Coming to Terms with Science

In Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic treatise “How to Read a Book,” the authors enjoin the reader to be sure to understand the book’s subject fully before undertaking to criticize it. Reading analytically requires a number of stages, they assert, and once the first stage is past – that of knowing what the book is about and what problem it endeavors to solve – the second stage begins with “coming to terms with the author.” In short, this involves identifying the important words used by the author, their “terminology,” and fully understanding the meaning intended by it. For some books, the word may be commonly used in one way on the street, but is given a very specific meaning in the context of the book.

Scientific terminology has exploded. Adler and Van Doren say that good scientific literature, which used to be written for lay and expert readers alike, is now (and “now” was the 1950’s) written for the elite specialists in specialized fields, which have their own lingo, their own terminology. I’ve found coming to terms a much more daunting task with science. Fortunately, there are still books about science written for the curious but unspecialized mind, and these are perfect for introducing your upper grade students to science. This is why I am so enthusiastic about using living literature for high school science, instead of the textbook.

In Charlotte Mason’s educational method, the study of vocabulary outside of its context is not encouraged. Likewise, memorizing long lists of nomenclature – of animal families, or chemical names and the like – would also be discouraged in a Charlotte Mason education. However, most of us, with our kids’ history readings, will jot down two, maybe three words that may confuse our student and define them so they can read the passage fluently. And, we will make sure that our child sees and knows the names of the main characters. A single science reading may be all about understanding the meaning of a given term, just like a history reading may be all about understanding the ideas and work of a given person. A single term represents an idea, a concept, or even something real. Miss T., reading about Metchnikoff yesterday in Microbe Hunters, was also introduced to the phage. Two important characters in the study of immunity to disease.

I’ve found it helpful to think of scientific terms as characters, particularly as Miss T. is reading about electricity in her physics book. She has needed to understand the intricate family relationships between the coulomb, the volt, the joule (whom she’s met before), the amp and the watt. Like Churchill does in his English history series, Asimov often uses different names for the same character – sometimes without much warning. So the volt and “electric potential difference” are the same thing. So are the amp and “current intensity.”

Our science notebook, then, works in much the same way as the spiral bound notebook in which I encourage my daughter to jot down the names of her historical characters. She needs to keep track of all these new ideas, and their names and relationships as well. Pictures work especially well, mathematical relationships with labels are also good, but at the very least a few notes should show up. One of my favorite (though difficult!) chemistry works is P.W. Atkins’ Periodic Kingdoms, which likens the periodic table to a map, with different areas of similar elements representing countries. Diagramming relationships in this way in your science notebook can also be fruitful.

Further, because the “characters” in a science text are still very much alive, I will try to introduce her to them personally. I will prick my finger and introduce her to a living phage. We will play with an electric circuit and meet volts, and amps, and watts, and see how they play together. In this way, science is truly “living” science.

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