I attended a session today that is near and dear to my heart. The session was titled US Science Education in a Global Context and it was a nice presentation on the shortcomings and clear consequences of how we educate future scientists and the general public about science in this country.
Now this might be just my personal opinion, but I feel like there tends to be a stigma associated with spending time on the instructional aspect of an academic position. Our primary objective is typically portrayed as being innovative in the lab and spending as little time as possible in the classroom unless we work at a community college or primarily undergraduate institution. I find that to be a gross misconception of our purpose, and essentially our duty, as scientists. Our objective should not just be to make new discoveries, but to also prepare the next generation to continue where we leave off. We cannot possibly hope to accomplish those goals if we stay the course and propagate the use of ineffective teaching techniques. A common argument against altering our typical teaching styles is the notion that we all survived the current educational system, so there’s no excuse for the next generation. That’s fine if we consider STEM education to be reserved for the select few that become the movers and shakers of their field. Think about this for a second, though: how many of those elite critical thinkers leave the lab and enter politics? How many of those highly educated scientists become involved in making decisions about budget distributions to federal organizations that provide grant money for science research? If you answered “basically none” to either of those questions, then you already know there is a desperate need for improved science education in the United States for everyone.
This session on education showcased the perspective of three panelists with varied backgrounds: a former President of the National Academy of Sciences, a representative of a non-profit organization focused on improving national K-12 science education standards (Achieve), and someone heavily involved in how the NSF strives to improve undergraduate education. All three were in agreement that the way we go about educating students in the STEM disciplines at all levels fails on multiple fronts, two of which are that 1) students do not recognize that science is an interdisciplinary craft that cannot be comprehended through memorization and 2) students are not trained to navigate how science is presented in their textbook or the literature, which leads to disinterest and misguided understandings. Those two follies arise from an ineffective communication of science, which falls on us (the educators) to strive to correct.
There are a number of free educational resources that the panelists promoted, which I would like to provide for you here. Despite my interest in science education, I was actually unaware of these and am very excited to dive in! I hope you find some of these resources useful in your own educational endeavors.
Science in the Classroom is provided by AAAS and is a resource for educators interested in effective ways of teaching science literacy. On this website, you will find a collection of annotated publications that are geared to either the high school or college level. This provides instructors with a framework for guiding their students through dissecting the scientific literature.
This is another resource provided by AAAS and it’s a collection of all the freely available educational resources they have to offer. This includes a blog about education research, a collection of Science articles on education, and special editions of Science focused entirely on STEM education.
This is a free PDF provided by The National Academies Press, which attempts to address the following questions: how do students best learn STEM? Are there ways of thinking that help or hurt their learning process? Which teaching strategies are most effective? And how can educators apply these strategies or suggest new approaches to their institutions? You will need to register with the site to get your free copy, but registration is free!
This website provides a digital copy of a book written by Janet English, which details her experience as a Fullbright Scholar in Finland, exploring their extremely successful educational system. She provides insightful vignettes of Finnish policy and practice that provide an excellent framework for how you might want to improve your own classroom.
I could go on and on about why I find researching effective teaching techniques to be so important to our overall success as a scientific community, but I don’t want to trip over the line and turn this blog into a sermon. I do hope that the questions I posed earlier and these free resources get you thinking, though, and steer you in the direction of the educational workshops, sessions, and posters you can find all over the Biophysical Society meeting. Consider this, my fellow biophysicists, if we do not invest in the next generation, our legacy is short-lived and our brand of innovation becomes a dying breed either by a shortage of educated scientists or an overabundance of science illiterates in public office. We are in positions to make the changes we wish to see in our educational system and it is entirely up to us if those changes ever happen.