Monday, April 16, 2007

Scientist, Heal Thyself.

SteveG has a really superb and thoughtful post up today on the difference between training and creating intellectuals (what might be the point of teaching, at least at "elite" institutions like our LAC). There is a context to his post: Steve did dare question the usefulness of some labs that are adjoined to science courses and thereby pissed off a great deal of scientists, beyond the gates of our esteemed college. I want to stress that he did not ridicule the notion of lab-based learning per se and I would go so far as to wager that Steve values the sort of learning that takes place in labs that are designed to maximize the learning of how to do science well (not sure, but that is my guess). My observation, as a member of the Pre-Health Committee (which vets applications to Medical and Dental school) is that the students who excelled best in the science departments here are those who did research with professors or were encouraged to design their own research project.

What I find interesting about Steve's post today is how Chad Orzel wholly misunderstands SteveG's point. But, I assume that is because he only knows Steve from his infamous "lab" post. Chad assumes that Steve's call for eliminating "canned" labs from, frankly "canned" introductory courses, is to make science even less threatening to a largely illiterate humanities-inclined student population, i.e. that Steve was calling for more "physics for poets" classes. Hell no! And if anyone knew Steve, they would see how utterly ridiculous this interpretation of his argument is.

The real problem is not that students are "afraid" of science or math. Rather, they are afraid of how science and math courses are taught. And, you know what, I don't blame them. As someone who also loves science and who spent most of her undergraduate career studying science, I can honestly say that what lured me away was not that humanities courses were "easier" (an obvious inference from Chad's comments), but rather that they put more emphasis on empowering me to be an independent and autonomous thinker. They did so, primarily, by pushing me to get the "big picture" first and then equipping me with resources and tools for resolving interesting questions and problems.

My science courses, on the contrary, spent most of the time equipping me with tools and lab techniques while deferring any relationship between these tools and techniques to big picture questions or hell even little picture, yet interesting problems. The material was totally disconnected from what Husserl would call the "life world," and so the exercise of learning all of these techniques and tools would start to wear on me as I could no longer remember why I had embarked on a career in Chemistry.

I think what bugs me more than anything else in the responses I read from scientists to SteveG's lab post was the implication that the only way to be rigorous is to teach in such a way that "weeds out" the students who aren't willing to stay up all night memorizing large swaths of information. Thank god not all science teachers proceed this way. Because if this was the only way to teach science--a sort of macho you-better-figure-out-what-you-should-know-on-your-own-or-sink--then we would see even fewer students entering the sciences.

They show up really interested, because hell, science is really interesting and exciting. But in the death match, demoralizing way that many profs teach--to "weed out"--they not only "weed out" the non-rigorous students, but they "weed out" the really engaged and interesting students who find themselves forced to jump through hoops to prove their worthiness to the sicence faculty, in order to finally get some big picture, exciting research opportunities.

If science faculty want to increase the science literacy, then you need to think long and hard about how you engage and lure students--students mind you who are quite naturally interested in your subject matter--into your departments. I am, frankly, sick of hearing science faculty whine about how students are too science phobic and that we are just pandering to their phobia.

Scientist, heal thyself.

UPDATE: I highly recommend reading Student A's blog entry on this subject for a student's perspective on the role of labs in science education.

UPDATE UPDATE: Another highly recommended read, by a Biochemistry Molecular Biology student, on this issue at A Stranger in a Strang(er) Land.