Monday, May 15, 2006

Teaching science

Mike the Mad Biologist asks So How Would You Teach Science?:
I think the problem is that we do a very poor job of teaching the basics. By basics, I mean arithmetic and basic scientific facts.
I don't disagree that arithmetic and basic facts are important, but I think we spend too much time on facts, encouraging memorization and a perception that science is an encyclopedia.

Science is a process. It is a way of testing ideas. When something becomes entrenched as an unfalsified result of observation, it gets into encyclopedias. But we spend too little time on the process. Science is seen by the public as some sort of revealed truth, which makes real problems.

When I'm getting my students ready for an exam, I tell them not to worry about the names and the precise details. Understand the principles and understand how we got the details, and they can work out specific things. Don't sweat whether ferns have vascular tissue. Understand how they fit into the phylogeny of the plants and you can probably figure out whether they have vascular tissue.

The details are in encyclopedias, and if you need to remember the names of different bones, you will. But high school science classes and introductory college science classes should focus on getting people the framework they need to be able to figure out the details or to know where to look them up.

I went on a longer rant about this in January, so I won't delve too much into that. I'll just point out that my appreciation of the details and the usefulness of the citric acid cycle has been greatly enhanced by reading Robert Hazen's discussion of origins of life research, in which people are trying to figure out where each stage in that cycle could have come from. Like most people, I don't have any inherent interest in biochemistry, but I am interested in origins research. So now I'm interested in how to catalyze those reactions.