Treasure Hunts

Regina Hong, Yale-NUS ’17

It has been eight weeks into the first semester of my freshman year at Yale-NUS and to sum it up in one word, it has been…challenging.

It has been challenging the lens through which I view Science, the angles from which I viewed certain issues as well as the ways in which I asked questions. In a nutshell, it has been challenging the very way I think about learning. At Yale-NUS, I am learning to learn again and nowhere did I realise this more than in Scientific Inquiry.

So what have we studied in Scientific Inquiry? The syllabus shows that we have done atoms, the periodic table, Brownian motion, prime numbers and cosmology. What it doesn’t show is how it has taught us how to question axioms and examine science from various angles instead of merely memorizing theories. It doesn’t show how much fun it has made science appear; this is perhaps the first time in a long time that I have enjoyed science instead of associating it with a truckload of theories to be memorized.

Take today’s seminar for instance. To understand gravity and how a gravimeter works, we were divided into groups and given the task of prospecting for treasure on a 40m by 40m grid. Each group got to decide on a set of 10 coordinates for which they wanted to know the recorded gravimeter readings. The idea was that if one were right above the treasure, a strong gravimeter reading would be obtained, revealing the location of the buried treasure. Armed with nothing else but a rudimentary knowledge (for a Physics novice like yours truly at least) of the concepts behind the activity, we embarked on our quest.

It took us 4 tries to decide on a set of coordinates that we thought to be the most likely location for the treasure. What made the whole activity very memorable was not the end goal however, but the process and theorizing that got us to our proposed answer. We started off dividing the grid into nine parts in an attempt to narrow down our area of search. One of my group mates began plugging in values into an Excel spreadsheet to find out what the different gravimeter readings might translate to in terms of our distance from the treasure. We also decided that using a radial centre would be helpful in helping us block off areas that we were convinced would not contain the treasure. With a combination of luck, circle properties and equations that had hitherto been mere permutations of numbers, letters and symbols, we hit jackpot in our last set of readings. The exhilaration of understanding vague concepts and putting them into actual practice can only be experienced firsthand. Personally speaking, this is what makes Scientific Inquiry lessons one of the most memorable ones I have taken.

Of course, this is not to claim that not all science courses should be taught in this manner. For all the criticism heaped on how science is taught in secondary and high schools in Singapore, it is still important to have some basic scientific concepts etched into your brain. What is different about the Scientific Inquiry course at Yale-NUS is that it prods one into questioning axioms. For instance, how did people come to know about neutrons? What other particles were proposed in place of them and why were they rejected? And how is this all relatable to the grander scheme of things in the world where there are many methods through which one could approach a scientific problem but only one “correct” answer that would explain all the observations derived? Also, what does science have to do with history? Scientific Inquiry is not the only course among the other three (Comparative Social Institutions, Literature and the Humanities and Philosphy and Political Thought) that operates along this line of inquiry, but it has been the most definitive one for me.

So what has school been like? Challenging, yes, but also unexpectedly fun. That is, until the assignments come snowballing. After all, as Laozi would say, there is balance in all things in the world.

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