How to Think Like a Scientist: New Directions in Science Education

Heading out for science days with Hopi and Navajo students in Northern Arizona! Photo courtesy of Helen Bothwell, 2012.

As ecologists, we are in the thick of climate change awareness, and it can be tough not to get pulled in by that magnet of doom and gloom.  Yet, as Mike SanClements pointed out in his recent post, it’s important to find those things that empower us and keep us motivated to work towards change.  Science educators are in a unique position to potentially interact with hundreds of students every year.  While only a small percentage of these students may end up pursuing a career as a scientist or researcher, all of them will have the opportunity to vote on ballot measures and for politicians that will dictate major future environmental impacts.  Their decisions will direct how industries are run and influence business ethics.  Their choices as to how they live their lives, such as the products and resources they choose to consume (or not), will impact the communities they live in for better or for worse.  We have the opportunity and responsibility to teach much more than just the facts of science.

AAAS recently released a publication entitled Vision and Change, a “call to action” with guidelines for improving undergraduate biology education (2011;  Using terms like revolution, radical, and the New Biology, they mean business.  Much of the motivation for this synthesis stemmed from business and industry sectors voicing concerns regarding their struggle to find enough qualified graduates to fill positions in the workforce.  What are the qualities they’re looking for?  What is it that we should be sending our students off with so that they’re prepared to face the social, economic, and environmental challenges of our times?  For many undergrads, an introductory biology class may be their only exposure to the sciences, so we better get it right!

Students having fun with science explorations outside – way more fun than reading a text book! “Active” learning engages students, helps them better remember concepts by actually experiencing them, and makes our job easier because they’re excited!  Photo courtesy of Helen Bothwell, 2012.

While memorizing the stages of mitosis may be fascinating, this isn’t quite what we’re looking for.  Don’t get me wrong, content is essential.  All graduates should have a basic level of biological literacy to enable them to understand the world around them and to make informed decisions based on facts.  We’re getting closer.  We could lecture and assign reading until we and our students are blue in the face, but this would still only touch the tip of the iceberg.  In a nutshell, we can best serve our students by teaching them how to think like scientists and providing them with the skills to access and evaluate the rest of the iceberg of science-based knowledge and issues they will encounter on their own.

Students exploring classification and dichotomous keys with native plants.  Photo courtesy of Helen Bothwell, 2012.

So what does it mean to think like a scientist?  We probably learned about the scientific method in the 6th grade, but it’s still at the heart of what we do every day: identify questions, formulate hypotheses, design experiments to test these, and evaluate the evidence.  The ability to think critically and arrive at conclusions based on facts is one of the essential contributions that science can provide to all our graduates no matter what field they pursue.  Rather than just presenting students with the facts, we can facilitate hands-on experiences, open-ended problem solving, and class discussions that allow students to do the work, reap the excitement of discovery, and gain a sense of ownership in their learning through active contribution.

Science teaching collaboration between NAU graduates and local K-12 schools, supported through NSF’s GK-12 program. GK-12 has been a wonderful experience, strengthening my ability to teach active, inquiry-based science as well as rewarding to share with students at a young age how much fun science can be.  Photo courtesy of Helen Bothwell, 2012.

Science is interdisciplinary by nature.  It doesn’t exist in a bubble, but rather within social, economic and ethical contexts.  By presenting the facts within the context of real-life issues, our students will be more engaged and better able to relate how science impacts their own lives.  As scientists, we need to be able to work collaboratively with others and appreciate multiple perspectives to solve the complex problems of our times, skills that are essential across all fields as well as in good neighbors.

Science can also be messy, and often there isn’t one correct answer.  Students should understand that failure is a part of the scientific process.  They should become comfortable with the idea that knowledge is always evolving and be open to considering alternatives as new facts arise.

These are skills that will serve our students in all aspects of their lives and maybe even result in a more engaged and informed society.  This probably won’t stop the ice caps from melting, but at least we can rest a little easier by sending our students off with a greater confidence to think for themselves.

I’ll sign off with a little something for you visual learners.  This RSA Animate video by Ken Robinson is pretty amazing:

The San Francisco Peaks through a veil of rain, Northern Arizona.  Photo courtesy of Helen Bothwell, 2012.