I aplogize for it being so long since I last wrote on this blog. There have been a few changes in HUNSTEM, and the blog has been neglected. We have reconfigured our purpose a bit to inlcude more undergraduate as well as K-12 focus on education. With that said, there may well be more input on HUNBlog from undergraduate students and professors.
The other reason I have been lax on HUNBlog is because I have been spending more time on our other blog, Dark Matter. Dark Matter is a literary journal for speculative writing that was started by students in the Natural Science Department at UHD. The first issue was published this summer, and we are currently accepting submissions for issue #2 which will be published in December.
Check it out here: Dark Matter
I thought I'd borrow the last entry from Dark Matter for HUNBlog because I think the sentiment I expressed is relevant for STEM education as well as for literary fiction. Here it is with a few changes to hone in on a STEM focus -
There is a tendency to categorize speculative fiction into two camps: the mystical, and the existential. STEM education often falls into the same dilemma when it is placed into the larger context of society. On one side is science and the way that it studies the natural world. On the other is religious experience and the way that it leads to understanding of our own nature. There is often talk of consilience between the two (see E. O. Wilson), though others argue that these are completely separate magisteria (see S. J. Gould). I’m not interested in entering this debate in this blog entry, but it is a fascinating one. What I would like to do is encourage serious consideration of this dichotomy, so that we can better define the goals of STEM education, beyond content and skills and towards science literacy.
Let’s keep the distinction of mystical for religious experience and existential for science. I tend more towards the existential philosophy personally, preferring to define mystical as simply mysterious, undiscovered. As a poet, I have no trouble imposing beauty and meaning onto the cold universe, red in tooth and claw. I see poetry as the tool we use to fill the void of space with meaning rather than a platform for fantasy that allows us to avoid the fear of nothingness. As a scientist, I experience great joy from unfettered exploration of the universe and phenomena. The unknown is the carrot that draws scientists into the darkness to find elucidation and understanding. A completely mechanistic universe is a necessary assumption, however, if we are to study it scientifically and understand how it works.
This is where STEM education comes in. There is certainly no argument that STEM education should avoid the mystical and focus on phenomena. Science is about the unknown. It is about exploration and explanation. But the assumption of a mechanistic universe which is crucial to scientific inquiry is antithetical to religious experience. So now I’ll go out on a limb (somewhere between Gould and Wilson, I suppose), to explain why it is critical that we teach the scientific perspective to all children in our society. This is, perhaps, my own philosophical musing on consilience.
Science is a search for truth. Meaning comes from interpretation. These functions are related, but not integrated. Both explore the unknown, but from different perspectives and with different assumptions. Science gives us the undeniable details of the world around us, however. A search for meaning provides a different kind of substance. This is where the mystical has a role, though it can never be satisfactory if it denies the reality of the details (yes, this is another can of worms, but we'll have to leave it to the comments). If it does, it becomes fantasy. Fantasy is indispensible to exploration of meaning and understanding of our human nature, if identified as such, if given the power of myth, but this is obviously a separate way of knowing from science. If mystical is seen as a way to bring fantasy into reality, however, it can become a diversion from true considerations of meaning and self-determination. Speculation about the distinctions I am trying to make is where the value of the two camps come together synergistically. Dismissal of this speculation as beyond our ken opens the specter of delusion. No matter how blissful these delusions may be, I prefer consciousness. And I prefer that we keep science education in this realm so that our students can function without misconceptions in our technological society. Whether as scientists or not, everyone must be able to interpret the natural world honestly in order to find their own meaning.
I'll end with a quote I recently heard in a presentation by Nathan Wolfe on TED.com that illustrates my point, especially for those interested in the pursuit of science -
"Don't assume that what we currently think is out there is the full story. Go after the dark matter, in whatever field you choose to explore."