings and queens.

Within this push for STEM education, there is a mini-movement that is focused on girls. It is true that women are very poorly represented in the fields that rely heavily on STEM education. These also tend to be the jobs that offer more flexibility and opportunity and higher pay.  And while I am absolutely not opposed to the emphasis on STEM (or, as they put it at Lola's school, STEAM with an A for the arts), I hope that these students are also learning just as much about the application of this knowledge and the ethics involved as they are about how to build a better robot.  I hope that they aren't being seduced by the possibilities of this knowledge without considering the ramifications of it. When Albert Einstein helped spur the development of the atomic bomb, he had some inkling of what he might be unleashing, but it wasn't until many years later that he said, "I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan."  He defended his involvement by noting that the research was available and, if it hadn't been built and used by the United States, he was certain that the Nazis would have developed the technology, but this is precisely what I think of when I imagine legions of scientifically-literate students graduating from American high schools without any sort of ethical framework for the work they are suddenly capable of doing.

One of the phrases I use with Lola and Eve that drives them batty goes like this, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." I hope that I haven't said it so many times that they tune it out, but just often enough that it echoes in their heads from time to time and encourages them to ask, "Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I making this decision now? What will come of it?"  I honestly believe that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves, and often the most difficult to answer.  I think that as a culture we could save boatloads of money and time and effort if we stopped to inquire about why we choose to do certain things in particular ways.  Technology and science, engineering and math have certainly changed our lives for the better in multitudes of ways, but there are also egregious examples of STEM-gone-wrong, used for exploitation or corporate financial gain, and turning out an entire generation of students who blindly believe that STEM is the way to job security and financial success without any ability to question their own motives or morality is a frightening prospect.

I remember taking a bioethics course in college and wondering why it wasn't required for pre-med students (I was pre-med, but I took it as credit toward my bachelor's degree in philosophy, not biology). I was lucky enough to sit on the ethics committee at a local hospital for one term and see how large institutions debate questions of morality when it comes to research and equity for all patients and I was shocked at how many physicians never bothered to ask those questions in their daily practice unless it was required for some study or potential lawsuit. They were content to let the "experts" in ethics decide for them and dictate what they ought to do.  I am not condemning them for that. They were likely never taught to ask those kinds of questions or how to think about them.  They were taught to look critically at things that had "right" and "wrong" answers, how to perform tests to determine which was which, and move forward. If we don't find ways to give our children a language of ethics, a way to talk about the choices we make and understand the effect those choices have on others, we are sorely mistaken.  If we don't attempt to focus on the application and consequences of our scientific discoveries, have honest conversations about the reasons for engaging in the work we're doing (beyond making money or 'to see if we can,') we are missing a vital piece of educating our kids.  I am much more interested in my children becoming thoughtful citizens of a community who can envision and work toward some common goal than I am in seeing them get advanced degrees in STEM fields and go on to create the next genetically-modified food product that could wreak havoc on our ecosystems beyond anything we can imagine. And while I do think that some of the responsibility for teaching that lies with parents, to have our educational system acknowledge the necessity and importance of it is vital. I'm not advocating for schools to provide any sort of absolute ethical framework (although some religious schools do that). Rather, I think they would do better to teach students to ask "why" at each important juncture, to flex that ethical muscle, to keep them examining the reasons and ramifications of their actions when it comes to all of their learning.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Paying it Forward

One of the things I love best about the middle school my girls attend is their focus on service and community. They are encouraged to find something they are passionate about, big or small, and use that energy to connect with others and make a difference in the world.

Three years ago, Eve partnered with a friend of hers who started an organization focused on kids with serious illnesses who were spending large chunks of time in the hospital or places like the Ronald McDonald House.  The group is called That Lucky Bracelet and the girls put together customized "Smile Packages" for sick kids. It has been a terrific thing for Eve to be part of and the girls have a lot of fun making gifts for kids based on the things each one tells them they love. The weekend before Easter, we hosted a gathering of four of the girls in our backyard and they spent hours stuffing and decorating hundreds of plastic Easter eggs with candy and bracelets and stickers and bouncy balls that they would drop off at our local Children's Hospital and Ronald McDonald House for the kids and their families.  If you know of someone who would love to get a smile package from these bright, determined girls, hit their website and fill out a questionnaire. Some of the kids who have received packages continue to communicate with the founder for a long time after getting their initial package and it has been a really rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Three weeks ago, Lola was thinking about school supplies, not because she is anxious to go back to school, but because we were talking about the homeless shelter we worked in last Spring. One of the things the girls did while they were there was to volunteer in the childcare room and watch the toddlers while their moms took parenting classes or ESL classes or went to job interviews.  Ever since then, Lola has been talking about those kids and thinking about what it must be like to be homeless as a young child.  She asked me, "How do those kids get school supplies if they can't afford food?" and I replied that I figured it was probably pretty hard.  That they probably had to look through the donated items to find what they needed.  An idea was born. She got together with her best friend to create Education Belongs 2 Everybody, a place where folks can go and donate money to help these kids buy school supplies.  We started thinking, and between backpacks and calculators and binders and all of the other things that kids really need to get for school, the cost can run into the hundreds of dollars easily. And what a great feeling it would be for these kids to get to go to the store and choose their own lunchbox or folders based on the things they love!  If you're so inclined, go check out their website and donate a few dollars through PayPal. Each and every penny donated will go to the shelter we have worked with in the past so that these kids can be better equipped to start their school year off right.

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