Interaction as Motivation
2014-07-11 | Text: Aydar Fahrutdinov | Photo ©: Evgeniy Nikolaev | 3318

Some of my most vivid childhood memories were of meetings with veterans, who were invited to our school fairly often. It was so exciting to hear the type of stories that we had only read in books told by people who had directly participated in them!

Looking back on that time, I can say for sure: nothing motivates and teaches the rising generation like regular interaction with people who possess rich and unique experiences in a particular field. We discussed this topic with Igor Grigoryev, head of the youth organization Space Scouts. Although in this case the very nature of the organization emphasizes encounters between children and cosmonauts, it must be understood that the encounters could just as well be with professionals from the power or construction industries, or from the world of industrial design... Professionals like these always have a store of interesting stories capable of demonstrating the appeal and importance of a field to any child.

– Igor Petrovich, for your Space Scouts meetings with cosmonauts are not rare. What does this type of interaction give children?

Our goal is to attract children to space exploration. By talking with live “examples” of this work, the children should feel that space is close, that cosmonauts aren’t just pictures hanging on a wall – they’re real people, in many ways no different than the children themselves. The children should feel like they’re just a foot away from space. Space exploration is something close and attainable, not something far-off. And another thing: any sort of interaction, unlike abstract discussion, always creates interest in children. Having just met a cosmonaut, the child now feels motivated – especially if the conversation touches upon existing problems. Children begin to look for solutions, start feeling like they have to do something.

– How should these meetings be organized?

For starters you need to get the children to come to a meeting like this, and they should prepare themselves for it. First the children need to satisfy their own curiosity – meet the cosmonauts, ask them what kind of ideas and dreams they have about space exploration. Then you need to move the discussion into the realm of problems. If you end up with an exchange of opinions about problems facing space exploration, if you succeed in creating an atmosphere of joint creation in search of ways to solve these problems – then you’ve accomplished the main goal of the meeting. Finally, there comes the club-style socializing stage. We go from the discussion table to a freer space – interaction with one another on a personal level. Here children go from seeing the problems to understanding how grown-ups set up their lives in relation to these problems. It’s best if there are meetings with representatives of different areas of space exploration – with cosmonauts, engineers of space technology, researchers, and even journalists and historians of space exploration.

– How does what real cosmonauts say correlate with what children get from the school curriculum?

We want to turn these kids into full-fledged researchers as well as engineers. That’s why we are extremely interested in all sorts of experiments that cosmonauts carry out in space. The school curriculum isn’t in any condition to satisfy that curiosity. I don’t understand why physics, geography, and biology courses aren’t filled with examples from real space exploration and experiments carried out in space. Unfortunately, contemporary physics textbooks are almost exactly the same as those from the ‘60s. Jet-propelled flight and the nuclear reactor as described as if they were the latest achievements. Since then physics has not stood still! There have been many breakthroughs in electronics, the creation of new materials, nanotechnologies, astrophysics. But the textbooks we use to teach children don’t go into these achievements and problems.

Physics instruction, besides giving a solid foundation of knowledge, should lead students onto an understanding of the cutting edge of new developments. For example, the media often talks about the Hadron Collider. But in physics textbooks children won’t find anything that would help them understand what that is. Another example – a few days it was all over the news how a 13-year old English schoolboy built a thermonuclear reactor right in a school and carried out a thermonuclear synthesis three in its laboratory. 

An important thing about teaching of physics is that the topic shouldn’t be presented as if everything is final. The student shouldn’t get the impression that he’s learned everything there is to know about the topic, and that science has already learned everything in that direction and so there’s nothing else to look for. That’s not the case! Even when studying the aggregate states of matter we come up against the fact that we understand gases and crystalline bodies well, but there’s still much that we don’t understand about liquids. Every topic should end with problems that are still unsolved, so that the student is encouraged to go further. But in contemporary curricula there’s nothing like that. Have you ever seen, for example, a description of laboratory work at a school? It’s not real laboratory research – it’s menial lab tasks: set up the apparatus, start it up, look at the readings on the instrument, put these readings into this formula – and that’s it. The main stages of research aren’t there at all – putting forward a hypothesis, constructing a scientific model, checking that model through experimentation. To teach physics today you need a completely different lab room, one that would give children the opportunity to find the means to test any hypothesis they might come up with. It should be a universal construction kit for research. For example, if during the course of work you need to test something with an experiment, and the students put together a plan for the possible experiment (one that isn’t like the standard lab tasks), they should be able to find the necessary equipment to carry out that experiment.

At one time cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov gave physics lessons from space – the program was recorded on the orbital station Mir. In space you can demonstrate things that are hard to visualize on Earth. For example, on Earth it’s hard to see the surface tension of water, because it is always counteracted by more powerful forces – the forces of gravity. That’s why if you pour out a liter of water, it spreads in all directions. But in space it turns into a sphere. It’s good training for a researcher – try to figure out what will happen, and then see if the hypothesis is confirmed by reality or not.

In addition to that, cosmonauts deal with the most cutting-edge research, and in the many fields all at once – astrophysics, technology, biology. And, working in orbit, they come up against many unexpected problems. This is what allows schoolchildren to start working on the cutting edge of science.

– Besides interaction with cosmonauts, what might serve as a good instrument for career guidance in this field?

Even though interaction with cosmonauts and engineers is, admittedly, the most emotional aspect of our work with schoolchildren, it is only one aspect of that work. There’s research work as well, project development and the drafting process, extreme sports, and work on various simulators, scouts training. In all of this the most important factors in career guidance are: 1) The creation of a creative atmosphere; 2) Including the schoolchild in unsolved problems; 3) Introducing them to individuals who have devoted their lives to solving them; 4) Setting up work perspectives for a person going into that profession.

– On an actual space station many experiments are automated. To what extent is this suitable when planning a teaching module?

Now that total automation and informatization are possible, it’s essential that we rethink the way we train researchers. The way they’re introducing automation into laboratory work now is awful! The educational automated apparatuses that I’ve had to work with offer the student practically no room for research work, and even the lab tasks there are automated and reduced to a minimum. It’s impossible to change the set-up of the experiment on the fly, it’s impossible to change the processing algorithm for the data gathered. The student’s part in all of it is reduced to pushing a button and writing down the results. What does the child get from this?

Understanding this, teachers start to completely reject the necessity of automation and design their teaching around very simple experiments conducted with the materials that they have on hand. Sometimes that’s enough to get to the heart of things. Even Cavendish in his day said that you can measure everything with sealing wax and a few pieces of string. But work of that sort completely takes away the opportunity to learn how to automate experiments and use modern technologies. It seems to me that both of these approaches are extremes. The student should understand the point of the experiment being carried out (or should have created the experimental apparatus himself), and should understand how to automate the process so as to process a large volume of measurements. In the course of a laboratory experiment without a computer a child has time to measure the density of one little cylinder. Whereas if he uses a computer and comes to an understanding of how to carry out a measurement, he can measure not just one density, but instead create an entire chart of densities. But that’s only the first step. Ideally, by giving the student the ability to automate experiments, we should create a process for experimental research in education not as a means of checking laws that they have already learned, but as a means of creating new process models.

When we give the assignment of verifying a gas law, we tell the children about the law, and all they have to do is make sure that the experiment gives data that the model describes. By giving the children a computer, it’s possible to give children the opportunity to observe for themselves how gas properties change and then construct their own model.

I should add that the solution of this problem is also directly linked to the solution of problems in space exploration. One very pressing issue today is that of “Man vs. Robot.” Who should explore space – man or automatons? Often the necessity of manned space exploration flights is based on the thesis that a person goes into space, first of all, to understand what tasks to give a robot. But often the person ends up carrying out the lab work!

– To what extent is it appropriate to give research apparatus to a person whose body of scientific knowledge isn’t fully-formed?

The basis of any research is child-like curiosity! I would say that research is in a child from birth. Knowledge and the formation of a picture of scientific knowledge – that’s something a little different.  Experience demonstrates that it’s much easier to start experiments in sixth or seventh grade, and not in the eleventh. Sure, they know less, and they aren’t used to working with instruments, but the younger they are, the more curious they are. If you assign a problem to students in sixth or seventh grade, they will be significantly more willing to go about solving it than students in tenth or eleventh grade, and put forward different hypotheses right then and there. And, by the way, they learn significantly faster. We have sixth-graders who already understand microcontrollers, programming, and participate in contests in the creation of child satellites.

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