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Making implicit knowledge and skills more explicit in science education

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


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One of the reasons I love being a librarian is that I have an opportunity to do many different things as a part of my job. At the recent Geological Society of America conference I had a chance to wear many hats: advisor to an undergraduate giving a talk, librarian looking at possible books to purchase and strategies for teaching students about the scientific literature, editor of a society newsletter, and occasional instructor of an introductory geoscience course.

One of the recurring themes of this conference, no matter which hat I was wearing, was the need to make certain skills and concepts that are implicit to one group of folks much more concrete and explicit to another group of folks.

The Nature of Science. Dr. Lynn Marquez from Millersville University gave a great talk about teaching geoscience students about the nature of science. Scientists tend to have an innate sense of what is (and what isn’t) science. Some of them are good at explaining this to others, some aren’t. We understand what makes the scientific method work, and we believe that the best way to learn about science is to do science. But what about those students sitting in our large introductory lecture classes? In a class of 100 or more, often without a lab, can these students really learn about the nature of science by simply learning how plate tectonics works or by memorizing the different types of silicate minerals? Students may learn about what science has discovered, but do they really come away with a better knowledge of how the process works? Dr. Marquez argued convincingly that we need to make the nature of science more explicit in our introductory courses – we can’t assume that students will simply pick it up over the course of a semester. She argued that this can be done without making drastic changes to our current lesson plans, too. We just need to talk about the process of science a bit more.

Interestingly, my fellow SciAm blogger Doc Free Ride recently discussed the challenge of teaching students about the nature of science in a philosophy of science course that also (like our large lecture classes) doesn’t have students actually doing science.

Learning by osmosis

Unfortunately, we can't learn from osmosis. Students don't learn about the nature of science by simply being in the same room as a scientist. CC-BY-SA image by Flickr user Sage Ross.

Data Management. I learned about several new geoscience data resources at GSA, and this underscores the increasing importance of high quality data management practices. Data that is made available on the web can be useless if it doesn’t come with good metadata – that is, the stuff describing what the data actually is and how it was collected. Conversely, well described data can disappear forever if it only exists in print lab notebooks on a PIs bookshelf. Data management is one of those skills that is often not explicitly taught to our novice researchers (sometimes because their advisors aren’t very good at it themselves). Funding agencies are starting to recognize the importance of good data management practices by requiring grant applicants to submit data management plans.

Information literacy. Part of being a good scientist is the ability to effectively communicate your research to others. Another part is knowing what other folks have already learned about your research area. Part of my job is to make this a bit more explicit to students. Taking the time to introduce students to different types of scientific literature, strategies for pulling together information, and ethical use of that information will make those students better prepared to communicate their science in the future. Importantly, they will be better prepared to think critically about the information they find on the web, because they will know what types of stuff they should be looking for.


Of course, taking class time (even just a bit) to talk about these things means less class time is spent on the concepts and facts that make up a specific subject.  Less subject content may be “covered.” I think the trade off is reasonable, largely because textbooks and online resources make it easier than ever for students to find out about scientific facts and discoveries on their own. Faculty can also collaborate to ensure that students aren’t getting the exact same nature of science, data management or information literacy lessons in each of their courses.  This isn’t just about educating the next generation of scientists, but about educating the next generation of world citizens who need to understand how science, data and information works in order to solve global problems.

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

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





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