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Non-science majors: now it’s your turn

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


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Last week, I polled my readers to find out what they thought were the best ways to reach non-science majors to get them to appreciate, even fall in love with, science. Here are a few things they had to say:

From Momma, PhD:

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.…

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.

Good enough cook writes:

The first time through college I was a total science-phobe….

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…. 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….

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.

From zfaulkes:

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

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?”

DrLPalmer writes:

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.

But this is just a sampling – you need to read the comment section to see the whole thing.

What I found useful about this exercise was that it gave me space to step back and think about my class. How am I supporting my students, how am I enabling good or bad behaviors? But I also wanted to think about what my students can teach me.

So, now it’s up to you, Anth 143 students. Does their advice resonate? What does it take to grab your attention, to make you trust us? How did your earlier experiences of science influence how you feel about it today? And what will it take to build a true appreciation of science in you?

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. aidel 2:01 am 08/23/2011

    I respectfully disagree with Momma,PhD. I always found my science courses (particularly lower lever) to be much easier than my non-science classes. On the other hand, my major was philosophy which, if you find it easy, you’re doing it wrong or have a sorry teacher. I challenge all scientists to read (and understand) Hegel’s Science of Logic or Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

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  2. 2. kclancy 9:34 am 08/23/2011

    Aidel, I definitely know what you mean. I think the reason science courses can seem so intimidating to some non-science majors is that it becomes built up in their minds, because they have developed some idea in their heads, earlier in their school years, that they can’t do science. I don’t think science is necessarily any harder than any other field. In some ways it demands more of the student; in other ways, less.

    I do wonder, though, how it happens that so many students become so convinced that science is hard or that they are bad at it.

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  3. 3. da bahstid 9:52 am 08/23/2011

    Some people have scientific minds, others are better off reading the superficial results and watching fun lab demonstrations. When I was in college, I couldn’t read a piece of fiction and piece together anything about who the characters were or why anything mattered. The decision was clear.

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  4. 4. AnonUndergrad 10:42 am 08/23/2011

    As an anonymous 143-er, I’ll chime in. I have a mental block that tells me I’m not smart enough for “real science” courses, but there’s no logical reason for that. This semester I’m attempting to tackle my fear of science by taking both Anth143 and an intro IB course.
    My summer advisor told me it was a ridiculous idea to take two life science courses as a non-science major. She said that most people come to school wanting to take either biology or chemistry, but end up failing those classes. That sentiment left me terrified of my course load, but determined to prove to myself that science is not scary.

    It’s reassuring to see so many comments attempting to help students tackle a fear of science.
    I also greatly appreciate that 143 is set up to make science seem accessible and interesting. When science is seen as an approachable aspect of life, rather than an untouchable topic reserved for scientists, it opens an entire world of possibilities. Whether that results in taking new courses during college, or simply reading general public science magazines for recreation, surely it will have been worthwhile to have conquered the fear of science.

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  5. 5. kclancy 10:51 am 08/23/2011

    da bahstid, I do think you are describing the comfort zones of different kinds of people. And I am a terrible creative writer, but persevered in several classes in college :) . (I imagine, much to the dismay of the instructor.)

    AnonUndergrad, I’m so glad you wrote. I am horrified and dismayed that your academic advisor said that about science courses. I think you’re pretty cool for wanting to tackle your fear. When I did that as a freshman, I ended up becoming a science major… and now I am a scientist.

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  6. 6. Anisha 11:07 am 08/23/2011

    I can relate to AnonUndergrad. As a freshman I signed up for a mix of science and non-science courses. I absolutely despised chemistry in high school and felt like I wasn’t smart enough to do it. Thanks to a fabulous CHEM 101 professor, I am now a senior majoring in Chemistry and Art History! I had to work really hard in both science and non-science classes. As some others have said, it’s imperative to do the reading and all required assignments. Classes are not impossible but you have to put forth the effort. You don’t have to choose between being a “science person” or a non-science person, just do what feels right. That’s why I think ANTH 143 sounds like such a great class, especially for students trying to figure out what they’re interested in. It’s okay to do the humanities and science!

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  7. 7. Philippa_UK 11:08 am 08/23/2011

    I agree with some of the comments above. Having studied and worked in the Arts for 20 years before taking a radical career change and returning to uni to study science, I can say that:

    * you have to work harder to stay on top of the course, including background reading

    * but not beat yourself up when you make mistakes. The more mistakes you make, the more you’ll actually learn along the way

    * Don’t be afraid to ask questions (whether you’re asking because you don’t understand something, or because you’re challenging a long-held but maybe unproven theory with another hypothesis)

    * Likewise don’t be afraid to ask your fellow classmates for help if you need it. Everyone’s got different strengths and weaknesses, so in my case I got help from my classmates in maths, and in return I was able to help them with their oral presentations. You’d be surprised at the skills you can bring into the sciences from an Arts background.

    * Realise that you cannot know everything there is to know about science. It’s a team effort.

    * Above all, number 1 tip if you’re taking a science module or two: motivation, motivation, motivation! Have a goal to aim for and persist with it. That’s what’ll get you through the course when you feel like giving up mid-way. It’s worth it in the end.

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  8. 8. apgoldst 12:24 pm 08/23/2011

    I missed this question the first time around, but I thought I’d chime in anyhow. I began college as a non-science major, interested in saving the world. My ideas on how to do that were mainly centered around activism and writing, etc. I honestly had no idea that science could be a problem-oriented endeavor. My impression was that people do science because they think it is cool, not because it’s needed for saving/improving lives. It’s hard to believe now, but I remember thinking, “I don’t want to spend my whole career just to produce a sentence in a textbook.”

    So in that light, I don’t rely solely on flashy demonstrations to engage non-science students (or the general public, for that matter). I always try to lead with a compelling real-world problem and how we desperately need science to solve it.

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  9. 9. kclancy 1:35 pm 08/23/2011

    These are all great comments. Anisha, I’m so glad you had a great prof that kept you in science, and your double major sounds really interesting. Philippa, I had no idea you returned to science later in life, and I really appreciate your story!

    apgoldst, what a great way to explain the general public’s perception of science. I think you’re right, I probably thought of science this way as well, as plodding forward to get a lot of information, rather than as something that is inherently activist (of course, I did eventually change my tune: Why I’m an activist scientist for women’s health). I think that realization is what drove me towards science, in many important ways.

    I think I should do a better job articulating this to my students.

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  10. 10. anth143weintraub 5:02 pm 08/23/2011

    Personally, I have never been much of a science enthusiast throughout my middle school and high school years. I have often found myself uninterested and daydreaming about the topics in Chemistry and Physics seeing as I had a hard time directly relating them to myself. As I read the course description for ANTH 143, I found myself more intrigued to the class since it had a direct correlation with my life. I have found that when I can directly correlate facts and situations, I have an easier time comprehending the information and disregarding the fact that it is science. I am more than excited to start the introduction and readings for this course and I am hoping that I can learn how to ask better, more effective questions. I think my weakness lies in the fact that I do not think outside of the box when it comes to science. Since that it mainly what science courses are all about, I’m really hoping this course can help me branch away from my comfort zone of reading and retaining information, to actually questioning the information that I am reading and applying it to every day life.

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  11. 11. Erin19 10:29 pm 08/23/2011

    I agree with DrLPalmer because while going through high school and college science courses, I have learned science by reviewing the material in different methods. For example, discussing the material from the class with other classmates and/or friends, or even telling your family what you are learning when at the dinner table. Like DrLPalmer talked about having discussions following the lecture, but often times reviewing with your teacher or asking questions helps retain the information. Even making up similes or finding how the topic relates to my everyday life helps me remember and understand science. I feel science is about understanding and throughout my experience I learned you are not learning science alone.

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  12. 12. krause4 11:28 pm 08/23/2011

    I agree with Good Enough Cook. Though I am a science major and LOVE science, I completely agree that being wrong is a horrible feeling, but it is school that instils that disappointment. I like how this course focuses more on learning and understanding. I always learn better with less pressure.

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  13. 13. kclancy 10:24 am 08/24/2011

    anth143weintraub, I’m glad to hear you feel this course is connected to your life. My hope is that this will continue to be true through the course! I think the more you students keep us on task to keep connecting it to real life, especially in the assignments and sections, the more we’ll all get out of it.

    Erin19, that’s very useful. I often talk over my research projects with my colleagues or my husband because, in doing so, I start to understand my own work better. It’s amazing how much you can get out of talking things out!

    And krause4, I still often feel horrible when I get things wrong. While I think today’s testing culture has made things worse, I think school already did a lot to make us feel bad about being wrong… even when teachers are wonderful (which again, I mostly contend that they are!), school can be an oppressive institution with adults in charge of kids, where those kids have little say over how their day looks, and where praise is withheld unless you behave and perform a very specific way. That leads to young people desperately wanting to please adults by getting things right, and a strong sense of failure if they get things wrong. I can say it gets less bad, but it never quite goes away.

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  14. 14. kclancy 12:01 pm 08/24/2011

    One of my students has asked that I post this comment anonymously:

    “In response to Prof. Clancy’s post regarding advice for those who are “non-science majors in a science course”, the aspect of holding on to the “childlike habit” (Momma, PhD) stuck out to me. Along with having the ‘open and different’ mindset, it is essentially the mindset of a child that we should adopt and one that perhaps resonates within each of us more clearly in our youth– non-science and science majors alike. The curiosity and wonderment that possesses a child leads him/her to boldly explore and question everything until satisfied by the comfort of new knowledge. The persistence that characterizes children encouraged me, a non-science major, to pose new questions (“why do we need to pee when we drink alcohol?” is a good one) etc…and to pursue answers for these questions as does a child. Like ‘Good enough cook’ mentions, I must be prepared to come across a string of wrong answers before arriving at the correct one. But learning, like science, is a process of trial and error.

    Though my interest in the technicalities of science is still where it was at the beginning of this post, as a testament that I was indeed inspired by the blog posts, I will make some effort from here on out to nurture the child-like curiosity of mine to learn to be more like a scientist. “

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  15. 15. kclancy 2:20 pm 08/24/2011

    And another student, Jeff, shares this perspective:

    “Personally, I love science. I find it so fascinating to try and understand why our body does what it does. What makes my brain tell my arm to move or why does it even do what it does? Listening to the one speaker from Oklahoma in that blog-post made me wonder about all these things even more. I wish I was able to understand all of the terms, but science just does not click with me. I am a math person. I love all the ideas of science and what science talks about/looks into, but I do not get involved with it because I have a lot of trouble understanding it all. So if you were trying to find a way to get people interested in science, I don’t think that is the main problem. I’m sure people would be interested in it if there was a more simplified way of learning it. I know that if someone could explain to me why things are the way they are without going into this very intelligent definition and can tell me a simple answer, almost like they are talking to a little kid, then I would love to learn more and maybe one day be able to understand those intelligent definitions (we need baby steps). Hopefully this makes sense and is not confusing. I am really looking forward to this course and getting a better understanding of everything that we have been told we will learn about over the course of this semester. “

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  16. 16. haley70 2:49 pm 08/24/2011

    As a student, science class have always scared me away. This article helped me open up my eyes and realize that science is not just about equations and stuff, it’s what you make of it. Another interesting section of this article was about giving the wrong answer. So many times I’m afraid to raise my hand and answer a question cause I think it will be wrong, when in reality if it is wrong it will give me the opportunity to figure out the right answer and correct my mistake.

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  17. 17. retrogal 9:14 am 08/25/2011

    I am not a student, nor do I have a degree but consider myself an amateur science geek. I devour anything involving Astronomy, Archeology, geology etc. I did not develop this until a few years after high school. I’m sure many students still have no idea which direction there focus will turn at the young age or 17 or 18. I ended up majoring in Business only because I was too afraid to take shop and mechanics, eventually leading to a trade. Girls did not do that at that time at least not where I was. I too was intimidated by the “Sciences” back then. All this said I don’t look back with disappointment on what might have been. But encourage my children to be and do anything they want. I applaud all the courageous groundbreaking and pioneering women in all Sciences.

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  18. 18. taniapk 5:53 pm 10/17/2011

    I am a former science major who still loves science. I mean, sometimes on my free time from my new accounting major, I log into academic sites through my school’s access and read all sorts of science papers – biology, psychology, sociology, all sorts of -ogies. But, in spite of my great big huge love for it, it just didn’t feel like the right fit, somehow. I can’t articulate why.

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  19. 19. kclancy 10:06 pm 10/17/2011

    Tania, that’s so interesting. I’m so glad you still love science — I hope you find a way to keep it in your life (or, frankly, return to it as a major!). I’m so curious about what you mean by why it didn’t feel like a good fit. The zest you show is more than many folks who major in science.

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