Science as a Way of Knowing
by Liz Studer
My path to becoming a scientist was always clear, it’s what I’ve felt passionate about for as long as I can remember and it makes me feel like I can influence the world in an impactful way through my research. With this in mind, when I entered academia, I, like many others, assumed that teaching would be a second priority; a necessary evil that came begrudgingly after my research duties were completed. To my surprise, I had a very different experience from the start.
Before the semester’s start, the new TA’s were encouraged to relate our research to our new students so that they could get to know us. After the introductions and I described my costal beetle research, the question came, “Why do you study insects?”
The discussion that followed was something I hadn’t planned or expected. The students were interested in not only my research but the environment in which the beetles lived. The students later told me that my enthusiasm had opened their eyes to something “as gross as bugs.” The next class a prideful student told me, “I saw a bug in my bathtub but I took it outside in a cup instead of smashing it!” I realized in that moment that there is a scientist in every student, regardless of their future goals or interests. Their curiosity about insects and willingness to open their minds to new ideas was refreshing. I decided that it was my responsibility as a scientist to communicate my research in a way that students could understand, not only to share my love of the subject, but to give them the knowledge that would give them the tools to make informed decisions about the environment and their futures. Through my experiences, I’ve come to realize that there are three main skills that I aim to impart:
1) The ability to examine the natural world and make predictions based on their observations
Observational skills are not inherently instilled in everyone, however, can be learned and honed through practice. In my class, students are presented with various organisms many have never seen. I ask them to explore their curiosity and develop it into conductible experiments. I ask them to think about the organism’s behaviors and how these may be affected by the environment or competition. Students, later in the semester, cultivate their ideas into a full-fledged research experiment in which they design, conduct, and present their results. This in turn creates active participants in their education as they take hold of their own learning path. By traversing their own questions, predicting results based on observations, and leading their own experiments, these students practice not only practice detail oriented observational skills, but they complete a personalized and rewarding student centered learning process.
2) The skills to evaluate data to test predictions
Evaluating the world is important, not only for scientists, but for responsible members of society. In a polluted sea of popular media articles it is essential that students develop the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate information and develop informed decisions about nature, politics, and culture. I emphasize the ability to read and understand peer reviewed articles. Students then have the necessary tools to read popular media and compare it to the source materials to determine the level of over-dramatization presented by the media. Furthermore, I teach basic statistics, which allows them to evaluate their own data in class from their experiments, and allows them to evaluate statistics they see reported in the media. This not only gives them the skills to critically think about popular media but it helps show them the relevance of science in their lives.
3) The capability to communicate these results to their peers and the public
Communication is the most important skill that any student will ever learn in college. It is transferable to every career path and is essential for initially landing jobs. Because of its importance and the pressure associated with public speaking, many students are terrified of it. To try to reduce stress associated with speaking in front of a live audience, I designed an innovative project called a video abstract. My students created videos under 10 minutes that described their student experiment, why it’s relevant, and their major results and findings. This allows them to summarize their experiment in a low stress, creative, unconventional, and enjoyable way. Additionally, the students write research papers in a scientific article format, reinforcing what they learned about scientific writing, communication, and presentation of results.
Science as a way of knowing
I approach teaching with the goal of imparting scientific skills that are invaluable in not only science but also to other career paths as well. Most obviously, critical thinking is a must have for all fields, but possessing basic observation skills and the ability to interpret the media are essential for all responsible members of our society especially with the complicated political issues at hand and the deluge of information on the internet. Furthermore, I try to teach my students how to learn, in contrast to content memorization by, using skills to make learning an individual priority. I aim to impart science on students as an individual process of learning and figuring out the world around them. Therefore, students can evaluate their own observations and predictions to make informed decisions about their world.