Posted by: Jamie | June 2, 2009

A Conference of Many Cultures

The weekend beginning with May 29th, I attended a conference at Michigan State University, “Science and Liberal Education: C.P. Snow and The Two Cultures.”

I was going to try to do a whole review of the conference, but having already expended my summarization energy on live-Tweeting the event, I find myself disinclined to do so. It sounds too much like work. Since I don’t blog for money, but for pleasure, making it into work seems to defeat the purpose. If you’d like to review what I said as the presentations occurred, you can check out my Twitter feed. When the anthology of the papers presented at the conference comes out, you can be sure I’ll be reviewing those, too. For now, though, I think what I’d really like to do is discuss the results for me, personally, of the conference.

The conference generated a new spur of motivation for me. It’s been since November 2008, when I attended the Sigma Pi Sigma 2008 Quadrennial Congress, that I’ve been surrounded by other people who wanted to make a change in how science, and knowledge in general, interacts with public life. As I said to a fellow at the Snow conference, I have always loved science. I’ve known (known! emphatically) since 7th grade that I wanted to be a physicist. And so it boggles my mind that others don’t feel so passionately about it. My passion has, in particular, led me to want to share my love of science in such a way that others can find it accessible and interesting – though I’ve come to accept that they probably won’t suddenly fall madly in love with it quite like I have.

The difference between this conference and the Congress is that now I’ve been exposed to people from every walk of academia, not just physicists, who share this goal. University administrators, philosophers, engineers, writers, scientists from every field, and even a theologian. This vast array of experience was concentrated in a mere forty participants, but the energy of the desire to fix our country’s broken relationship with knowledge made it feel like I was at a conference of hundreds. One realization that I came away with was this:

The problem is huge, and pervasive, and happening at every level of education and policy and media in the country. There is simply no possible way to address every aspect of the problem. It just can’t happen. What we can do is address our particular part of it, as (in this case) university educators. We can’t fix the high schools, or the middle schools, or the home lives of our students, or anything else. What we can do is mold our curricula to teach the students we are given, not the ones we wish we had. We can meet them at the level of knowledge and interest with which they come to us – in effect, coming down out of the ivory tower and acknowledging that the system is broken. We can, in the words of one of my role models, wield our teaspoons to change the little part of the system in which we have any power, and by this method slowly bring change to the system as a whole.

That is why I’m practically itching to join the Society of Physics Students chapter at my new university. That is why I’m chomping at the bit to get my Ph.D. so I can apply for APS and NSF Science and Policy fellowships. That is why I have made this blog. This is the little part of the system where I can wield my teaspoon. I am a part of the internet generation. I live and breathe the online world, I enjoy social media, and I love to write and explain science to anyone who will listen to me. So, here I am, wielding away.


  1. Jamie: It was wonderful meeting you at the conference. It’s always a pleasure to meet new people who share a passion for science communication.

    “The problem is huge, and pervasive, and happening at every level of education and policy and media in the country.”

    Yes – and part of me quailed at this realization, as it did when I took my first history of education course: the problem is SO big, with its roots embedded so firmly in the heart of society, that it seems immovable, impossible. But being surrounded by so many people who share the same goal was heartening. We might not be able to make a difference, but I’ll be damned if we can’t try.

    “What we can do is mold our curricula to teach the students we are given, not the ones we wish we had.”

    Wonderfully stated. This is where I, as a former scientist and future teacher educator, hope to help. It will perhaps gladden you to know that, at least at MSU, the colleges of education are making great strides toward this end, and we have recruited several professors of science to our cause (Duncan Sibley, one of the speakers at the conference, is one). If some of our methods, which have been shown through vigorous research to be effective, can be adopted in more colleges of natural science, we might yet see some change!

    I’ll be flourishing my teaspoon, as well. :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Amy!

    I was very intrigued by Sibley’s presentation during the conference. I hope once he releases his work, I can share it with the physics department and UoL, and maybe even convince them to implement some of the methods. I met their department head, Dr. David Brown, at the SPS Congress back in November, and when I visited prior to selecting a grad school, he and I discussed some aspects of teaching introductory mechanics. So I know he’s interested in these things!

    One little step at a time.

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