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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Non-science students in a science class

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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.

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

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