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Non-science students in a science class

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Gibraltar Barbary Macaque

This fall I teach Anth 143: Biology of human behavior for the fourth time here at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The difference is that most of the time I will be teaching I will be behind a computer or camera lens. Undergraduates will lead in-person sections designed to help students gain the skills they need in college science courses and beyond, where the TAs and I will handle the content and assignments online. I am even creating some videos to replace lectures, and what’s exciting is that this has opened up a whole new way for me to share science with my students. I can do woman-on-the-street interviews, I can interview colleagues, I can do demonstrations or explain graphs (and yes, I’ll share some of these on the blog as well). Producing a hybrid face-to-face/online course is allowing me to make some materials more intimate and interesting than I could have produced before, back when this was a giant lecture of 750 students at once.

In the past, I have written a Frequently Asked Questions page to divert some of the hundreds of emails I receive at the start of the semester. The first question is this:

1) Q: Should I really be sending this email to my TA or professor?
A: Probably not. Go here to figure it out.

A bit harsh, perhaps, but without a firm policy I get deluged with emails from non-student accounts that look like this:

Hey, whats the textboooook
-Sent from my iPhone

Unfortunately, my unwillingness to engage with over a hundred of these emails every single week for the first three weeks leads to the following sorts of student evaluations:

This prof was a bitch. Refused to answer email. Totally cared more about her research than this class.

I can’t totally disown the first sentence, though I leave this attitude at the skating rink. But the second sentence is untrue – I do occasionally miss or forget an email, but that only happens with students from my lab who can come and find me, not those in this course. And the last comment cannot be true, because I have put my professional interests aside again and again to devote time to revamping this course, when I full well know that to get tenure I need to do more research.

So, I have been thinking a bit more about how I can balance generosity of spirit with sanity of mind. How can I convey the reality of my expectations for students in my course without their chafing at the idea that I cannot answer questions that I know they can look up?

How can I teach them to do the work I know they can do?

I don’t want to have a conversation about “kids these days,” or the problems of helicopter parents, or cell phones (or sexism in teaching, which could be another entire thread). The reality is that my students are bright, they are talented, and they are interesting. I’m sure I would enjoy getting to know them all if given half the chance.

They just happen to be non-science majors taking an enormous science course as part of their general education requirements. This is what I have come up against, again and again. Many of them are terrified and think they will fail, and they are emailing me mundane questions I know they can answer because they just want to make a connection. Many have already been convinced by someone earlier in their lives that they aren’t good at science. Many went to schools with struggling science programs, or they were taught only enough to pass placement tests. It’s not their fault that we don’t invest enough as a culture or country in science education to give teachers the tools they need to excite students about science and give them confidence in it.

There are a few big changes we’re rolling out this semester that should give the students a helping hand – the face to face sections replacing lecture will put students in rooms of 30 rather than one room of 750. I will probably hold a series of brown bag lunches through the semester where students can just sign up to come hang out with me too.

But I know these students could still use more help. And that’s where you come in.

Some of you reading are current or former students. Some are scientists by trade, and some just love to read science. What is your advice for my students? What do you think it takes to become science literate, to have success in a 100-level science course, or to find your passion in science? What would you do to convey to these students that they know and understand far more than they realize?

I want to use this post as a chance to start a real discussion – you all get the first stab at these questions, but then I’m going to invite my students over to my next post in this series. Let’s see if we can get students and SciAm readers together talking about why science is cool, and to foster a community that appreciates science.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. CM doran 1:41 pm 08/16/2011

    I think the first things that sort the students into “love science” and “don’t like it” and “hate science” categories are their early years. Then, are they taking the course because they have to or because they want to?

    I think there are ways to reach both, and face to face small group may make it easier….everyone is curious about something aren’t they? I’m not sure an incurious student can be spurred to really love science no matter what. Is there a way to find each student’s love/curiousity with science without working 24/7? I think it is great that you are going to give it a try. All the best, and thanks for writing.

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  2. 2. Geknitics 1:41 pm 08/16/2011

    You have some great ideas. When I taught intro physical anthropology classes in the summer, I had the students go out and survey the community on their perceptions of science (maybe they could do on-the-street interviews on different topics for group projects?), and I tried to incorporate hands-on activities (like the PBS Breeding Bunny Lab) to illustrate big concepts like natural selection. In the regular sessions of the class, the prof had eliminated discussions of HWE because “most of the students had a hard time with the math,” but in a small class setting and using interactive teaching methods, the students understood it just fine.

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  3. 3. kclancy 2:17 pm 08/16/2011

    Thanks CM. I don’t think these students are incurious, but some may be a bit beaten down by the system.

    Geknitics, what a neat idea. That might be the perfect first exercise of the semester! (the perceptions of science thing)

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  4. 4. Superbug 2:51 pm 08/16/2011

    The brown bag lunches are the best idea, IMO. This gives the students who like to sit at the front of the class a chance to connect with you a bit. If I were you I’d ask them to come up with at least one question related to the course. Or you can give it a bit more structure and include goodies like a small presentation of stuff you’ve picked up throughout your research :-)

    As for advice for the students? Get as much out of the class as you can. The money for your education goes towards the hours spent in class, the books and the materials. Make something of that, even if it’s ultimately not your field.

    My other advice, if you have a question you’re dying to ask a TA or prof, just remember that the best profs won’t give you a straight answer right away. You’re expected to come to the conclusion on your own. But do seek assistance if after significant effort you aren’t sure how you should be thinking about a concept. Chances are you’re most of the way there and profs/TAs will give you that last push.

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  5. 5. Superbug 2:59 pm 08/16/2011

    Oh and by “presentation” I meant if you can physically bring some neat artifact or some samples from your fieldwork that would be a plus.

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  6. 6. matthartings 3:02 pm 08/16/2011

    Good luck with this class. Your students certainly should appreciate your efforts.
    I teach a class “like” this (70 students instead of 750 – yikes!). The one thing I try to show the students is how they are already scientists in the things they do every day. (Of course, my angle is cooking and chemistry.) And certainly, this is only one of many approaches.
    In talking with other profs who teach GenEd courses, one of the things that we all push for is creating a class that our majors really wish they could take. This might be too generic of an idea, but I’ve found that thinking about my class from this point of view has really helped me.

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  7. 7. kclancy 4:18 pm 08/16/2011

    Superbug, thanks for your comments. I agree that the brown bags will be good — I’ve done them in the past and they have been great fun.

    Matt, exactly! This is what I hope to do, too. Most of my readings are blog posts, ones that demonstrate the main points of that week’s content in slightly different, more relatable ways, so I hope they get this sense from a few different places. I think I need to make sure to state this obviously as well, and not just expect them to get it.

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  8. 8. Momma,PhD 10:14 pm 08/16/2011

    I was a TA for an intro science class- Molecular Biology 101. So, I’m answering these questions based on the students I dealt with in that class.
    What is your advice for my students?

    This class will be different than your non-science classes. In other classes, your are judged by your ability to state your case and make your case- for your opinion or position. In science, the answers are often black and white, right or wrong, so how well you defend your answer is immaterial if your answer is wrong. In the cases where there is not a definitive right or wrong answer (ie an unproven hypothesis or area of active inquiry), you have to have the science to back up your answer, not just your opinion.

    Further, if grades are crucial for you- expect that you’ll work harder in this class than in your non-science classes to get a similar grade.

    What do you think it takes to become science literate, to have success in a 100-level science course, or to find your passion in science?

    I think a few intro science courses in several different fields is an excellent way to become a well-rounded, well-educated, science-literate person. You want to be able to read the Science Times on Tuesday and know that they are talking about. You want to be able to answer the questions that little kids have (Why is the sky blue? Where do babies come from? How can flies walk on the ceiling? What is cancer?).

    To be successful in a 100-level course, you have to be prepared to work hard (perhaps harder than in your non-science classes). You have to be willing to get into a different mind-set where partial credit isn’t given for well-argued answers if the answer is wrong. You have to take lots of notes, you have to do the reading. You should do as many practice questions as you can- get used to how science questions are asked and answered.

    To find your passion in science, think about the way the world works and ask yourself why. It could be anything. Why are there different races? Is race real- as in is it just a social construct or is there a biological basis for it? Why do you pee a lot when you drink alcohol? How does a computer store data? How does a touch screen work? What are seashells made of? How are they made? If you look critically at everything in your daily life, you’ll realize it’s all science. Recapture the child-like habit of always asking how and why.

    What would you do to convey to these students that they know and understand far more than they realize?

    There was a recent article in wired about how kids act like scientists:

    The idea being that when little kids don’t know how a toy works, they use trial and error, altering single variables at a time to figure it out.

    So basically, your students have been doing science their whole lives!

    I wrote a post recently prompted by that article showing how it doesn’t matter if you’re discovering the structure of DNA, how to stop your toilet bowl from running, or how to use a spoon- it’s all the scientific method. (

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  9. 9. Momma,PhD 10:15 pm 08/16/2011

    Oh- and one other idea- what about rotating through the sections (some or all) so that each student would have the chance to interact with you in that small group setting?

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  10. 10. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 10:20 pm 08/16/2011

    Funny you mention that, Momma, PhD — I was planning on attending two sections a week for the whole semester so I’d get some face time with them! There are 24 sections, so I should get through all of them twice.

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  11. 11. jmahr 5:42 am 08/17/2011

    Hello – I am an Asst Prof at a community college and am struggling with some of the same issues you mention – particularly the “how do I get my students to do the work that I know they can do”. My classes are ridiculously small compared to yours (capped at 24 students), so I am not sure that any approach I use would practically work in your situation.

    One of the beauties of teaching at a CC is that I see most of my students in 2 different settings, once in lecture and then again in the lab section. I pity people teaching classes where they don’t get to interact with the students in lab…. labs are where you can interact more one on one with them. One technique I have tried out with success is to structure some labs with extra credit points that get taken away if they ask a question whose answer is in the lab manual for that day’s exercise. I am very engaged with students and generally having a great time, so I think that limits the “he won’t help me” kinds of comments.

    In lecture I struggle more, as many students simply don’t appear to be doing the work that they need to be doing. Even after failing the first exam, when I see them in my office and they say “what can I do, this is really hard”… I ask them how they study and offer suggestions for making their studying more efficient and give them small extra assignments (introducing them to concept mapping and giving them some terms to map out or even giving them more focused reading assignments with a few questions to answer) they don’t get back to me. Their willingness to “accept their fate” is incredibly disturbing to me.

    Ok, now that that vent is done: with only 24 students in my classes, I make an effort to figure out what interests them and then make that semester’s class somewhat tailored (to the extent that I can). For instance, I am at a rural campus of a large community college (Georgia Perimeter College) and I started here last year. I moved out from California where I taight as an adjunct at an urban campus, so it was new for me to have hunters, fishermyn and horse owners in the class. In my organismal course, I started learning a bit about the fish that were in the local lakes and used that in my class, I now have a copy of the current season’s hunting regulations and use that to foster discussion about communities, I purposefully researched some horse genetics to use in my cell/molecular class. I can’t say that these things have successfully motivated my classes, but I know that it allowed me to connect with at least 2-3 people in each class (judging from questions they ask or don’t ask). Not sure how possible this is in a 750:1 setting though.
    I am becoming more and more a believer in the idea that if students aren’t struggling and a little uncomfortable they simply are not working hard enough. Frankly, some of my best “teaching moments” have been when students are struggling to figure out how to do some activity that I thought of on the drive in and typed out 15 minutes before class and maybe didn’t explain in the clearest language. They are completely uncomfortable with it, but they are forced to actively figure out “what is important here, what does he want”. To be honest, some of those moments have been the trainwrecks that they sound like, but more often than you would think it leads to a very actively engaged class. I would say that “kids these days” are too used to being handed ready made solutions, too used to showing up to “shovel ready projects”, but you expressly banned that :)

    Good luck, I will be reading to see if I can borrow anything that comes up. Thanks for a great post! Jeff

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  12. 12. ZThrockmorton 10:26 am 08/17/2011

    Hello Professor Clancy – I am a TA of Anthro 105 at UW-Madison, responsible for leading lab sections. Thus my position is not the same as leading a lecture section of hundreds of students. However, we face similar challenges in approaching non-science students. I think the most important consideration is deciding what you want your non-science majors to get out of your course. I am entirely forthright with my students in that I directly tell them that it is my hope they will:

    1. find the course material interesting (this should be an easy task to accomplish given our field’s scope and content)
    2. in the future when they have kids, if their public school board wants to teach intelligent design, they’ll show up to the meetings and be able to explain why that’s not science
    3. be a critical consumer of appeals to improving health by emulating our ancient ancestors (e.g. whatever the ‘caveman diet’ du jour might be)
    4. be a critical consumer of genetic testing services, especially those that purport to provide information of medical relevance
    5. be critical of discussions of race, and its relationship to behavior and biology
    6. be critical of forensic anthropology and forensic DNA analysis should they ever sit on a jury

    In other words, I think the burden is on instructors to illustrate how their course’s content is relevant to students, especially at the 100 level. We know our material, and we’re also adults who know better than our 18 year old first years what the real world is like. A lot of our field is incredibly useful to everyone.

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  13. 13. good enough cook 10:31 am 08/17/2011

    The first time through college I was a total science-phobe, but I’ve been taking intro-level science classes (one per semester) with a view to a possible career change. It’s been a totally different experience this time around. Some observations about how maturity (and my own teaching experience) has helped to make science more available to me:

    I’m now much better able to recognize the underlying assumptions that are distorting my understanding. When I came to chemistry again as an adult, I realized that one of the things that had gotten in the way of my ability to learn chemistry earlier was my completely unreflective assumption that chemistry was basically about the physical properties of liquids, and physics was basically about the physical properties of solids (reading Ken Bains w/r/t my own teaching was helpful here). Realizing that there were different sorts of distinction in play was key to my grasping what exactly a chemistry class was trying to teach me and to adjust my big picture accordingly, which made it a lot easier to slot into place the subject matter of the course as I went through the semester.

    I’ve also discovered that I’m a lot more confident as a student (and therefore more open and engaged) when I understand the relationship of what I’m learning in class to the larger truth of the natural world. That is, everyone knows that a intro-level class is going to be a simplified, shortened, and reduced version of a much more complex reality. Looking back, I realize that the science classes where I felt most discouraged and confused were the classes where it wasn’t clear what relationship the material I was being taught bore to that larger truth. On the other hand, if I understood that what I was learning was, say, a coarse-grained version (or rather the tip of an iceberg, or a representative sampling or….) then I found it a lot easier to take information on board. Now that I understand this part of my learning process,I am (as a mature student) able to ask questions when I recognize that I am confused about the relationship between the part I am learning and the whole of the subject matter.

    As a younger student, I had no way of recognizing (much less articulating in the form of a question) that particular kind of confusion. At some point, the course material would start to congeal in a lump of uncontextualized information that I found difficult to organize, and I would simply conclude that I was bad at science and give up. I have actually found as an adult learner that my online course (offered at an excellent local community college) help to forestall this kind of overload. The courses I’ve been taking demand a lot of active learning—the course requirements include identifying the goals for each chapter, formulating and submitting questions, and eliciting help from other students, so that confusion about how the ideas connect to one another gets shaken loose pretty quickly.

    The point an earlier commenter made about making students comfortable with the fact that the material is hard is also key. As an adult, I’m a lot more open to being wrong. I understand, at the core of my being, that a string of wrong answers is often a necessary stage for arriving at the right answer—in a way that I didn’t in high school and college. I fear that students now are even LESS prepared to cope with wrong answers than I was—test-based education has eroded their capacity to see learning as an ongoing process, not a series of predetermined outcomes. Anything that you can do to impress upon students that it’s okay—even helpful!–to be wrong (and to model for them how to use wrong answers as a pathway to better understanding) will help make them more confident.

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  14. 14. kclancy 11:10 am 08/17/2011

    These are fantastic thoughts, everyone. I hope lots of folks are reading these, and I’ll make sure to highlight some of these comments in a follow-up post.

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  15. 15. zfaulkes 11:44 am 08/17/2011

    “What is your advice for my students?”

    1. Pay attention.
    2. Work hard.

    The great thing about this advice is that it applies to more than just science classes. :)

    “What do you think it takes to become science literate(?)”

    1. Remembering certain core information (the sort of factual stuff you find on Wikipedia).

    2. Understanding something about the process of science. I don’t mean the cookbook “scientific method” that shows up in textbooks, but the actual messy reality that professional scientists deal with, like the variety of evidence, something about how science is funded, and why we’re always asking, “Was that in a peer-reviewed paper?”

    “(What do you think it takes) to have success in a 100-level science course(?)”

    Depends on the class. For some classes for some instructors, sheer brute memorization is often what gets people through. And even for classes and students that take a more sophisticated approach, at some point you are going to have to internalize a lot of information.

    “(What do you think it takes) to find your passion in science?”

    Passion? Heck, I’d settle for appreciation.

    I don’t know what makes people passionate about anything. I do know that enthusiasm is contagious. As is boredom.

    “What would you do to convey to these students that they know and understand far more than they realize?”

    Your own ignorance, and the ignorance of science. When starting, students are so overwhelmed with the sheer torrent of stuff that is known that they might think that the only unknowns left are the super-hard bits (like dark matter or the Higgs boson) that need a decade of study to grasp and equipment that they don’t get to play with.

    In some ways, my favourite student questions are ones where I have to answer, “I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody DOES know.”

    Students need to know that there is still low-hanging fruit, so to speak, of simple questions that are obviously solvable.

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  16. 16. ejwillingham 12:02 pm 08/17/2011

    Sorry…very long response.

    I start with my syllabus, which I spend much of the first class reviewing. It includes the following, so we get that out of the way right off the bat, all intended to remind them that (a) they’re adults, and (b) they’re paying for a *college* education–high school is OVER. I also have a little spiel I give about biology and how it’s relevant to everything they are and just about every aspect of their lives. I point out that we are all naturally scientists and give some examples of every-day ways that people use the scientific method, such as “Does she like me?” as the question; hypothesis, “I think she does”; data collection: asking friends, watching behaviors, testing directly; data analysis: sifting the information for results; conclusion: Nope, she doesn’t. Reject hypothesis.

    Finally…I point out that my first degree is in English literature. NO ONE is incapable of grasping what we’re learning in my class, but part of the success is on them: they must attend, take notes, be responsible, be interested.

    FAQ FOR XXXX Class:
    How many tests are there?
    You have three in-class exams and one comprehensive final exam.

    Are there makeup exams?
    THERE ARE NO MAKEUP EXAMS. The sole exception would be a conflict with a religious holy day. Please apprise me of an existing conflict of this nature as soon as possible.

    Can we e-mail you with questions about class material, tests, etc.?
    You are welcome to e-mail me at any time, and I usually respond promptly; however, do not send long lists of comprehensive questions the night or morning before an exam. And no matter what, always look for answers on your own first. That is part of the learning process.

    Will there be any pop quizzes?
    Yes, I reserve the right to spring a quiz on you in class.

    Will you offer extra credit or curves?
    No extra credit, no curves.

    What about your regrade policy?
    If you feel you’ve been misgraded, you must request a regrade. You must do this within three days of my returning a test or assignment/grade to you. This deadline means that if I hand a test back in class on the third, you must see me or e-mail me about grading issues by the sixth, even if you missed class on the third.

    What if I miss class?
    If you miss class, try to get the notes from someone. Documents on the Blackboard page will not suffice as a substitute for attendance. You must make sure that you have any handouts from your missed class. If you miss a class during which a test is returned, you will need to come to me for your graded work. Catching up on what you missed is YOUR responsibility. I don’t have notes.

    As someone who has more than 20 years of formal education and your own share of mistakes, do you have any words of advice to offer from your vast experience?
    Yes. Do your readings before class. Come to class every class period and take good notes. Review or rewrite your notes as soon after class as possible. E-mail your professor with questions as they arise. If you’re skipping class or otherwise shooting yourself in the foot, realize this by the last day to drop class without a penalty and drop the class. If you bomb the first test, give yourself a realistic assessment of what is going wrong. Be honest about it and sincere about fixing it. Talk to me early in the semester, not later, about what you might do to improve your performance. If you come to me late in the semester, I am not going to try to rescue you.
    Then, I have this “To do and not to do” list, which I also cover:

    To do and not to do

    1. DO ask as many questions in class as you would like in class. Participate freely.

    2. DO NOT talk to others during lectures or presentations. DO talk during discussions.

    3. DO call me Dr. Willingham, or Ms. Willingham, or Dr. W.

    4. DO NOT call me Mrs. Willingham; she is my grandmother.

    5. DO e-mail me with questions as you’re studying.

    6. DO send e-mail addressing me properly, and please include “please” and “thank you.” Thank you.

    7. DO feel free to e-mail me as often as you’d like.

    8. DO NOT call me at home.

    9. DO study your notes and book after each class period or discussion.

    10. DO NOT e-mail me with questions without first examining this syllabus for answers. DO NOT e-mail me with requests to average your grade for you, to determine what you need on test 3 to pass, or to give you some kind of extra credit assignment.

    11. DO take good notes and ask me to slow down if I’m going too fast.

    12. DO NOT ask for my notes to copy. I don’t have notes. You must consult with a student and see if they will take pity on you and let you copy their notes.

    13. DO feel free to raise issues related to class material for possible discussion.

    14. DO NOT deride others or get personal during class discussions.

    15. DO enjoy the learning and investigation aspects of this course. Keep it interesting for yourself!
    I don’t let everything ride on consumer-based education, but as bitchy as all of the above sounds, my students end up giving me really great and positive feedback at the end of the semester. The most gratifying? “This class made me think.”

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  17. 17. kclancy 12:19 pm 08/17/2011

    ejwillingham wrote: “The most gratifying? “This class made me think.””

    Ha — you know, I have a colleague who got that on a student eval. Except it was intended as an insult, not a compliment. Just shows the different approaches students can take… where some appreciate being made to think, others are resentful. Sigh.

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  18. 18. ejwillingham 12:34 pm 08/17/2011

    Maybe it’s cynical, but I tend to write off the very few students I’ve had who fear mental expansion. They’re adults now…if they’re THAT resistant to thinking, why the hell are they in college at all?

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  19. 19. kate_cooper 2:19 pm 08/17/2011

    It’s many moons since I taught, so I can’t say anything about the methods or content you could use. But I do have two points that might provide you with a framework in which to design your curriculum.

    First, we don’t expect people who appreciate music or art or literature to be able to play instruments or paint and sculpt or write novels and poetry. So maybe getting your students to appreciate science rather than ‘do’ it would be useful. One way or another, it’s key they appreciate that science and the scientific endeavour isn’t a belief system, but that it’s a quest for evidence, often counter-intuitive evidence for theories and ideas.

    Which leads to my second point: Scientists work at the leading edge of humanity’s intellectual endeavour, from Really Big Ideas like who we are and how we think to seemingly prosaic matters like the chemicals in which we wash our clothes, and the vaccinations we give our kids. Intellectually challenging, sure. Difficult? Yup, much of scientific endeavour is indeed thinking how to prove or disprove sometimes counter-intuitive, hard-to-crack stuff.

    But most of us don’t have to actually ‘do’ science. Instead, there are lots of ways for us all to appreciate that scientists are part of an amazing detective story; the more they find out, the more we know . . . and the more we realise just what we don’t know. (There’s a lot of meaning carried in the word ‘just’ in that last sentence!)

    Finally, I recommend the three ‘The Science of Discworld’ novels by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen for your reading list. Ian, incidentally, is the guy who said that science is the best defence we have for believing what we want to.

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  20. 20. edfrank 3:38 pm 08/17/2011

    I have been a TA for many geology classes. One thing to consider is to make the lab or TA sessions more about how to do science rather than just a review of the lecture material or presentation of new material. I would give tables of students a pile of rocks and ask them to classify them by whatever criteria they choose, and let them go to work. Those who tried to do the three rock groups would always get some wrong. Then I could point out other classification schemes – big vs little, pointy versus round, different colors, the merits of many categories versus a few categories. They need to understand how science works more so than exercises in memorization.

    Interestingly I sent my class in historical geology out to watch the partial eclipse of the sun instead of doing a full lesson in gastropod morphology. Several people were upset. They need to know science is in the world around them, not just in the laboratory.

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  21. 21. DrLPalmer 7:11 pm 08/17/2011

    Especially in a large class, a study group provides opportunity for discussion and question answering. I like the idea of frequently asked questions. College assumes the ability to study independently and read not only the textbook but looking at other sources (yes, wiki can help) that give overviews and different presentations on the same topics as presented in class. A great help is to immediately review briefly the content of the class following the class session (content goes to long-term memory with review within 24 hours). Taking courses is a job, an investment in the future. We cannot predict when and where bits and pieces of the class will become relevant in whatever work we do later.

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  22. 22. jmahr 5:03 am 08/18/2011

    @kate_cooper: I respectfully yet vigorously disagree. Science is exceedingly easy to do. It doesn’t have to be complicated or technical. There is *plenty* of easy stuff that hasn’t been done and probably never will get done because it isn’t a disease of (the right) humans. This semester I am going to have my students hanging fly tape outside in the forest and then look at them under a dissecting scope to see what sticks (a lot of cool stuff: In addition to getting some experience identifying basic types of arthropods, they are going to have to come up with some questions about where we might get more or less ____ and we will test hypothesis by doing by hanging more and looking at those. This is science. Sure, there is a lot that is already known about the organisms that we catch, but there is more that isn’t. And I know for a fact that absolutely no science has been done on these particular populations of arthropods so there you go – publishable data is eventually a possiblity.

    Do-ing is also the only way to realistically explain how science works. You can have them memorize the “5 steps” (observation, form a question… blah blah blah), but that is not really how science works most of the time and it makes the procoess sound as dry as the body of christ in a catholic mass.

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  23. 23. kate_cooper 4:27 am 08/19/2011

    @jmahr Sure, doing is a first-rate way of learning. And I applaud teachers who get their students to do experiments, discover first-hand How The World Works.

    Nonetheless, learning a lot of science stuff is really hard, needs a lot of maths (the ‘s’ ‘cos I’m a Brit!) which is counter-intuitive to many; many are badly taught (or not taught at all) at critical times in their intellectual development . . . My point is that, if this is the case and/or perceives to be so by student, not all is lost.

    Appreciation of science and, if possible, direct engagement with scientists, are all hugely valuable as part of a youngster’s education.

    An understanding that scientific theories aren’t part of a belief system seems really important to me — and although practising the scientific method is a great way of realising this, it’s not the only one.

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  24. 24. jmahr 6:09 am 08/19/2011

    And I have to admit, I don’t think my students have ever come away from my class with some kind of amazing understanding of science unless they didn’t already have when the walked in the door day one. I just want them to get outside and see that science doesn’t have to always be about lab benches & test tubes & human diseases. And (ironically) AMEN on wanting students to get the difference between scientific knowledge and belief system – its incredible how common that confusion is. I can’t remember back to when I was 18 and whether I had that misperception too. In fact that is the one thing that I would really really hope my non-majors students retain from my class 10 years later. Ok, maybe its in my top 3 things.

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