Do You Know How the World Works

Why are acorns pointed? How do toilets work? What is nothingness?

Give up? Stephen Wong, visiting professor of physics, says the problem is that you haven't slowed down and explored the ideas and concepts the question involves. Last semester, in his class How the World Works, Wong coached Oberlin students to shift their focus from "knowing" answers to learning how to generate them.

"We did this by practicing to ask precise, clear questions about the things we didn't understand," says Wong. "Then we practiced learning how to make educated guesses using logical deductions, well defined definitions, simplified models of the processes, and prior knowledge."

Stephen Wong's ClassStudents posed four questions each week about things happening around them they didn't understand and attempted to answer the questions by using only their own reasoning, observations, and memory of past learning. Wong selected one question for further research, and students submitted a second paper comparing their guesses with the researched answers. They also gave class presentations, evaluating their classmates for, among other qualities, enthusiasm and fun.

The professor centered the writing-intensive class on four themes--conservation laws, energy transport, wave motion, and the language of science. "The goal of the course," says Wong, "was to realize that there is a big, wonderful universe out there, and that if we ask the right questions and apply solid reasoning skills, it is within all our grasps."

"On an everyday and life-changing level, the class has made me look at the world differently," says freshman Arish Dastur. What Wong taught him, he says, is how to come to a conclusion without a presumption.

Wong admits to influence from his father, the late Edward Wong, Oberlin professor of mathematics from 1957 to 1988. "He never gave me a straight answer," says the younger Wong, laughing. "I learned about caring from my father. Every student to him was important."

To learn more about How the World Works, go to the URL: p60syll.htm or e-mail Professor Wong at:

--Linda Grashoff
Editor, The Observer