How often do we hear of the importance of STEM education today? Given the ubiquitous presence of modern technologies and the achievements of contemporary science, we are literally immersed in a world of STEM-related accomplishments. From GPS-guided travel to microsurgical procedures to web-based commerce, the panoply of modern wonders surrounds us at every turn. How can we keep pace with the lightning speed of scientific and technical changes that surround us?
And, how can we possibly teach the next generation to understand the scope and structure of the Scientific Project, such an astonishing repository of inherited knowledge? First, we must define and outline the project, thus providing a framework for understanding. Science constitutes a vast network of ideas, experiments, tools, methods, and purposes handed down by a great assembly of philosophers and scientists—from Aristotle to Francis Collins, from Albertus Magnus to Madame Curie. That legacy includes countless experimental thoughts, observations, and happy accidents that together form an ever-expanding tree of knowledge that informs and shapes the human imagination. To see that tree continue to grow and flourish, we must teach the various branches of science in all of their empirical brilliance—in ways that inspire the young to continue the experimental enterprise.
In this issue of VIRTUE, we will highlight several features of a classical education that relate to teaching and promoting the modern sciences.
Beginning with Professor Jon Fennell, an educational philosopher, we will explore the work of the eminent twentieth-century scientist, Michael Polanyi. As Fennell explains, Polanyi helped delineate the work of genuine scientists, who incorporate a host of beliefs essential to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Like any other area of study, science involves epistemological faith in the ideas, the processes, the persons, and the tradition into which a scientist is initiated. As Fennell explains, Polanyi helps us to more clearly see the sciences as a distinctly human endeavor.
This issue also includes an interview with classical school alumnus Carlos Trevino, who studied engineering at MIT, interned with NASA and Amazon, and then took a job with one of the world’s leading e-commerce companies, Stripe. Trevino believes that his classical education provided him with “the tools and the motivation to look more deeply at the [scientific] problems … to understand the human problems behind the technical ones.”
We are also fortunate to have John Mays, a veteran teacher and retired engineer, who explores the “mastery learning” approach in science classrooms. Mays explains why mastery learning is ideally suited for the classical school: namely, its emphasis on “study via practice,” which includes careful articulation of mental models (e.g., “reciting, quoting Newton’s laws of motion”) and regular, systematic practice. Using new knowledge to solve problems, both old and new, ensures that students are genuinely learning, and, as Mays reports, “the effect is phenomenal!”
From a science classroom at Cicero Preparatory Academy, master teacher Dominic Martel provides us with a first-hand glimpse of the drama of scientific discovery and the beauty of thoughtful inferences, drawn from Socratic conversations surrounding observable truths. For Martel, the marvelous complexity of the physical cosmos prompts a deeply human impulse: “science is aimed at beauty.”
We also have some recommended resources for your review and reflection: three online sources for possible classroom supplements in physics, astronomy, and life science (ornithology, to be precise); and two original poems from a former classical schoolteacher and practicing poet, J.C. Scharl.
Our children’s capacity to understand the scientific method, the “grammar” of microprocessors, the physical laws being leveraged to accomplish modern feats of engineering, and the underlying models of scientific knowledge that permeate our society are all essential to their flourishing today, even as they prepare to participate in tomorrow’s discoveries. Fortunately, classical education draws upon the cumulative wisdom of the past—including the great advancements of science—to prepare us to live well in any age.
Dr. Robert L. Jackson is the chief academic officer of Great Hearts America and the founding director of the Institute for Classical Education.
Image: Architecture by Antoni Gaudí, Dome of the Sagrada Familia (Barcelona, Spain), photograph by Claudio Test. source, Unsplash