Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How To (Not?) Teach Quantum Mechanics

When I was in 7th grade, my science teacher drank her own urine in front of class to grab our attention and show us the "magic of science." Her disgusting and insane stunt certainly left an impression on me and peaked my interest in what was in store for us in her unique curriculum.
Well this week, Emlyn Hughes, professor at Columbia University, beat my piss sipping teacher with his whacky attempt to get across a lesson in quantum mechanics. Against a projected backdrop showing images of 9/11 and the Holocaust, he stripped to his underwear, got into the fetal position, and then two people dressed as ninjas attacked stuffed animals. Prof. Hughes explained to the class at the end of this bizarre scene that he did this "in order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain, and start over again." Interesting.
I have found that many educators, like my 7th grade science teacher, after years of working to get through to students, end up hopping on a train to crazy town. They just start desperately doing the weirdest things they can think of to hold the attention of the class, especially when most students nowadays are on facebook or playing Words With Friends during lectures. But when I think of being a student in this class and watch the video of it, I find myself thinking how terrified I would have been watching this all unfold. At one point, when he picks up the microphone, you can hear on the video one of the many confused students mistakenly think it's a gun. And who can blame her? I would have been utterly convinced that this man in his underwear curled up under pictures of Nazis and the falling World Trade Center was unstable and potentially dangerous too.
And as captivating as his introduction to quantum mechanics was (because after this I found myself actually intrigued about a topic which previously I had never even thought about), he still has the task of explaining/teaching it. Because, while I vividly recall my 7th grade science teacher drinking her urine, I don't remember what on earth the actual science lesson was that she was attempting to teach us. I fear that it will be the same outcome for this professor. While these students will definitely never forget this lesson-in fact I'm sure they will be haunted by it, they may not remember much about actual quantum mechanics. But undoubtedly, this professor's classes will now earn quite the reputation and become legendary at Columbia for the shock value. And now I'm looking forward to hearing about what other stunts teachers will start doing to grab attention of students and fame from the internet, because with a whole captivating world of knowledge at our fingertips, teachers clearly have to do something to make class better then wikipedia.

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