Some people say (as they say in the news media) that I should be blogging more about Sphere classes so my readers can get a better sense of the style of education we’re doing here. So let me tell you about last night’s class…
In previous weeks—before the snow cancellation and last week’s field trip to Valley Forge Memorial Chapel to hear a fabulous talk on archaeology in Valley Forge by Carin Bloom—we read Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. (Note: we used textbooks donated by students from the Ursinus College ACM). In this letter Galileo presents the problem facing him: he has made observations, formed a hypothesis, conducted experiments and drawn conclusions. But the conclusions were in conflict with the currently held views of the current power structure. And they wanted to fry him for it.
It is very difficult to get a real sense of what it felt like to be in Galileo’s shoes—and those of his detractors. We have to feel the feelings associated with being emotionally invested in the outcomes of the experiment. So I brought in an experiment. While I was on the faculty of Ursinus College teaching CIE (Common Intellectual Experience), I asked Lew Riley, superb Physics professor, if he could think of any experiments where the outcome did not necessarily yield the intuitive result, and he came up with the perfect solution—a hoop and disc of equal mass rolling down an inclined place—and he let me borrow it. (If you know the outcome, don’t tell—I don’t want to give any spoilers here!) I used this experiment very successfully in the CIE class I taught a couple of times at Ursinus, and it was so successful that I actually purchased the experiment for my own use in Sphere College classes. That’s what I brought in last night. The 7 foot inclined plane was provided by Matt Comiskey, general contractor and student in the class.
So… I described the experiment and asked the students what they thought the outcome would be: whether the hoop would reach the bottom first, the disk first, or they would both reach the bottom at the same time. An interesting discussion ensued, with people asking very good questions, and lots of laughter. Relying on their intuition based on their knowledge and experience and listening to the general discussion, they arrived at different conclusions. This, in fact, has been my experience each time I used this experiment.
Then I threw a wrench into the works. I told them that I wasn’t going to perform the experiment until they all agreed on the outcome! The discussion then ramped up to the next level. Being more invested in forming a consensus in order to see the outcome, people thought more deeply about the problem and began talking about it differently. They organized themselves more in order to determine when they had reached a consensus, but made sure everyone had an opportunity to express their thoughts (because we’re just that way, you know), and at that point the social aspect of science began to emerge.
Well, about 40 minutes later they finally converged on a consensus and we performed the experiment. They had converged on the wrong answer! This had also happened previous times I used the experiment, and we did a recap on why the outcome was not as expected. (Some people expected this outcome, but yielded because I was imposing consensus.)
Then we moved into a fascinating conversation about the nature of belief, proof, truth, evidence, scientific method, the social aspect of science, etc. I’m certain we all left learning a lot—me no less than anyone else, which is the way it should be. Because when the authority figures think they’ve reached ‘the answer’… well, then we should probably all be a bit worried, right?
IN OTHER NEWS there continue to be many, many good things happening for the college, not the least being that more and more people are supporting the vision. I’ll be very interested to see where we are in a year’s time—how many students, how many faculty members, what courses will be taught, etc. Very exciting times!
Coming up in the near future… mark your calendars: On Wednesday, March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day) head to Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant in Phoenixville from 5-10pm, bring this coupon and 20% of your bill (excluding alcoholic beverages) will go to Sphere College. Come on out, have fun and support the college!