Breaking misconceptions | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Breaking misconceptions

I had been notified way ahead of time, but I still chose to finish my presentation the night before. Don’t get me wrong, I started to draft the first slide weeks before the talk. But I firmly believed, as I do now, that deadline is the best way to squeeze the creative juices.

Given to me was a theme that was not cliché but not a mouthful either: “Math is the language of science, science is the life of math.” Upon reading this, I already had a presentation in mind. I had the general concepts laid out, but not each specific slide. I knew what I wanted to communicate, but I needed to keep reminding myself I am not speaking to colleagues. They were not my students either.

And so, for the first part, I rambled with pockets of stories from my formative years. The second half I dedicated to breaking misconceptions. I listed throwaway expressions we often use in defense of computing the final bill after dinner.

Mahirap ang math. (Math is hard.) Masakit sa ulo ang mga numbers. (Numbers can make your head hurt.) And these expressions extend to science as well. Magaling sa science? Magdo-doktor ka ano? (You’re good in science? You’re going to study to become a doctor, huh?) Kunin mo engineering, mataas ang sweldo tapos makakapag-abroad ka! (You should study engineering—you’ll earn a lot and you can go abroad.)

I do not wish to reduce math and science to mere play. In the course of history, great minds have made immense contributions to what science and math are now. The prevailing narrative, however, is discouraging and disturbing. The first thing adults teach children is that science and math are difficult subjects. It is also disconcerting when subjects of humanity are looked down on as mere alternatives when a student fails to ace the so-called hard sciences.

An old but gold line from “Dead Poets Society” (1989) by John Keating, the character played by Robin Williams, is the icing on the cake: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Concepts in engineering

In my field of engineering, concepts can become so abstract that one may get lost in equations and calculations, or numbers that don’t seem to make sense. There have been comparisons between basic electricity concepts and life—everyday life.

For example, voltage is like the pressure that causes the flow of water or the current, while the resistance is the choke point that attempts to prevent the flow. Recently, I saw on social media that the I, supposed to be the current in the equation V=IR, stands for “I love you.” I never thought I’d see the day when my profession, and my current career path in academia, would be all for naught.

My personal favorite is when I teach my students that for an ordinary consumer of electrical energy, there are only two things important: May kuryente ba ako? Magkano ang babayaran kong sa bill ng kuryente? (Do I have electricity? How much is my electric bill?)

In my lectures, I make sure to go back to the basics. In academic rambles, we often forget why we are exploring in the first place. What are science, engineering and all that we study in the academe if they are not for the good of the people?

The goal of making these analogies is to allow students to imagine, to go back to something they are more familiar with and to give an experiential touch to abstract concepts, especially if they are on the verge of grasping.

The technique might also apply to anything else—we look for something we are more familiar with to help us navigate through the unknown. And then we learn and relearn. We accept that we are not correct all the time. We become more open to criticism. We allow our old belief systems to be debunked to give way to a more nuanced appreciation of new knowledge.

What if we teach our children rightly so that we will never have to break misconceptions when they grow up? —Contributed

The author teaches and studies at the University of the Philippines. 

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