Two years ago in this space, I wrote about "Turning Nature into Numbers," humanity's accomplishment of developing instruments and methodologies that can turn the fleeting qualitative impressions that we have of our surroundings into quantitative values–numbers–which can be readily stored, shared, transmitted and compared.
Numbers are great, but it seems to me that for developing an opinion or making a decision, humans often want categories rather than numbers. More
I recently had the pleasure of attending a multi-media performance, "A Universe of Dreams", which showed spectacular astronomical images acquired by the Hubble space telescope, set to the lilting Celtic music of the Ensemble Galilei, and with thought-provoking narrative and poetry read by Neil Conan (of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" fame). This program delivered an awe-inspiring integration of Science and Art. The images were fantastic beyond description. But, as I drifted through the images of the far universe during the presentation, I realized that I really had no idea what I was looking at. Beyond the aesthetic appeal, I had to admit that I was woefully ignorant (or at least uninformed) about the scientific significance of the images. As I searched for meaning in the gallery of images, I found myself reflecting on how the images were acquired, and for what purpose. Somebody made the decision to take a given image. What was it that they saw that compelled them to take just THAT image? What insights could they gain about the nature of the universe from this perspective? What wavelengths were recorded—the visible spectrum, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray, or other? Are these true color images, or were these images enhanced by processing software? And most important (to me) what did the structures captured in these images reveal about cosmic history or processes? The multi-media presentation was lovely, but I wanted to know more. More
This reasoning process is found throughout geosciences. For example, Marie Tharp's discovery of the rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge came about as she slogged through thousands of kilometers of echo sounder profiles and extracted the common schema of a rift-shaped feature reminiscent of the East African Rift Valley. More
I was leading an Earth Science teacher professional development workshop recently, and the subject turned to models: physical models, computer models, data models, mathematical models, graphical models, etc. Afterwards, one of the teachers said to me "Well, it seems like EVERYTHING we use in teaching Earth Science is a model."
And I said, "Well, it's not THAT extreme. Rocks aren't models....." More
All in all, I'm a fan of the New York State Earth Science Regents course and of the accompanying Earth Science Regents exam. New York state enrolls more students in high school level Earth Science than any other state, and confronting the common exam has helped to build a community of practice among New York State Earth Science teachers that is the envy of Earth Science teachers in other states. I especially like the emphasis on building and assessing representational competence–the ability to understand and make inferences from diagrams, maps, profiles, block diagrams, graphs and other visual representations.
However, I have to say that the most recent Earth Science Regents exam (August 20ll) had two really terrible diagrams, so bad that I think they are more likely to sow confusion than illuminate earth processes. More