Friday, November 9, 2012

Testing the Theory: Taking Einstein to Primary Schools

The original photograph of the 1919 eclipse wh...
The original photograph of the 1919 eclipse which was claimed to confirm Einstein's theory of general relativity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by David Blair, Director, Australian International Gravitational Research Centre at University of Western Australia, The Conversation:

School students today are taught physics based on obsolete theories and outmoded ways of thinking.

Instead of the truth, most learn a naive simplification - the 300 year-old Newtonian physics, itself based on disproved 2,300 year-old Euclidean geometry. But why?

Simply put, the thinking has long been that one can’t learn the truth without first learning the old theories as a foundation.

Only a select few go on and learn the correct theories at university.

But physicists and educators in Western Australia have been putting this theory of science education to the test: they have been bringing the concepts of Einsteinian physics to primary schools.

Naive understanding

Our modern understanding of the universe is based on two theories of physics developed by Einstein - the theory of gravity, called General Relativity and the theory of particle interactions called Quantum Mechanics.

Einsteinian physics is the culmination of centuries of debate. Even though most of us still hold on to Newton’s idea that space, time and matter are independent and separable entities, today physicists know that space, time and matter are all interconnected. We know, too, that Euclidean geometry is wrong, or at least is only an approximation.

A science experiment

A colleague and I set out to discover whether 11 to 12 year-olds could understand these Einsteinian ideas. We explored the history of ideas about space from Pythagoras to Newton to Einstein. We discussed the meaning of a straight line and learnt that the path of a light beam is the only arbiter we have for straightness.

The students drew triangles and traced the paths of parallel lines on balloons. They saw that some of the Euclidean concepts that they had already learnt were only true if space was flat. For example, they found out that the sum of the angles of a triangle is variable depending on its size, and that parallel lines can intersect.

Then we went on to study Carl Friedrich Gauss’s unsuccessful experiment to measure the shape of space in Bavaria 200 years ago, then the great Australian eclipse expedition to Wallal Downs Station south of Broome in 1922, where the curved space around the sun was confirmed.

A few sessions later, using simple graphs and Einstein’s assertion that freely falling trajectories are always the shortest paths in spacetime, the children discovered the key Einsteinian prediction that time depends on your height above the ground. They learnt that their GPS navigators only work because the satellites are corrected for this time warp created by Earth.

This work culminated in a play performed by the Year Six students for the School of Physics at the University of Western Australia. The play, called Free Float, was a lighthearted exploration of the ideas of space, time and gravity where the students clearly demonstrated their understanding of Einstein’s concepts.

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