Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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Taking your first steps into higher education

1 What are science, technology and maths?

Given the strong feelings science, technology and maths provoke amongst many learners and students, the first place to start, before we embark on an explanation of what science, technology and maths are, is to ask what you understand by these terms.

Activity 1 What do science, technology and maths mean to you?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Write a few words or phrases in your notebook that describe what you understand by ‘science’, ‘technology’ and ‘maths’.

Comment

Here are some of the ideas I had:

Table 1

sciencetechnologymaths

experiments and theories

laboratories

finding out about the world

testing ideas

chemistry, biology, physics

 

electronic devices such as laptops and smart phones

tools and gadgets

applied science

engineering

design

numbers

measurements

calculations

problem solving

data

 

To what extent are the words or phrases you came up with similar to those listed here?

In general terms, science is about a particular type of knowledge about the world. Scientific knowledge has been tested through experiments and observations. Science involves the investigation, analysis and study of nature. It has its own methods and techniques for finding out things. Before a new observation or theory can be accepted as a scientific fact, it has to be tested by scientists working independently. Some sciences, such as chemistry and physics, tend to be based within laboratories. In these subjects, experiments are often set up under controlled conditions, such as a specific temperature or combination of chemicals. In other sciences, such as astronomy or biology, experiments more often start from observing the world outside the laboratory, and then testing ideas or theories against those observations. The aim is to understand the world around us, to know how things work.

If the aim of science is to comprehend the world, the aim of technology is to change it. Technology uses knowledge to achieve a practical purpose, to solve a problem, say, or to satisfy a need. Technology is the application of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, to change things. Often, technology is thought of as applied science, but there are many cases where a technologist has developed a practical solution to a problem before the scientific principles have been fully understood. For instance, people were building boats long before the physical theory of buoyancy (floating) had been worked out. Technology often involves devices or tools, such as power stations or computers, but it also includes social innovations. For example, a book can be thought of as a technology for sharing ideas, or a meeting between people as a technology for sharing experience to solve a problem.

Just as science and technology look at the world, maths concerns knowledge about the abstract world, quantities, sets and relationships. Maths has no single accepted definition, but we could say it is the classification and study of all possible patterns. This definition may surprise you, as you may think maths is simply about numbers and arithmetic. But maths is about so much more than numbers. Numbers have patterns, and when you dig deeper into maths you find patterns everywhere. This includes all patterns in science, design and technology, and more abstract patterns as well.

Mathematical facts cannot be demonstrated with the aid of experiments as they are true in any world or universe, not just ours. They are instead demonstrated with logical arguments. Maths is a language in which many scientific and technical ideas may be expressed.

In practice, science, technology and maths tend to be closely linked. Human beings find it difficult to know something without using that knowledge for some purpose or another. The more we know about the world, the more we are able to change it. But the more we change it, the more we learn about the way things work. Our understanding of our surroundings progresses hand in hand with our ability to change and manipulate them. Understanding the world allows us to change things in new ways, or to change them more effectively and efficiently. Similarly, the process of changing things improves our understanding of how the world works – and thus our ability to investigate it in new ways so as to improve our understanding still further.

An example should make things clearer. People were using yeast to make bread for thousands of years before yeast was identified as a living thing, made of many microscopic cells. The technology of breadmaking had gradually developed as a practical process that worked, without having to know the detailed science. Recipes were used that measured the quantities of ingredients and these quantities could be adjusted. Once the biology of yeast was understood, however, people could apply that knowledge to improve the breadmaking process. So, technology can find solutions before the science is understood, but can also benefit from applied scientific knowledge. At each step of the process measurements and maths help to understand what is going on.

One consequence of this distinction is that we tend to judge science, technology and maths in different ways. Science and maths tend to be evaluated in terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Does the Earth rotate around the Sun? Yes. Is the Earth supported on the back of a giant turtle? No. In contrast, when we look at technology we ask about whether it works. Is this particular technology effective and appropriate in this particular situation? Does it achieve the desired result?

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