“To teach is to learn twice.” Or thrice.

So learned something about dark matter and Type 2 civilizations last month. From students. At 6:30 in the morning. This period is what’s known as a ‘zero-hour’ class in high schools like mine.

I had been invited to observe making presentations in a STEM class. The air was thick with magnetic fields and an ‘Oort cloud.’ It was followed by animated discussions that went on as casually as if they were discussing the pros and cons of Chick Fil-A. I tried remaining the fly on the wall, but the enthusiasm was too contagious to keep me on that wall. I found myself raising my hand to ask questions — reversing roles. I was that kid in the corner waiting to be called on!

You’re probably wondering about this Oort Cloud I mentioned in passing. A fascinating concept by Dutch astronomer Jan Hendrik Oort. According to one source, it is “a theoretical spherical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals that is believed to surround the sun.” I had never heard of this, so I raised my hand and asked the the student to explain planetesimals.

This, by the way, was a 10th grader who’s excitement could be mistaken for someone who had just won a NASA trip to the International Space Station. Unfortunately, it’s audio. You’d have to visualize the enthusiasm bouncing across the classroom. She barely glanced at her slides as she went on, which is what good presenters do. (Many students — and, sadly professionals — use a slide deck and do just the opposite.) She seemed to have installed the bullet points in her head; they were flung across the room with the velocity of teenager adjectives.

So here’s the larger point I’d like to make. I’ve been involved in STEM for many years, and it’s taken me on detours into Space science and, of course, robotics. But I now see STEM less as a destination, and more as an on-ramp. Even if these students may not be donning lab coats or invited to be part of some audacious project at SpaceX, just wrestling with complex topics like Type 2 civilizations and black holes give them the mindset to take on new challenges that will present themselves. I teach at a classical school where these same science students head to their next period in which they wrestle with the Iliad, followed by another class where they write papers on Hell, purgatory and Hamlet, or write a research proposal on the black plague. I know this because students come to my lab to work on these assignments. It’s a great way to learn from students.

Joseph Joubert, to whom the quote “He who teaches learns twice” is attributed, also said “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” I’ve debated the validity of STEM versus classical education and have come to this conclusion: It’s not an either-or argument. Our students must scrutinize the so-called ‘givens,’ and learn to defend topics they are passionate about, despite push-back. In academia we use a fancy term for this — a growth mindset. To me, it’s all about learning from unusual sources.

Twice, if I have to.

This was posted to Medium.com

One thought on ““To teach is to learn twice.” Or thrice.

  1. Pingback: Science Rocks. Clouds, too. |

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