The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Hauben’s “Above the Standard” is Timely, Poignant, and Beautiful

The title piece involves hundreds of #2 pencils, each hammered into it's designated place.
The title piece involves hundreds of #2 pencils, each hammered into it’s designated place. No metaphors there, certainly.

I rarely think of contemporary fine art as engaging or inspiring, let alone speaking to something real and relevant in society. Too much post-modernism perhaps. But Ari Hauben‘s solo art show ABOVE THE STANDARD recently set me straight on the gritty power of art in today’s modern world. From his site:

ABOVE THE STANDARD (an education in the art of Mr. Hauben) is a solo art show created by Ari Hauben, an artist and Boston Public School art teacher, which responds to the detrimental effects of the increasingly standardized and mechanized worlds of education and society.

Hauben investigates this theme through installations and artwork created from the very things we usually associate with standard education: desks, tests, grades, etc. In addition this examination will lead the public through different styles of Hauben’s multimedia works which cover a broad spectrum of topics, styles, and materials that reflect his creative response to working “above the standards” and the positive outcome that can occur when operating outside these confines in all aspects of society.

Much of the floor is made of the infamous Scantron answer sheets, placing visitors literally "above the standard".
Much of the floor is made of the Scantron bubble sheets, placing visitors literally “above the standard”.

For example, Hauben’s show includes mixed media paintings on canvas made of the infamous Scantron multiple-choice answer sheets, and installations that depict children either being molded into conformity or playfully casting it aside. In many parts of the gallery, visitors are literally “above the standard” while walking on multiple choice bubble sheets.

(For some reason, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” kept playing in my head…)

In addition to the artwork that criticizes the increasing standardization of education, Hauben’s show includes a blend of street and pop art works depicting inspirational figures such as Sally Ride, made on intricate mathematical equations and complex scientific texts. In this way he also shows the beautiful power of education to uplift and explore, if we let it.

The show is especially personal to Hauben, as in addition to working as a practicing artist, he is also a Boston Public art teacher at a high school for students with learning disabilities. As an urban public school teacher myself, I’m not sure how he finds the time, but I am inspired by his example!

The gallery hosting ABOVE THE STANDARD is in a converted space at 50 Melcher St in Fort Point. Walk east from South Station on Spring St, across the bridge into Southie. Take the first right after the bridge onto Melcher St. The gallery is on the left hand side, just before you reach A Street.

The show was originally to close on June 1, but Hauben has extended it through June 15th. Thursday and Friday 5-10pm, Saturday 12-6pm, Sunday 12-5pm.

For those interested in the politics that are ravaging our public schools, or just seeing some great and relevant art, I definitely recommend stopping by.

If you go, be sure to add the name of your favorite teacher to the giant chalkboard wall:

Visitors are greeted with a giant chalkboard wall, on which they are invited to write the name of their favorite teacher.
Visitors are greeted with a giant chalkboard wall, on which they are invited to write the name of their favorite teacher.

Love it.

Why Learn Physics?

MinutePhysics posted this video, entitled “Open Letter to the President: Physics Education”, to their YouTube stream.

Summary: The content of high school physics curricula generally stop at around the year 1865, which is an interesting observation. At first it seems quite logical that students should follow the prescribed path from kinematics to dynamics to electromagnetism and from there on to more complex topics if there is time (which of course there never is, so we never get to anything further).

But from another perspective, does one really need an understanding of dynamics as a prerequisite to an introduction to relativity and quantum? I actually don’t think so. The physics discoveries of the 21st century so profoundly changed our fundamental view of the universe and how we relate to it, that most of what came before seems absurdly limited in scope. Quantum Mechanics, for example, starts from very different conceptual foundations than does Newtonian Mechanics; thus, even though one came before the other chronologically, they really have nothing to do with each other conceptually.

I think it would be awesome to teach an introduction to contemporary scientific issues and understanding in high school. The inevitable counterpoint question will of course be, “but when will they use that?” I certainly admit that Newtonian Mechanics and classical electromagnetic theory, though limited in scope and not even technically correct by modern standards,  are far more likely to be “relevant to students’ lives” than quantum, relativity, particle theory, or cosmology. (In other words, Newtonian Mechanics are more readily applicable to every day situations even though their underlying assumptions and framework do not actually describe physical reality as we now know it.)

However, my (opinionated) rebuttal to this counterpoint is that it is, like so much of education policy, shortsighted and focused on the wrong things. What is the purpose of education? More specifically, what is the purpose of high school science education? What should my students be learning in my physics classroom? Though I certainly encourage STEM careers and want to prepare my students for college, the fact of the matter is that very few of them — even under ideal circumstances — will go on to choose further study and careers in science and engineering. If and when they do, they will receive specialized content instruction and training for it. So, yes they should have some introductory content knowledge, but ultimately what is more important for all of my students, including the STEM-bound ones, to come away with in their formative years as they emerge as adult citizens of the nation and world?

I would argue that the best answer to this question is: a sense of place. A perspective that the universe is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating arena full of challenge and discovery — and that therefore, on that principle alone, it is worthy of study and exploration. An understanding of the rigorous tools of scientific analysis and inquiry that have allowed us as a species to discard illusions and improve our lives. Further, a realization that they must use these tools daily as citizens in the modern world as a defense against manipulation by interests who would misrepresent science for self-serving ends.  And lastly, a cohesive story of our human quest for truth — the part that was grounded in empiricism and fueled by curiosity — which has brought us to our present understanding of what we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Very little of this perspective, by the way, is captured in the present Massachusetts high school physics curriculum [PDF] or standardized accountability tests such as the MCAS. From what I have read, the Next Generation Science Standards are much, much better than what we have now and certainly a huge step in the right direction. But even these standards, on the cutting edge of what American K-12 science education policy is working on, remain far from the mark in my opinion. They remain somewhat impeded by the inertia of 150 years of “this is what we’ve always taught”.

It is only in the context of physics as the true “natural philosophy” — testing whether our human ideas hold traction with reality — that (properly) introducing the most contemporary physical understanding of the universe (alongside those which came before) to our high school students makes sense. Barring that framework for what physics education is ultimately for, I really doubt that our students will learn physics past 1865 until and unless they choose to do so in college — by which point it may be too late to engage them with it anyway. Which means of course, that it may be too late for the study of physics to contribute to the scientific literacy of the overwhelming majority of our citizens.

Keep fighting the good fight, MinutePhysics.

Status  Comment

Took the MTEL Communication and Literacy test on Saturday… required considerable thought, but was able to finish early with about an hour to spare (4 hour limit). Next up: MTEL Physics on March 4. That one I will probably need to review for… Mechanics, Electrostatics, Electromagnetics, Thermodynamics, Waves, Acoustics, Optics, and basic Relativity and Quantum.