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No. 2229:
Children and Science

Today, children and science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Yale psychologists Bloom and Weisberg assess the hurdles that young children must conquer to learn science. Children struggle to learn what's true about their world and what's not. Or course they understand certain things almost immediately -- that objects persist when they're out of sight, that things fall when they're not held. Children soon learn that people respond to emotional stimuli. 

Teaching a childBut they trip on folds in the more abstract fabric of reality. Example: form a half circle from a length of tubing, then roll a marble through it. Ask children what its path will be after it comes out the end. They're apt to tell you that it will keep moving in a circle. Aristotle would've agreed with them, but Newton eventually gave us the physical law that said the ball can only move in a straight line once it leaves the tube.

Take another conceptual hurdle -- our spherical Earth is a terrible conceptual hurdle. Do people on the other side stand on their heads? Do they fall off? As I read, my early childhood questions resurface. And I realize how many ideas we struggled to accept, then simply absorbed into our subconscious. We forget how many obvious truths we had to unlearn. 

Teaching a childFor a child, consciousness is independent of the brain and body in which it arises. That leads to confusion. It can also lead to the notion of a soul, a self that's independent of the body.

The soul is as intuitively satisfying as a flat earth. Well, mathematically speaking the Earth really is locally flat. Nor does science have means for denying a soul. But to deal with physical reality, we must get beyond obviousness. We need to grapple with Earth's geometry as well as with the mechanics of mind and body. 

The same's true of our origins: children leap to the obvious notion that animals and humans were created in their final finished form in an instant. Here again, we must work to face the complex mechanics of biology and evolution. Once we do, the process can well become more, rather than less, miraculous. But the hurdle must be met and overcome.

The authors also watch children dealing with scientific facts in a world that sends mixed messages. One would never speak of a belief in gravity; gravity is simply the way things are. Nor would one speak of believing in a round Earth. Once digested, a round Earth is a simple fact of life. But many grownups are still stuck on their childhood view of the Creation. So children learn to see evolution as a belief instead of as a well-grounded scientific fact. 

The article mentions a child's bent toward teleology -- explaining things in terms of purpose rather than cause and effect. Asked to explain clouds, a child might say they exist to make rain. Scientific literacy can follow only when that child learns to trace evaporation and condensation. It can follow only when she learns to trust the scientific process that reveals workings of the brain, of evolution, or of our lovely round planet's gravitational field.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

P. Bloom and D. Skolnick Weisberg, Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science. Science, Vol. 316, 18 May, 2007, pp. 996-997.

Images above from 19th century magazines; below, from A. F. Collins, The Boy Scientist (Boston: Lothrop , Lee, & Shepard Co. 1925)


A spherical Earth
Teaching a youngster about gravity and the round Earth