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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Non-science majors: now it's your turn

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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?

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

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