What Can We Do To Shift Science Education?

A perspective for delivering science

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As an upcoming scientist and science communicator, I have had the experience as both student and teacher which has provided to be a unique perspective of our science education in the US. As we now live in a world that heavily revolves around science and technology, it is imperative that we develop and become individuals that can understand and solve critical problems through the lessons of science. However, science education does not come without its own challenges. Here, I highlight challenges I have observed and provide alternative perspectives that aims to address them.

From fact memorization to critical thinking

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The current system of science education seems to be reflective of fact memorization rather than developing individuals with the critical thinking science instills. Primarily, students maneuver through science courses, evaluated through exams consisting of bubbling in answers we all have likely experienced in grade school. As this method of examination is attractive due to quick turn-around results, this approach may not adequately examine students’ understanding and integration of ideas, which is likely due to limitations in the level of questioning. Additionally, professors are put in positions that limit their focus on instruction, as they are also expected to maintain their laboratories, mentor graduate students, serve on committees, write grants and papers, etc. This combination is seen too often, likely resulting in a culture of students memorizing the presented material and regurgitating it for exams in an attempt to obtain a high grade.

Alternative strategies that support critical thinking of the subject matter rather than rewarding simple memorization could lead to developing problem solvers in today’s world. Simply focusing on basic concepts and their applications can reinforce this approach.

For example, if we presented engaging questions such as, “How would you determine the temperature of something, if you do not have a thermometer?” Such a simple question requires the understanding of concept as well as the necessary critical thinking to solve a problem. Strategies that focus on developing critical thinking rather than the memorization of facts is what science drives to do.

Delivery and Engagement

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As previously mentioned, science instruction is typically led by a lecturer or professor delivering the subject material through a presentation. Such presentations are commonly available to students prior to the lecture. However, this likely contributes to a lack of engagement by students and can serve as a barrier between the professor and the class. This practice also likely feeds the memorization of the lecture notes, as the material given to the student is regarded as all that needs to be known, in order to pass the exam. If we as science educators continue to utilize these practices, we then do a disservice to our students diminishing critical thinking skills and potentially reducing their ability to solve problems.

In addition, students are often required to enroll in laboratory courses that accompany science lecture courses. However, I believe these courses are under-utilized. Laboratory courses serve as an opportunity to apply and integrate ideas and theories discussed in lecture. In reality, students enter into the lab, in a short span of two hours or less, complete an experiment, obtain data, and leave without any interpretation or understanding of what was just achieved. In my experience, this scenario is common among undergraduate students which reinforces the idea of just memorizing facts and facilitates little to the application of the material and to provide fundamental understanding.

The solution? Tell a story.

Quite regularly science is presented in a dry, straightforward manner that can drive even the most interested to sleep. Science tells a story of the natural world and we as science educators are the storytellers. Rather than supplying information to the students, involve them in the story through discussion, stimulate engagement, and project the enthusiasm that drives our own scientific interest.

Many of us have had a litany of teachers in our lives. However, those who have had a profound impact on our lives are restricted to only a few. If we strive to be one of those teachers, then our students are better served and are better thinkers as a result.

Focusing on questions rather than answers

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Typical student evaluations are focused on selecting the right answer for a given question on an exam. If we ask ourselves, “Is this how the real world works?” I think almost all science educators would answer no.

Real world application comes from fully understanding what the question is, let alone what the answer might be. This is foundational to scientific thinking and what makes some of the greatest innovators and contributors of our society. Some of the greatest minds the public typically look up to are focused on solving critical problems.

A former student in a lab I was doing my graduate work referred to science in a nutshell as:

“All you have to do is figure out what you are trying to understand.”

This if the foundation of science, figuring out simply what the question is. Which coincidentally, makes for interesting science and grand discoveries. If we can shift the focus of our students toward identifying questions, rather than getting the right answer, may provide a crucial step toward a more enlightened public.

Conclusion

We as science educators not only can do better, but must do better for students. If we can set the example students could undoubtedly benefit. By primarily focusing on critical thinking, inclusive engagement with the student audience, and focusing on the questions science leads us to, will likely result, in my opinion, into a thriving science education. But it starts with us!

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Ryan A. Martin, Ph.D.

Ryan A. Martin, Ph.D.

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Scientist and science communicator, lover of fitness, an active lifestyle, and personal growth.