“It’s a warm summer evening in ancient Greece”: How to get kids excited about math and science (using Snape’s method)

Or: What would’ve made me excited in math class; and Snape’s teaching methods! 

Note: I’m not a teacher. I have no idea how math and science is taught now–so maybe some awesome teachers and school districts are doing what I suggest. This is based off my educational experience and discussions I’ve had with others. 


above: a still from Interstellar

As a kid, I really liked science. I thought dissection was awesome. I loved learning about the solar system and the stars. Learning about the human body was super-cool. Volcanoes? Sign me up! In the elementary school I attended, we had a good science curriculum that started with the basics early. We did experiments in class that I thought were interesting. I never really had the “ew” factor in science that some other kids did.

Math was another story. I was really bad at math. This is sad, because my dad is a mathematician. (Well, he’s a computer scientist. But that uses math. His Masters in his math. So he’s a mathematician in my world, OK?) I should’ve been better at basic math than I was. I have the personality type that if I don’t find something interesting, and I’m not good at it, I don’t want to learn it. In math, I wanted practical applications. Now, granted, in the beginning, there’s plenty of them. You need to know how to add, for pete’s sake. Figuring out sales tax and sale prices has served me well. The basic four skills–multiplication, addition, division, subtraction–I’ve got no qualm with, on the “real world” scale. I just wasn’t really good at any of it. No one was ever going to praise me for my math skills.

In elementary school, science and math are treated as separate disciplines. They really don’t–in the beginning–have much to do with each other, in practice. That changed when I got to high school, especially when it came to chemistry and “physical science” (as we called physics).

As part of earning an honors diploma in Ohio at the time (1996-2000), you needed a certain amount of science credits, which included a semester of each of the four “main” types (physics, chemistry, biology, and geology), and an additional semester of chemistry and biology. I liked biology and geology, so that was fine. And I even liked chemistry. Or I thought I did. My chemistry teacher was sort of evil.

Also, chemistry and physics required…..math.

yeah. We see how Emily feels about math, yes?

But here, we could’ve solved the problem by introducing real world applications.

That–right there–would’ve been excellent.

After I read The Science of Interstellar, I began thinking about this. Why are our science classes so boring? Why do we give kids “the basics” without telling them how awesome the applications could be? Why didn’t my physics teacher start with stuff like wormholes, singularities, and event horizons? Or the opposite–subatomic particles? Why don’t teachers begin with the awesome–like Snape does–and then teach basics with an eye to these things?

When I saw Interstellar, I thought about the movie for days. I went over the science in my mind, thinking How did they do that? I knew that a major physicist had been an advisor to the movie, so I knew a lot of it was stuff that was possible.

Physics is a great example because here, math and science intersect. You need both skills to be successful. But instead, I remember trudging through physics class being told “memorize these formulas”, doing lots of math, and working on a mousetrap car, where we were supposed to use “physics principles,” but neither me or my partner really had any idea how to apply them. Critical thinking was not really emphasized here. We were given formulas, and told to compute them on tests.

When I asked people why we teach this way, the answers I got were “you need the basics” and “kids can’t understand astrophysics.” That’s what Pres. GW Bush would’ve called the soft bigotry of low expectations. Most kids love space. They think it’s super-cool. AT the local science museum, the space section is always full. Kids love that stuff. Heck, adults love that stuff! The basics of astrophysics isn’t something kids won’t get. If you read The Magic School Bus book where the kids go into the solar system, you see that they’re dealing with different gravities, the time difference in space, light-years, the physical make up of planets, etc. Most kids get the basics when they study space in their early years. So why aren’t we attaching the higher math and science to something that’s exciting? Why aren’t teachers doing a Snape and telling kids how to brew glory and stopper death?

I understand the notion of being able to walk before you can run. When I was learning to play the clarinet, I didn’t start with Mozart’s clarinet concerto. I started with “Go Tell Aunt Rhode”. But the idea was that eventually, I could play more complicated things. No one wants to be playing “Up On The Housetop” forever, if they love music. You want to play the more difficult stuff. The basics serve you as you go higher; but the “higher” is always there. When you learn to write letters, it’s with an eye to being able to write entire pages. When you learn to read, it’s so you can read those big fat books at the library. But with science, it’s “oh, you need the basics. And then once you have those, maybe we’ll talk about the cool things.”

But I never took another physics class after my basic one. I could have. My school was well-stocked with math and science classes in the upper levels. But there was no way I was going back to physics after that first class.

It’s the same with math. In my experiences with respiratory therapists, I’ve seen the math they do. They still have to work out formulas by hand some times to get results. In the infant PFT lab at Children’s, there are often math notes scribbled on the white board. There’s a practical application if I ever saw one. Math to save lives.

We should be showing kids Contact and Apollo 13 and saying “this is the kind of stuff you can do with math and science.” (Especially Apollo 13: What to do when the computers fail!) “This is where we want to take you. And even if you never use math again after this except to balance the checkbook, and even if you never do anything else with physics other than watch Big Bang Theory, we can give you some knowledge that you can take further, if you want.”

Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” We are sorely missing the imaginative quotient in how we teach his subjects.


One thought on ““It’s a warm summer evening in ancient Greece”: How to get kids excited about math and science (using Snape’s method)

  1. Pingback: Seven Quick Takes No. 68 | Living Adventurously

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