“We don’t teach the exciting side of science!” I was attending a lecture by a professor and potential grad student mentor. She was passionate about science education and preparing undergrads for the rigors of graduate research. Why is it that in high school, we ask students to memorize a bunch of science facts, and then suddenly expect them to reason scientifically in college classes?
STEM education would definitely benefit from some improvements! Even students who excel in their science classes may have no idea what a day in the life of a scientist looks like. Courses on literature and history foster dialogue and critical thinking – but this sort of conversation is often missing in the science classroom. What are some ways to foster it?
Discuss the latest and greatest
Did crispr cas9 just make it in the news again? Was there a recent announcement on new exoplanets being discovered? Did some notable STEM award just go to an underdog? Whenever science makes headlines, take the time in class to discuss it, the science behind it, and why it’s getting so much attention – even if it falls outside your particular class subject. (It’s ok for a geology class to take a break and discuss notable chemistry happenings, and vice versa).
Use Research to Showcase Lessons
I learned about mass spectrometry in physics and chemistry classes long before I ever saw it work or read results from it in the lab. I had no idea the impact of it, why it’s such powerful technology. What if I had learned it in terms of how it’s been used in discovery?
This sort of thing can make things more relevant. I heard from a professor who brought out a Science paper in which researchers made a groundbreaking discovery on a gut microbiome’s effect on obesity. The methods section included a use of calorimetry. What’s that? Well, it’s one of the many (ostensibly boring?) things we learn about in a General Chemistry class. When she provided it as an example to her students, calorimetry suddenly became a practical tool for exciting new research. It can be powerful to connect the dots like that in the classroom for your students!
Foster critical thinking
One of my physics professors loved to make fun of biology majors; “We actually reason in this classroom, they only memorize a bunch of random facts.” Granted, that was (at the time) an apt description of my biology classes! It can be hard to measure critical thinking on an exam. But by asking open-ended questions, asking for multiple explanations, or analyzing experimental results, you can empower students to think more deeply about the scientific method, biological or otherwise. How to interpret data is a foundational skill for any new scientist. It’s equally important to evaluate assumptions: in the day-to-day of lab, scientists should be reporting data, not their interpretations of the data. Use the classroom to begin teaching the difference between these concepts. I’ve heard their often confused by new graduate students.
Did your high school science classes prepare you adequately for your STEM degree? What kinds of skills do you wish you had learned prior to starting a graduate degree?