Educators Rethink Science Teaching

Teachers spend a lot of time giving students information, but they don’t always show them how to gather or apply it. And that’s one of the reasons many people in the general population don’t know a lot about science.

“It’s like riding a bicycle,” biology Professor Mary Lee Ledbetter said. “You don’t describe how to ride a bicycle, you actually just do it, and once you’ve done it, it’s hard to forget.”

Educators are trying to transform their approach to science and make it relevant to students so they will want to become scientifically literate.

“The sciences, especially the biological sciences, have changed so much in the last five to 10 to 15 years, but the way we educate students hasn’t changed that much,” said Professor Ellis Bell, who teaches biochemistry at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “There needs to basically be a revolution in the way we educate students to prepare them for the science of the 21st century. And a lot of people are thinking about that issue.”

Science involves more than memorizing facts

Last week, Bell and close to 500 other people gathered in the District of Columbia at the Vision & Change in Undergraduate Biology Education conference to talk about how to revolutionize teaching.

Rather than feeding students facts, educators should help them understand the process of science and develop critical thinking skills, said Bell, who also chairs the education and professional development committee at the American Society For Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. That’s also the conclusion that  Ledbetter made.

“It really isn’t very useful to fill them full of facts,” said Ledbetter, who teaches a genetic engineering course for non-science majors at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “Facts are constantly in flux, and what is more important is that they understand something about how certain kinds of statements come to be taken as facts in the first place.”

If students think science is about memorizing boring details, they have an easier time dismissing the whole field, said Sally Hoskins, a biology professor at the City College of the City University of New York.

“We have to stop teaching college biology as a rehash of high school biology, and I think we have to start teaching science as a creative field and an exciting field.”

Many children lose interest in high school

Scientists haven’t done as great of a job as they should to highlight the excitement of the field, Hoskins said. Educators also don’t biology animal oceanget kids excited enough about science, said Chris Ludwig, who teaches AP biology, anatomy and chemistry at La Junta High School in Colorado.

At the elementary and middle school levels, kids leap from one project to another and conduct lab experiments. But when they hit high school, they are inundated with topics and facts that they have to memorize in order to meet state standards. Instead of watching a butterfly grow from a cocoon, they read about the proteins that went into making the cocoon.

“You kind of lost that sense of exploration that you had when you were a little kid,” he said.

On top of that, they don’t retain what they hear in class, and that’s something that teachers need to address.

Engaging students with hands-on learning

If educators want to spark kids’ interest in science, they need to make activities as project-based as possible. Mixing media into class also helps engage them.

“I think the old model of, ‘Turn to Page 222 and read Chapter 5 and answer the questions in the back of the book’ isn’t going to fly so much anymore,” Ludwig said.

Some professors have stopped using textbooks altogether, and ironically, the 1,005 adults who took a recent Pew Research Center science quiz on the phone had a harder time with the five textbook questions than they did with the seven contemporary questions. The center included the quiz data in a July survey of opinions about the state of science and its impact on society

Students don’t always remember what they read in textbooks, which is one reason that Clare O’Connor stopped using them.

“When they see something in a text, oftentimes they think it’s true just because it’s in a text and because it’s in print form,” said O’Connor, an associate professor of biology at Boston College. “With contemporary knowledge and anything that’s not a text, that’s something that you’re used to actively filtering all the time, and you’re thinking about it as opposed to just kind of saying, ‘Well, somebody’s already figured this out; I’m just going to kind of memorize it.’”

She gives her non-major students a syllabus filled with links to Web sites including Scientific American, newspapers, government-sponsored agencies and the science library Scitable. These online sources give students relevant information that makes them more aware of the science around them, O’Connor said.

Back at College of the Holy Cross, Ledbetter tries to accomplish the same goal with her students, and they seem to like her approach of rooting discussions in current events.

This year, she’s planning to have her class perform a lab experiment to find out whether a particular plant has been genetically modified.

In Bell’s introductory biology class at the University of Richmond, the students formulate a problem, develop a hypothesis, perform experiments, interpret data and then present the data. Along the way, they learn foundational facts and information, but they really learn what it takes to do science.

“We have to educate them so that they actually understand the process of science and what constitutes scientific evidence,” Bell said, “and I think that’s where, as educators, that we do a really bad job in terms of educating the general population.”

Teaching a class of 30 to 50 students in this fashion is manageable, even though it’s hard work, but the problem is that professors can’t do it with a class of 500 students, Bell said.

Changing the science culture

The community needs to develop better ways to assess students’ skills, not just their factual knowledge.

science experiment“For many years, education has traditionally been about standing in front of a classroom and giving a great lecture, or a lecture,” Bell said. “What people rarely do is try to work out whether or not the students have actually learned anything.”

They need to train and assess students on whether they can understand scientific literature, design an experiment and interpret data, he said. But Ledbetter says that scientists are not making their work real to the public and use too much jargon.

“My criticism of the profession is that it hasn’t spent nearly enough time explaining itself to the general public,” Ledbetter said.

Educating the general students is important to her because they’re going to be the leaders of the future. Those leaders will need to be able to make policy decisions by analyzing scientific evidence instead of throwing up their hands in confusion.

“Whenever scientists seem to be disagreeing, the general public’s reaction seems to be, ‘Oh they can’t make up their mind about it, so there must not be anything really important going on,’” Ledbetter said, “but in fact the data themselves disagree from time to time, and that’s the way that science is.”

That’s why Hoskins teaches her students in New York how to critically analyze articles and argue points from evidence, data or observations. She says that educators need to get rid of the lecture format and let students do more in class to facilitate their learning.

“We have to stop telling them everything,” Hoskins said, “and we have to start letting them work with the information.”

Photo credits: woodleywonderworks’ flickr photostream, robandstephanielevy’s stream / CC BY 2.0

This story originally appeared in Converge Online on July 24, 2009.

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13 Responses to “Educators Rethink Science Teaching”

  1. July 28, 2009 at 10:36 pm #

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  5. July 29, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

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  7. Jessica Horton
    July 30, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Love this article, we need to bring as much attention as possible to practical, inventive, thoughtful, engaging ways to teach science. Science is one area that when well taught excites students from every demographic. It shapes the way we look at the world around us. What a great way to involve students in changing their own future.

  8. reportertanya
    July 31, 2009 at 8:23 am #

    Thanks Jessica. You're spot on: We need to teach science better so that kids get excited about it.

  9. July 31, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    Thanks Jessica. You're spot on: We need to teach science better so that kids get excited about it.

  10. September 9, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    Importance of hands-on methods, higher-order thinking and science process skills when teaching science: http://tinyurl.com/nv4qhg

  11. September 9, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

    RT @Souzzann_Zink Importance of hands-on, higher-order thinking & science process skills teaching science: http://tinyurl.com/nv4qhg

  12. March 29, 2018 at 7:53 pm #

    Yet another issue is really that video gaming became one of the all-time greatest forms of excitement for people of any age. Kids have fun with video games, plus adults do, too. Your XBox 360 is one of the favorite video games systems for many who love to have a lot of video games available to them, and who like to learn live with some others all over the world. Many thanks for sharing your ideas.

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