Flight of the ‘Solar Impulse’ – Educationally Relevant?

[Note: This post contains two articles, by Harry Keller and John Adsit, that were written in response to the Online Live in RealTime article by Claude Almansi. Also see John Sener‘s response to this article. -js]
Picture of Harry Keller and John AdsitBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The flight of the Solar Impulse is truly a technological tour de force. I was very impressed by the charts and virtual cockpit with the map of the plane’s progress. I didn’t even know that this amazing flight was taking place until Claude‘s note. Then I saw the headline in the NYT, “Solar-Powered Plane Flies for 26 Hours.” I have to wonder how many people see that headline and realize immediately the remarkable fact that such a flight requires flying a solar-powered plane for hours in the dark.

We see plenty of emphasis on STEM education in the U.S. these days. I am very biased toward the S (science) part of the acronym but see the importance of technology as a means of engagement. Mathematics gets enough attention on its own and can be better taught, IMO, in conjunction with science, technology, and engineering until students have enough sophistication to study things like group theory that are much more abstract. But I’m biased, as I said.

Engineering is finding its way more and more into lower grade curricula and especially into extracurricular activities such as robotics competitions. These aren’t really forays into science. I have nothing against teaching engineering but believe strongly that students should be well grounded in science and should not lose opportunities to understand science while being shuttled off into engineering projects.

We see much “project-based instruction” being promoted in schools these days. It’s hardly a new concept, but it is catching on. In a science class, a project can be a true science project, or it can actually be an engineering project with some science content thrown in on the side. Science projects explore some aspect of the real world that students do not understand. They’ll be finding out about things through inquiry, exploration, and discovery. They’ll explain what they found out and extend their findings, possibly suggesting new avenues for inquiry.

Engineering projects will build something with some sort of rules and measurement of quality of the finished product. Mostly, these are competitions; science projects rarely are. Students will have to use ideas from science in their creations and can simply look them up. They won’t be discovering science but will learn a great deal about trial and error in creating concrete new objects.

Engineering projects have advantages in building teamwork, in engaging students competitively, and in modeling what their world will be like when they leave school. They have the disadvantage of taking time from true science, the exploration of the great unknown universe of ideas about how the natural world works.

I prefer keeping the engineering projects for extracurricular activities and making the focus of the little time allotted to science on science. But that’s just my opinion.

Back to the solar-powered plane: My initial query regarding how many realized the significance of this feat points, in my mind, to how many have been properly trained in science, which is a way of looking at the world and of asking questions. When the balloon boy hoax first hit the television shows, my first thought was about how it would be possible for a child of a certain age to be lifted by a balloon of a certain size. I determined fairly quickly (a few minutes) that the child would have been roasted to death were the air hot enough to lift him in such a small vehicle — and maybe not even then. Thus, I rapidly dismissed the entire event as a total hoax and was quite annoyed to see the media so entranced by such a non-event. They have access to experts who could have done what I did, but, more importantly, they were not sufficiently trained in  thinking to ask the important questions. And so they came out looking like fools.

Even though the solar-powered plane is not truly an achievement of science, it can provide a learning moment for science students around the world. It can be an engaging jumping off point for substantial science investigations. And it can provide another example of the differences between science, on the one hand, and technology/engineering, on the other.

By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

Harry is right.

This sort of thing has been happening in other disciplines for decades. People create elaborate projects with the intention of teaching certain concepts, but a careful analysis reveals that there is very little learning in the intended area of instruction. Students have a wonderful time doing a project, but they may have had very limited learning in anything important.

In my area (English), one of the most obvious examples was the era in which students across America spent days making replicas of the Globe Theater out of all kinds of materials, including popsicle sticks and sugar cubes. This would supposedly teach them something valuable about a Shakespearean play they were reading. Never mind the fact that a sugar cube Globe Theater has as much resemblance to the actual theater as the wolf’s to Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother (how was she fooled?); never mind the fact that it is really not very important information to begin with (take a guess how many state content standards include the structure of the Globe Theater). Even if this were important information, consider how much class time and energy was spent for the purpose of learning something that could have been accomplished with a 30 second review of a diagram.

Project based learning is very important and valuable, in my opinion, but only when it meets critical educational criteria. In science, projects (labs, essentially) should achieve the goals outlined in America’s Lab Report. Harry may cringe because of our past arguments on this topic, but I suggest the iNACOL guidelines for scientific investigations for a guideline on those criteria.

3 Responses

  1. Read the NACOL guidelines with care. It contains some serious rocks and shoals. For example, there’s a glaring misquote of America’s Lab Report. If you can navigate around these issues, it also contains a number of gems, many written by John Adsit.

    John and I really are close together on this topic as indicated by the joining above. I really like his example of the Globe Theater construction. It neatly pins the problem up where all can see and understand it.

    With regard to science labs, in my opinion, labs are so common in science that most science teachers treat projects as something separate. I think of science course projects as an activity that spans many periods and involves either building something or extensive research, usually in the field. Unfortunately, it’s another one of those fuzzy words that different people interpret differently.

  2. I think the intrinsic value of following the flight of the Solar Impulse is its pulling power. Interestingly, Dewey rested much of his philosophy of learning on the concept of impulse as the primary first agent in learning as a free act. It’s the initial motivation, the curiosity, the wanting for more.

    Without it, we have learning that’s extrinsically controlled, and for Dewey, that’s a form of slavery: “A person who is doing a thing not from any interior volition, but only as he is compelled by the thought of others which he neither understands nor appreciates, is not free.”

    To work with pull instead of push, creating models of the Globe Theatre out of popsicle sticks or simulating a flight in the cockpit of the Solar Impulse may be a necessary first step. Omit it, and we may end up with something other than learning.

    It’s true that there are only so many hours in a school day, but perhaps the time is worthwhile IF the outcome is a student who becomes fascinated with the architecture of theaters in the 16th-17th century.

    This discussion we’re having brings to mind the current tendency to speak of formal and informal learning (also institution-centric VLEs vs student-centric PLEs). If we assume that informal is prompted by the student’s impulse and formal by the teacher’s need to teach, and if we further assume that the formal should take precedence over the informal when the chips are down, then we have a condition where push trumps pull. And if Dewey is correct, then we can expect little or no learning to occur.

    It seems we’ve all shared the same mantra for ages — begin the construction of curriculum with the student’s interest, and the rest, hopefully, will take care of itself. That is, if the student sets foot into the classroom eager to learn the subject matter, the teacher can’t help but succeed.

    But when we try to balance the need to develop this interest with time that we have in the classroom, we decide that it’s expendable, arguing that since we only have so many hours to get the student from point A to point B, something has to go, and it may as well be the Globe Theatre project.

    In the end, this may be more efficient, but in the process we might have snuffed out the desire to learn that can only reside in the student.

    So where is this all going?

    I’m not sure if I’m right, but the point is that a student who, say, loves to surf and learns how to design and build his own surfboards in the school’s shop, winning prizes in local competition for the beauty of his work, isn’t wasting his time even if it takes a year or two to reach this point. In those two years, this driving interest could be used by teachers to improve his academic skills such as reading, math, science, history, physics, art, business ed, health and PE, etc.

    But they would have to carefully pull him into these areas instead of push, and they could do this with his interest in surfboards and surfing.

    The problem is that our schools aren’t set up to promote pull learning. When the bell rings, our surfer will have to leave shop and march into math, where he is pushed to learn stuff that he finds incomprehensible and unrelated to life as he knows it.

    If the bells were silenced and if he had the option to remain in shop all day and work on his latest designs, he might have been better served, especially if the shop teacher could present him with design problems that required knowledge of higher math, physics, chemistry, etc. The student would need to approach the different subject area teachers for that info, and they would teach him only what he needed to know to solve the problem he posed for himself.

    Other subject areas such as English and history could be pull taught in this manner.

    But I’m rambling and need to stop.

    -Jim S

    • No, you are not rambling, Jim – or else we are rambling on the same track. The the problem you describe, which arises when teachers try to implement “pull” learning conditions in a mostly “push” educational institution with rigid time slots, is very real: younger students often tend to perceive “pull” learning moments as occasions to relax from the “push” norm, and/or to raise hell.

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