UH Hilo physics professor translates scientific terms into Indigenous languages

UH Hilo Professor of Physics Philippe Binder says that when physics students learn and use introductory scientific terms and concepts in their native tongue, they are more likely to understand the subject.

Pictured is Prof. Binder with his arm around his dog Peppers.
Philippe Binder and his dog, Peppers, on the UH Hilo campus. Photo by Kirsten Aoyagi/UH Hilo Stories.

A three-year grant from the Reid Hoffman Foundation will support a physics professor to further develop a science lexicon project designed to translate physics terms into Indigenous or less-common languages.

Philippe Binder knows that when physics students can learn and use introductory scientific terms and concepts in their native tongue, they are more likely to understand the subject. The knowledge comes in part from his experiences in teaching university-level physics in South America before coming to the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

“Having the language you speak well available to you is of a lot of help,” says Binder. “What happens is very often people will learn using material in English or in the student’s native language. But homework or discussions are conducted in the language they are most comfortable in.”

A faithful translation of physics terms into Indigenous or less-common languages is a tricky enterprise. A first step is the identification of a core vocabulary in the subject.

Prof. Binder Binder was inspired to start the project when asked by a student some years ago about why physics wasn’t taught in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) at the Hilo campus.

The idea sat on a back burner until two years ago, when Binder began to lay the groundwork for his Science Lexicon Project. With assistance from linguistics and data science students, the professor started with introductory mechanics, using a digital version of a standard physics textbook and a software program that counted the words and ranked them. The study was published earlier this year by the European Journal of Physics.

Prof. Binder plans to do similar work for other areas of science including astronomy, environmental science, ecology, and climate science.

This year, his work to translate those terms received a huge boost with a three-year grant from the Reid Hoffman Foundation. The support will allow Binder to spend more time on the lexicon project and will be used to hire several undergraduate students to assist with the research.

“The grant allows me a lot of freedom to do things that I otherwise couldn’t do,” says Binder.

Binder’s goal is to make learning introductory physics easier for undergraduate students who may be more comfortable learning in their native languages so they have a strong base before moving on to upper level courses that are usually taught in English or a few other widely spoken languages.

Having a better understanding of the terms in their own languages will help build a stronger foundation for physics majors, but also students in other majors, such as engineering, who must take introductory physics classes.

“The idea now is to make what we’re doing available to as many places as possible so that they can build up a physics vocabulary,” he says.

Binder says the lexicon will also help open a two-way conversation on physics with Indigenous peoples to learn about their traditional practices that may have involved physics principles, such as Native Hawaiians’ knowledge of navigation and wayfinding.

He also says the climate-related events of this summer have underscored for him that “the language of climate change is far more critical for us than physics,” so he plans to work with those terms as well.

Read the full story by Janis Magin at the UH Foundation website.

Photo by Kirsten Aoyagi, a communication major.