Remarks given by Timothy T. Allen at the celebration of the conclusion of Keene State College's fundraising campaign for its new Science Center, April 2005
When I was an undergraduate student years ago, one of the buzzword phrases among the research scientists I hung out with (otherwise known as graduate students) was "Process-Oriented Science." The message was that merely observing, describing, and cataloguing nature did not, by itself, constitute "good science." One needed to be focussed on elucidating the fundamental processes by which the natural world operates -- the How? and the Why? -- as well as the Who?, What?, When? and Where?
During my time as a college faculty member, "Process-Oriented Science" has trickled down to the field of science education, where the buzzword phrases are things like "Inquiry-Based Learning." The message is that what students learn about the process of science -- the scientific method -- is perhaps more important than that they memorize the "catalog of nature." Indeed, what we do not yet know about the world around us probably IS more important than what we know already (or what we think we know). So asking, and attempting to answer, questions -- about what we think we know, as well as about what we do not yet know -- really is what science is all about. We need to explore with our students the unknown areas as well as revisiting areas already mapped.
As I was contemplating these remarks, I remembered a button I used to wear when I was in High School: "Question Authority" This of course was a slogan of political radicals intent on holding those in power accountable, but when I first saw it -- on one of my friends -- I thought it meant that the wearer was an authority on asking questions!
Anyway, teaching our students to do this -- to ask questions (rigorously), and attempt to answer them (rigorously), is what science education should be about. To adapt an old cliche, "Teach a person some scientific knowledge, and they've learned something, teach them how to do science and they can learn for a lifetime!" We also know that hearing about something new is one way to learn, while seeing it demonstrated is better. But actually discovering the new thing yourself is better still, and real mastery comes when you have to tell the rest of the world about your discovery.
To this end, the Science Building project provides a study in contrasts. In the old building, we had two large lecture halls well suited for deliverying the facts as we knew them into the minds of our students, the uncomfortably seats seemingly intended just to keep the students awake. Now we have classrooms right-sized and furnished so as to facilitate active engagement of students in activities and group work promoting inquiry and discovery.
In the old building, the flow of traffic in the halls was awkward at best, and the layout did little to enhance what chance encounters might occur. Now, not only can you get there from here, but your interaction with those you might meet along the way is facilitated and promoted by the inviting alcoves.
In the old building, laboratory spaces designed for carrying out cook-book verification exercises and practicing descriptive science were inadequate for modern investigative activities. Now we have truly state-of-the art facilities making it possible to engage undergraduate students in real scientific research -- to seek answers -- rigorously measured quantitative answers! -- to questions they might never even have dreamed of asking in the past. Our students don't just hear about it, or see it demonstrated, they get to do it and they get to tell the world about it.
As just one example of the type of creative and collaborative interdisciplinary inquiry promoted by this new facility, students in Chemist Sally Jean's sophomore-level Quantitative Analysis class this Fall worked with Biologist Renate Gebauer and myself, a Geologist, to analyze the trace element and C and O stable isotope composition of the mineral part of beef cattle bones obtained from local butchers. They found that the "natural" (organic-fed) cow bone showed measurable differences from the regular supermarket cow bones,consistent with differences in diet between free-range grazing for the "natural" cow, and life in a feedlot for the supermarket cows.
The success of the Science Center Capital campaign has helped make this all possible.
As part of the campaign, I was given an opportunity to name two of the offices in the building. As a product of the public school system here in the State of New Hampshire, it occurred to me that many of my own teachers probably received their education here at Keene. I would like to introduce two of them to you.
Herwood W. "Zeke" Curtis, class of 1948, taught me calculus at Kearsarge Regional High School. Zeke was also an early proponent of the application of computers in math and science education. Through Zeke's efforts, the school got an early Radio Shack TRS-80 micro-computer with, I think, 8 kilobytes of memory. My friends and I quickly took to writing programs for it, one of which drew a picture of a house with animated puffs of smoke coming from the chimney. Zeke happened to walk by and gave a little harumph, so we quickly wrote a new program for graphing polynomial functions. The next time he passed, he commented that that was much better. Among many other lessons, Zeke's teaching certainly helped reinforce for me the value of being able to visualize quantitative relationships, something I'm sure my own students could say something about.
Marshall H. "Mac" MacKenzie, class of 1972, was my physics teacher and ski coach at Kearsarge, where he is still teaching as chair of the Science Department. On Mac's web page at the high school, he says "Attitude is everything!," a sentiment that was apparent to me as his student and athlete many years ago. To quote Mac further, "You can do amazing things with an appropriate attitude." In addition to the Physics and Advanced Physics classes that I had with him, I remember that back then Mac also taught a course in Organic Chemistry as well as a course in Environmental Science. Mac clearly is a well-rounded scientist, solidly grounded in the fundamentals, who recognizes the potential in all his students, and who always has a lot of fun doing whatever he is doing. I certainly aspire for my own students to recognize these same attributes in my teaching.
All of my colleagues among the science faculty here do, as well. And so, on behalf of all of my colleagues, I would like to thank all of you for your generous contributions to the Science Center Campaign, thank you for helping to create these facilities which are the envy of scientists from across New England, thank you for helping prepare the ground for our science students, working with their faculty mentors, to make many more new and exciting discoveries in the years ahead. Thank you!