The Science of Science Education

dfishervan's picture

 

Biology in Society Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010

Session 4A, 5B:
Science Education

 

"What kills a subject is the lack of good teaching, the inability to communicate whatever once gave it vitality.” --Stephen Dicarlo, 2006

  What is the purpose of science education?
  • What is science literacy?

What material should be taught in a science course?

  • At the introductory level? At the upper level?

  • Should history and philosophy of science be incorporated?

How should this material be taught pedagogically?

  • Direct Instruction vs. Activity Based Learning and Teaching for Conceptional Change


Before delving into these questions, reflect on your experience with science education. Compare and contrast your science education in high school and college.

"At the secondary school level science teacher, where it existed at all, was dominated by textbooks, rote learning, and recitation.”-- Joel Mintzes and James Wandersee's Teaching Science for Understanding: A Human Constructivist View, 1998


“Double laboratory periods, Saturday morning laboratories, and extensive field trips; all designed to ensure that first-hand experience with natural phenomena replace the ‘book science’ that had come to dominate secondary school instruction.” Joel Mintzes and James Wandersee's Teaching Science for Understanding: A Human Constructivist View, 1998


“Most science curricula found in schools today are descriptive, focused on the laws, theories, and concepts of presumably discrete disciplines,” P.D. Hurd's Scientific Literacy: New Minds for a Changing World,  1997

What is the purpose of science education?

"Science teachers and scientists argued that the main reason for social science is to increase and maintain a pool of scientists and citizens who pursue science related careers while philosophers and educators asserted that science teaching should build a more scientifically literate society."  --Bracha Arieli's The Integration of Creative Drama Into Science Teaching, 2007


  "Humans are conditioned from birth to follow authority figures and not to question their pronouncements. Such conditioning is done by parents and teachers using a wide variety of positive and negative reinforcement techniques. Most individuals reach adulthood in this conditioned form. The result of such conditioning is the antithesis of both scientific investigation and critical thinking: individuals lack both curiosity and the skills to perform independent inquiry to discover reliable knowledge. Individuals who think critically can think for themselves: they can identify problems, gather relevant information, analyze information in a proper way, and come to reliable conclusions by themselves, without relying on others to do this for them. This is also the goal of science education. "-- An Introduction to Critical Thinking

What is the purpose of an introductory science course?

INTRODUCTORY COLLEGE   LEVEL SCIENCE COURSES

Teachers takes the position that the major goals of introductory college science courses are to contribute to the scientific literacy and critical thinking capability of all college students and to provide a conceptual base for subsequent courses taken in the disciplines. The Society defines science literacy as the knowledge and understanding of a) the nature and role of scientific knowledge and process, b) the major principles and concepts that transcend the various sciences, c) the relationship of science to technology, and d) the applications of science to the individual and society. --The Society for College Science Publications

Theme-based curricula. Drawing students into science through themes is an effective way of providing them with a comfortable classroom environment. To do this in a whole course may be a fairly radical departure from the norm. It has, however, been successfully fully applied elsewhere (Beyer 1992). It can in any case be introduced as one element of a course. Jeffry Mallow, Science Anxiety: Research and Action in The Handbook of College Science Teaching, 2006

Should history of science and philosophy of science be incorporated into science courses? 

 

Why are we taught gravity instead of Einstein's theory in introductory physics?


"Theories are neither "true" nor "false". Theories are either useful or... less useful (if they are useless, they are no longer a theory). Aspects of Newtonian gravity are still useful, even though they have been "proven wrong". For example, Newton gravity is instantaneous (which we know to be false)... For everyday life (including most scientific applications), Newtonian gravity is still useful and accurate enough...

For advanced courses on how gravity actually works, sure, go for it. When teaching a theory just so people can apply it to everyday life, keep it workable... Next, you'll want people to stop teaching how to divide, because division is NOT a proper mathematical operation (and it is not -- but it is still quite useful)." --

A response to this question posted on yahoo answers

  http://www.physicsforums.com/archive/index.php/t-33779.html --A forum where people have debated the answer to this question

How should science be taught pedagogically?

Argument against activity based learning:

"An "authentic assessment" in "integrated science" designed to replace ordinary tests asks students to write a poem about mitosis. A journal of chemical education encourages high school science students to construct a new periodic table of the elements as it might appear on some unspecified alien planet."

"Activities enthusiasts are right not to want passive students. But they have made a dangerous error. They have substituted ersatz activity and shallow content for the hard and serious work of the mind."

"Traditional classroom activities and content lose out--crowded and trimmed in order to accommodate projects. There's only so much school day, and projects and activities consume time greedily. To make room, time allotted to reading, writing, listening, critical dialogue, and directed inquiry inevitably shrinks. Serious learning takes a back seat."

"Whole-class, teacher-led instruction is not always of high quality. But it certainly can be, frequently is, and would be much more often if it weren't caricatured as inevitably  boring and ineffective, thus discouraging teachers from perfecting the art…"

 "At rock bottom, projects and activities provide mere entertainment. Teachers who fear  student antagonism abandon "sedentary activities." They seek to fill dead time in the  classroom. Projects and activities keep kids occupied and unmutinous. One of Zahorik's points was that "artificial tasks ... detract from interest." But real knowledge needs no artificial tasks."

--excerpts from Gilbert Sewall’s Lost in Action: Are Time Consuming, Trivializing Activities Displacing the Cultivation of Active Minds?, 2000

 

Teaching for Conceptual Change

"If Deb O'Brien had begun her lesson on heat in the usual way, she might never have known how nine long Massachusetts winters had skewed her students' thinking. Her fourth-graderswould have learned the major sources of heat, a little bit about friction, and how to read a thermometer. By the end of two weeks, they would have been able to pass a simple test on heat. But their preconceptions, never having been put on the table, would have continued, coexisting in a morass of conflicting ideas about heat and its behavior.

However, like a growing number of educators at all levels, O'Brien periodically teaches science for "conceptual change." Her students, allowed to examine their own experiences, must confront the inconsistencies in their theories. In the process they find the path toward a deeper understanding of heat, have a great time with science, and refine their thinking and writing skills."

"But the substitution of one theory for another is not as easy as erasing the chalkboard. Certain preconditions for conceptual change must exist if the barriers in the path to understanding are to be overcome."

"Since scientists held misconceptions about heat for hundreds of years, Hawkins reminds us, understanding heat is a hurdle that will not be cleared by students in a single two-week unit."

 

How to help facilitate conceptual change:

1.     Stressing relevance. Because children so frequently assume new information to be "stuff we learned in school," the teacher must connect new concepts to the child's everyday life.

2. Making predictions. Children who are asked to predict the results of their experiments are more willing to change their thinking than are children who function as passive observers.

                 

           "Less "stuff" will be covered, fewer "facts" will be remembered for the test, and progress will sometimes be exceedingly slow. It is definitely a process of uncovering rather than covering. "

--Excerpts from Bruce Watson and Richard Kopnicek ‘s Teaching for Conceptual Change: Confronting Children's Experience, 1990

 

Other arguments against direct instruction:

"Undergraduate science students regularly acquire knowledge in these lecture learning environments, but not necessarily meaningful understanding." –Debra Tomanek and Lisa Montplasir’s Students' Studying and Approaches to Learning in Introductory Biology, 2004

 

"…found that science majors started with a more positive attitude towards science than did nonmajors and that while attitudes of nonscience majors improved at the end of their traditionally taught course, attitudes of science majors declined. In their case, the courses were separate majors and nonmajors biology courses taught using traditional  expository lecture format. The nonscience majors course included applications and material considered to be relevant to the students, and there were no prerequisite skills or knowledge required for enrollment. Gogolin and Swartz described the majors course as “Less-stimulating” and more “subject oriented”; the nonmajors course was more “student oriented.” Sundberg and Dini (1993) attributed the more positive attitudes towards science among students in their nonmajors course compared with those in the majors course to the reduced level of detail and greater emphasis on current application and social relevance in the nonmajors course."—Donnald French and Connie Russell, Improving Student Attitudes Toward Biology in The Handbook of College Science Teaching, 2006

 

"We should be teaching students how to think. Instead, we are teaching them what to think." --Clement and Lochhead, Cognitive Process Instruction, 1980

“Most students faintly comprehend scientific facts and then forget them. This mode of teaching science fosters ignorance more than human understanding and the usefulness of science” --P.D. Hurd, Scientific Literacy: New Minds for a Changing World, 1997


Some relevant resources on the web:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0wk4qG2mIg: How the seasons work according to recent Harvord B.S. graduates

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NydSuHoQZqk: How the seasons work

http://www.nature.com/nrm/journal/v7/n4/full/nrm1856.html: Stephen Dicarlo, Cell Biology Should be Taught as Science is Practised, 2006

Science Teaching: The role of history and philosophy of science

http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/: Science Education on serendip

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/23/education/23educ.html:The government is pushing science as an important subject to learn, why?

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/science/space/25educ.html?pagewanted=2: How government "No Child Left Behind" does not work with effective science education and what is an effective way to teach science

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/25/opinion/25thu4.html:opinion article for why laboratory immersion is the best way to get college students interested in science

Summary of first class discussion (crystal)

At the beginning of the discussion we discussed our own experiences with science education in both high school and college. Everybody’s high school experiences were different in terms of the curriculum’s focus and the teachers’ enthusiasm. However, there was a general consensus that high school science education mostly focuses on the memorization of “facts” and the establishment of a basic understanding of core scientific principles. Since we are all biology majors at Bryn Mawr College, our college-level experiences with science education are much less diverse. We agreed that college-level science education focuses more on critical thinking and exploring how a lot of the “facts”  memorized in high school science courses are not necessarily “true”, but are useful ideas in certain contexts.

We then discussed what we felt was the purpose of science education. The class felt that society should be scientifically literate at some level, but we had trouble deciding what that should mean. Most of us believe that every student should have at least a basic understanding of science and most agreed that science classes should be required in high school, but not necessarily in college. The idea was proposed that the knowledge of scientific “facts” is completely unnecessary for some people, and those people should not be forced to study in-depth something that is not useful or enjoyable to them. However, most agreed that science education is useful because it offers a perspective with which to hone critical thinking skills, which are very important for everybody. There was strong support for the availability of separate science classes geared towards science majors and non-majors, which could provide critical thinking skills to both groups while only providing in-depth scientific knowledge to those who need that knowledge. Finally, towards the end of the discussion, we settled on a definition of scientific literacy offered by Professor Grobstein: “knowing that statements are a summary of observations that can be challenged by other observations”.

 

Conversation and Implications To Date (first session, Dakota)

To me scientific literacy means an understanding of the building blocks or foundations of science. For example, in biology I think that would include understanding the concept of a cell and the importance of DNA. These are things that I would except every person with some sort of formal science education to understand. --lbonnell

However, I think the fact is that there are just some people who will never, ever, be interested in acquiring any of the foundations of biology, or anything of the sort...I think the idea of a non-major section and a major section is a really appealing one. With this, there is the opportunity for the non-science student body to get involved in the science community in a fashion that will perhaps give them a better opinion of the sciences, and allow them to get some very basic fundamentals—I don’t know if this would result in a significant contribution to the scientific literacy of the general population, but it might be a start?--adowton

Education should promote students to explore new things, educators often know about topics that students have never encountered, but just might find stimulating and exciting. Exposure to a liberal arts education has showed me that science is related to and very compatible with other subjects and has helped me relate to others who have not chosen science as a primary field of study.--Colette

While I do not believe that all students should be required to continue their scientific education in college, and beyond, I do feel that science is an integral part of the early education of a well-rounded individual... While the method for inspiring students is often different from school to school, I do feel that a certain level of basics need to be learned by everyone, in order for them to become productive members of society. --smaley

Maybe that's what we could usefully be focusing on in intro courses with both student populations (where they could, among other things, learn to talk better to each other), and we could rely on upper level courses to provide the material needed to be a professional biologist--Paul Grobstein

I like the idea of two different intro classes (majors/non-majors or pre-med/non-pre-med). If I recall correctly, the students are to look up information online regarding the more technical aspects, which I think is too much to expect of students taking an intro level class.--Riki

Yes, the basis of introductory science is memorizing core facts. That's the bottom line. Why are we manipulating this? To attract humanities majors by not forcing them to only memorize facts and allow them to stray from this by not giving them a standard biology test and instead grading them on work that lets them incorporate what they prefer, and feel they are “better at”, or more interested in using, their writing skills? I don't think this is fair or right. I can’t go to my Middle East anthropology class and tell my professor that I’d rather give her my punnett squares that I had to write out for my genetics homework during intro bio because I’m better at them than I am at writing a 7 page paper on (the lack of) women’s rights in Iran...I have to follow the humanities department rules.--mlhodges

The main focus of any class should be the development of critical thinking skills, which will be useful to the student throughout their life, regardless of what career that student pursues...If any of the basic information is left out of an introductory course, the student will just have to work harder in their later classes to learn that basic information in addition to learning the material in their current class. --Crystal Leonard

 

*There is a need for educators and educational institutions to reevaluate how science is being taught.

*Educators need to become familiar with their student audience and the reasons behind why these students enroll in their class.

*Educators should consider the implications of having a majors and non-majors introductory science class.

*Science classes should convey some basic information.  Science educators, scientists, and the rest of society have to come to some consensus as to what this basic information is.

Summary of second class discussion (collette)

       Dakota began today’s discussion with a recap of last week’s dialogue about scientific literacy.  We had tried to identify the “building blocks” of scientific literacy. Some thought the building blocks should encompass all topics of biology, micro and macro, while others argued that the building blocks were only those that were relevant to their concentration of biology.  A realization arose that perhaps the buildings blocks were familiarization with vocabulary and had nothing to even do with concepts. This brought us back to a discussion about what audience is being catered to in an introductory biology class and what should be presented to it. Since everyone is different and has different interests, maybe science should be presented in a way that relates to each person. This led us to question the way materials were presented in classes.
    There was a consensus that the presentation of topics in intro biology was rushed and that perhaps if we had gone slower and been exposed to less, we would have been able to retain more. We agreed, however, that details gave a deeper understanding of a topic and that the reason we did not retain many concepts was that we rushed over them. We also entertained the possibilities of different learning techniques. For instance being more engaged as in labs, hands on activities, group projects, etc as contrasted with lectures and power point presentations. We concluded that the root of the problem was how the subjects are presented. Maybe we do not have to learn the basics before we can appreciate the mystery of a topic or discussion. Skipping over materials quickly does not seem useful/. Hawkins reminds us “understanding heat is a hurdle that will not be cleared by students in a single two week unit.”

Conversation and Implications To Date

Science education is important, period...Science and scientific literacy are just a few of the many and varied ways of knowing in the world.-- Kwarlizzle

The idea that familiarization with vocabulary was the answer to the building blocks appealed at first. It makes sense that they make a marginal contribution to an individual having a general sense of science. Like languages, without the vocabulary, you cannot communicate or form sentences. With some vocabulary you can at least build on context and have a general idea as to what a scientist may be talking about...When you pick up the vocabulary you pick up a concept.--Colette

I think it is important for an introductory course to show students examples of processes from different areas of biology...A good scientist can take information and concepts from other areas and try to apply them to whatever subject he/she is interested in. We've talked about how co-constructive inquiry can happen between people, but I also think a form of co-constructive inquiry can happen between fields or even different areas of biology.--lbonnell

On the other hand, maybe the intro class equipped me with a subconscious knowledge bank that has helped me to perform better in my upper level classes?... If professors are acknowledging our forgetfulness, and essentially re-teaching the material, did learning these basics in intro do any good?--adowton

I believe that most of what is taught in intro is useless, as shown from class most people do not remember a lot from their intro class...The intro class offers a lot of general (and specific) information about the "bases" of biology.  But, even with this, I have heard people complain that it is similar to the biology that they had in high school.--Kendra Norrell

I think every one's experience is that they learn best/most satisfyingly when material is presented in a way that allows them to personalize it, think about it, fit it into their own contexts...we should indeed focus more on "teaching for conceptual change," understanding that different students will have different reactions to particular context and need different supports to make it relevant to "conceptual change."  The issue isn't, I think, whether to teach "building blocks," but rather how they're taught, whether students are told what they are or encouraged to help find them for themselves.--Paul Grobstein

Instead of learning the basics, that I could later build upon, I learned, and later forgot, quite a bit that I do not consider basic.  In addition to that, many of the courses I have later taken have assumed that we never learned the basics, and these basics were re-taught, taking up valuable time in the semester...Until a set definition of "basic" is obtained, I feel that little improvement can be made to intro classes.--smaley

 

*As mentioned last week, there is a need to reevaluate how science is taught. Instead of focusing specifically on what material should be taught in science courses, educators should first focus on how to teach the material.

*Science education could benefit from the incorporation of mystery into the curriculum.

*Educators need to reinvent science education in such a way that makes the material more memorable.

Continuing conversation in on-line forum below

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Kwarlizzle's picture

Discipline and Interest

I still maintain that intro classes serve an important function. But now I am slightly confused.

The purpose of an intro class is to introduce us into a particular field of study and then give us a 'sneak preview' of what the specialties in the field look like. I know that in keeping everything very basic, intro bio would not last a semester (or most intro classes for that matter). So they go into soome detail, teaching concepts that should be the foundation of that field of study. But perhaps we go to far. Like it was pointed out in class: what is the use of learning the electron transport chain for plants? So maybe we should redefine our idea of what basics are and what should be taught in them.

A second point (i think Hope brought it up) is the way we are taught in class.The discipline is important and necessary, but there is no reason to wring the whole process of joy. There certainly can be mystery added, which would make the discipline of studying all these concepts more enjoyable, and perhaps more retainable.

smaley's picture

As strongly as I disliked

As strongly as I disliked Intro Bio at the time, I think that it should be an important part of the bio curriculum at Bryn Mawr, and that it should serve as a foundation for future classes to build upon.  Unfortunately, I do not feel that this is the case at Bryn Mawr.  Like many others who took intro bio, I remember very little from it.  In fact, one of the few things that I really do remember about the class is how much I disliked its organization.  To me, it felt more like four 200 level courses, taught by four very different professors, all squeezed into a year.  Instead of learning the basics, that I could later build upon, I learned, and later forgot, quite a bit that I do not consider basic.  In addition to that, many of the courses I have later taken have assumed that we never learned the basics, and these basics were re-taught, taking up valuable time in the semester.  

I feel like one of the major flaws when it comes to intro classes, both at Bryn Mawr and elsewhere, is that there is no set definition of basics, and because of this students are often retaught some topics multiple times, while other topics are never taught at all.  Until a set definition of "basic" is obtained, I feel that little improvement can be made to intro classes.   

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on intro bio/science

Intriguing continuing conversation about what/how to teach introductory biology/science.  There were, as I heard it, three arguments presented for traditional content-based approaches, the need to be prepared for subsequent exams/requirements, the opportunity to hear about lots of different things, and the possibility that at least some of what one hears becomes embedded in the unconscious for future rediscovery/use.

For me, the problem with the first argument is that it defaults responsibiity for the educational process at any given stage to the next stage, and in turn to the next stage, and so forth, with no one taking responsibility for/having to think about the overall objective.  In addition, and even more importantly, it encourages students to believe that education is a process of accepting judgements of what is important made by other people rather than enhancing their own ability to make such judgements themselves.

The other two arguments are more interesting to me.  My sense though is that the people making them are people who already have a context within which to assimilate material presented in/by traditional curricula, and who, as a result, have a record of success in traditonal testing contexts.  To put it differently, I think every one's experience is that they learn best/most satisfyingly when material is presented in a way that allows them to personalize it, think about it, fit it into their own contexts.  Some students have more of an internal mechanism/set of resources to do this for particular bodies of material, others have less.  

What this suggests to me is that we should indeed focus more on "teaching for conceptual change," understanding that different students will have different reactions to particular context and need different supports to make it relevant to "conceptual change."  The issue isn't, I think, whether to teach "building blocks," but rather how they're taught, whether students are told what they are or encouraged to help find them for themselves. 

knorrell's picture

I know that in class I argued

I know that in class I argued against an intro class.  But, now I am unsure as to where I stand on this issue.  I believe that most of what is taught in intro is useless, as shown from class most people do not remember a lot from their intro class.  And as Annie mentioned in her post, upper-level teachers constantly ask whether people remember, and even if they do, go over the topic that leads to the more advanced material.  But, as was also pointed out in class, most people don't know what part of biology they are interested in studying.  The intro class offers a lot of general (and specific) information about the "bases" of biology.  But, even with this, I have heard people complain that it is similar to the biology that they had in high school. 

adowton's picture

Intro classes

When discussing the issue of intro classes, including their structure, their goal, their efficacy at achieving the goal, I don't know if I can fully decide which side I come down on... On the one hand, I think that I remember very little detail from what I learned in introduction to biology. Yes, I was more interested in some parts than others, and I think that I have retained information from the sections I found to be more interesting. If i understand correctly, Leah and Moira believe more strongly than others that intro is intro, and we should just sit down and learn the facts. While it is true that introduction to bio at Bryn Mawr was (in our day), largely about memorization, I really don't think that that's the way it HAS to be. Just because it was structured like that then, didn't mean it was the most effective format/structure. I'm guessing that's why they changed the syllabus...

On the other hand, maybe the intro class equipped me with a subconscious knowledge bank that has helped me to perform better in my upper level classes? Who knows. However, I think an interesting point to make is that professors of upper level classes do not automatically assume that we remember certain things from intro. I feel as if I often hear the phrase "Do you guys remember covering X in intro?...OK, well lets review it quickly before we move on to Y..."

If professors are acknowledging our forgetfulness, and essentially re-teaching the material, did learning these basics in intro do any good?

lbonnell's picture

photosynthesis

 I think photosynthesis should still be included in the intro bio syllabus. As we discussed in class, photosynthesis isn't a process that is independent from everything else in biology; it is related to how we think about animals and respiration. Overall, I think it is important for an introductory course to show students examples of processes from different areas of biology because I think a good scientist is well rounded. A good scientist can take information and concepts from other areas and try to apply them to whatever subject he/she is interested in. We've talked about how co-constructive inquiry can happen between people, but I also think a form of co-constructive inquiry can happen between fields or even different areas of biology. 

Colette's picture

 A lot of times people need

 A lot of times people need to be pushed out of their comfort zone and learn about other fields.  Everything is connected in one way or another and if people are stuck in one discipline,  communication is less robust and rich and relationships tend to be shallow. Science prides itself on  explaining the world based on evidence but if people do not understand it,  they will not be able to incorporate it into their everyday living to the benefit of themselves and anyone else. There could be detrimental effects.

            The “building blocks” of science are open to much interpretation and that there does not seem to be one set way in initially learning the structure of science or maybe even a way at all! The idea that familiarization with vocabulary was the answer to the building blocks appealed at first. It makes sense that they make a marginal contribution to an individual having a general sense of science. Like languages, without the vocabulary, you cannot communicate or form sentences. With some vocabulary you can at least build on context and have a general idea as to what a scientist may be talking about.  Language is symbolic—it stands for something. It’s not just a pure construct like numbers might be. When you pick up the vocabulary you pick up a concept.

 

Kwarlizzle's picture

Important, but not the most important thing

Science education is important, period. If it is to be taught, it should be taught with all of its full rigors, because a fundamental part of science is the analytic discipline of very rigorous research. But science education and scientific literacy are not better or more important than other disciplines. Science and scientific literacy are just a few of the many and varied ways of knowing in the world. That's all. I enjoyed our discussion

Crystal Leonard's picture

introductory classes

I suppose I am the odd man out because I actually enjoyed Bryn Mawr's intro bio class. While I agree that the memorization of facts is not fun or easy, it is sometimes necessary. The main focus of any class should be the development of critical thinking skills, which will be useful to the student throughout their life, regardless of what career that student pursues. However, there is no way that someone can do well in upper-level science classes, or upper-level humanities courses, if they do not understand the basic principles that form the foundation of the field. Just as people in history classes need to learn people, places, and dates to put the event into a broader context, people in upper-level biology courses need to know how mitochondria work in order to understand metabolic diseases. If any of the basic information is left out of an introductory course, the student will just have to work harder in their later classes to learn that basic information in addition to learning the material in their current class.

mlhodges's picture

 I am not very familiar with

 I am not very familiar with the new Intro Bio class offered at Bryn Mawr this semester. I assume it was discussed in class last Monday. From what I gather from the on-line forum, it seems like an atypical intro bio class in that it incorporates literature instead of the usual dense bio textbook. It looks like most of our senior seminar supported it, however, I don’t think I like the idea of it. Yes, the basis of introductory science is memorizing core facts. That's the bottom line. Why are we manipulating this? To attract humanities majors by not forcing them to only memorize facts and allow them to stray from this by not giving them a standard biology test and instead grading them on work that lets them incorporate what they prefer, and feel they are “better at”, or more interested in using, their writing skills? I don't think this is fair or right. I can’t go to my Middle East anthropology class and tell my professor that I’d rather give her my punnett squares that I had to write out for my genetics homework during intro bio because I’m better at them than I am at writing a 7 page paper on (the lack of) women’s rights in Iran. It’s a requirement that I take classes outside of Bio. I have to follow the humanities department rules. Non-Bio people should have to follow our rules, too. Plus humanities people DO get the opportunity to write during intro bio, already. Lab reports, Peter's unusual writing assignments, Wil's writing assignments on that Darwin book.... Let's stick to important core biology where we can. Learn the facts and recall them on tests. It's intro science. Deal with it.  

 

Riki's picture

The new intro bio course

The new intro bio course strikes me as a very "liberal arts college" thing to do -- so unique and non-institutionalized. It does seem like a more approachable way to introduce students to the basic concepts of biology, but like Leah said, I think a lot of students take intro bio to prepare for the MCATs, not necessarily as a leisurely, fun class. I like the idea of two different intro classes (majors/non-majors or pre-med/non-pre-med). If I recall correctly, the students are to look up information online regarding the more technical aspects, which I think is too much to expect of students taking an intro level class. So the new structure sounds like a good idea for non-majors, but I think it is a little misleading for students taking it who want to be bio majors because the majority of the upper-level bio classes are textbook-based.

Paul Grobstein's picture

biology education and science education generally

Interesting discussion, and follow up here.  Its interesting that, somewhat contra to both crystal's summary and some of the posts below, what I came away impressed by was not the improvement in science education at BMC relative to high school but rather what I thought was a pretty strong and near consensus view that intro bio as it was several years ago was as bad as high school or worse ("so much of what is learned in intro bio is crap"), that it was not only largely regurgitation based but largely repeating things people had already been exposed to in high school. 

That seems to me relevant not only to recent departmental efforts to rethink intro biology (largely for the reasons mentioned), but also to thinking about biology and science curricula generally and about whether there should be separate majors and non-majors courses.  Our other conversation last week, about immunization/autism, seemed to me to imply that there are aspects of biology/science that it is important for people to understand regardless of their future careers, and that we haven't been  doing a particularly good job of getting those across to either population (cf seeing science for what it is?).  Maybe that's what we could usefully be focusing on in intro courses with both student populations (where they could, among other things, learn to talk better to each other), and we could rely on upper level courses to provide the material needed to be a professional biologist (or to, as per lbonnell, "prepare for a standardized exam that tests specific, detailed information"). 

I'm looking forward to continuing this conversation next Monday, perhaps with further effort to define "scientific literacy", perhaps in contrast to professional literacy?  And to thinking more about forms of pedagogy.  The latter is being actively explored in another course I'm teaching this semester, one on brain, education, and inquiry, and was extensively discussed this past summer in a three week workshop with K12 teachers.  Some of the links/discussion at both places may be useful for our conversation. 

smaley's picture

Despite the efforts of

Despite the efforts of teachers across the country, I believe that science education as a whole is severely lacking. While I do not believe that all students should be required to continue their scientific education in college, and beyond, I do feel that science is an integral part of the early education of a well-rounded individual. When I was in elementary school, I took part in a special program that my school offered called the Multi-age group. The basic premise was that one class each from 1st thru 4th grades would be in this group, and we would all learn together. While we were obviously taught all subjects, there was an emphasis on hands on science education. Together we would design experiments, perform them, and then analyze the results. While these were all basic experiments, due to how young we were, I feel that these experiments instilled in me the basics of scientific exploration, and piqued my interest in further scientific education. While the method for inspiring students is often different from school to school, I do feel that a certain level of basics need to be learned by everyone, in order for them to become productive members of society. While not everyone has the potential to become a rocket scientist, the basics can be applied to so many day-to-day activities that an individual who is scientifically literate has an advantage over all of those individuals who are not.

 

Colette's picture

Assigned exposure to a

Assigned exposure to a variety of topics has broadened my intellectual curiosity and has helped me develop an ability to analyze critically topics in biology at the elementary and high school levels students are given a general overview of a variety of subject which may prompt them to pursue certain fields as its usefulness or generated excitement may prompt them. When exposing students to science at the college level a larger and longer impact may be achieved when students are matched with the “type” of science they would find most interesting and useful. For example taking the physics class for non majors as compared to the intro physics class for majors at Bryn Mawr allows non majors to acquire the same kind of knowledge as students on the physics tract but in a more relatable way.

                Bryn Mawr’s new intro biology course syllabus is an interesting approach to teaching science. Using a “literature book” as the focal point, and then supplementing with online science websites seems like they are trying to relate different fields together. Although it is impossible to incorporate everyone’s learning style into one, I think the idea of having options for scientific learning is a better approach. I believe this approach would help to better satisfy people’s learning approach.

                Education should promote students to explore new things, educators often know about topics that students have never encountered, but just might find stimulating and exciting. Exposure to a liberal arts education has showed me that science is related to and very compatible with other subjects and has helped me relate to others who have not chosen science as a primary field of study.

adowton's picture

Scientific literacy

 As I think more and more about the notion of “scientific literacy” in the general population, I struggle to think of particular concepts or subjects taught in a traditional intro biology class that would be beneficial for everyone to know. Certainly there are hot topics in the press that would be useful to have knowledge of such as stem cells and cloning etc if an individual wanted to get involved in such debates/be able to understand such debates. However, I think the fact is that there are just some people who will never, ever, be interested in acquiring any of the foundations of biology, or anything of the sort.

I think this is the problem with having divisional requirements such as the ones we have at Bryn Mawr. On the one hand, I think it’s a fantastic idea for all students to have the opportunity to actually get a diverse education, but on the other hand, I think that the idea of taking a “real” science is so off-putting to many humanities-oriented students, that it sours the whole experience for them. I think the idea of a non-major section and a major section is a really appealing one. With this, there is the opportunity for the non-science student body to get involved in the science community in a fashion that will perhaps give them a better opinion of the sciences, and allow them to get some very basic fundamentals—I don’t know if this would result in a significant contribution to the scientific literacy of the general population, but it might be a start?

lbonnell's picture

Scientific literacy

 In class we defined scientific literacy as the understanding that a summary of observations can be challenged by new observations. However, I think there's more to scientific literacy than that. To me scientific literacy means an understanding of the building blocks or foundations of science. For example, in biology I think that would include understanding the concept of a cell and the importance of DNA. These are things that I would except every person with some sort of formal science education to understand. 

I think this is one reason why the new Bio 101 syllabus is an improvement. In college level introduction classes it is easy to get lost in the details and lose focus of the main building blocks. I think it is great that the course moves through successive levels of organization from the molecular to organismal levels and uses these levels as a framework for the class. At the same time, I don't think the professors should omit anything information that would be in a typical college Intro Biology course. Intro Biology is similar to  AP Biology in that many student are using the course to prepare themselves for a standardized exam that tests specific, detailed information. It would be unfortunate to see Bryn Mawr students at an disadvantage compared to students from schools with more traditional Intro Biology courses.

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