Tag: science education

New Perspectives on Students – Part 1

by gwilson on May.10, 2009, under Students

picture-211Those of us who have taught for awhile have noticed a change in our typical students over the past few years.  Their attention spans are shorter, their study skills are less polished, their course expectations are higher while their will to work is lower.  This new reality has caused huge consternation among educators, who are inclined to write off these students as not being “cut out for science”.

We see this attitude in certain areas of academia, where a professor or department will summarily dismiss students as somehow unworthy of the field because of poor success in freshman level classes.  One fellow dean shocked me at a meeting by stating that prestigious departments in his field pride themselves on high failure rates, where only the strong survive.  [My response was that such departments must have horrible teachers, because the hallmark of good teaching is maximizing  student success, not student failure.]  These self-important faculty and programs see themselves as the guardians of knowledge who have to be appeased, setting themselves up as the judge and jury of every student coming through their doors.  Only those like themselves are helped and encouraged; anyone else is “weeded out” as being unworthy of the call.  Any extenuating circumstances, like adjustment to college and new expectations, adjustment to being away from the structure and support of their family and friends, an all the other joys and trappings of college life are ignored.  If a student is not ready to succeed in their field right out of the chute, they just don’t have “the right stuff”. 

Can we afford to write them off?  Demographic after demographic shows that the US is losing its edge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  As one nationally-known scientist once stated, “Sure most Nobel Prize winners are Americans, but they are European immigrants!”  Our citizens are losing their interest in science, and our dependence on foreign science and technology places us in an unmentioned position of vulnerability.  They are expecting our schools to “go light” on the science and focus on the social and athletic elements of a high school education.  And our nation, as long as it gets cheap and bountiful access to the fruits of science and technology isn’t choosy about who provides it – our fellow citizens or emerging threats half a world away.  American industry must outsource science and technology jobs or import professionals in those fields because supply from American colleges is not meeting demand.  How did we get to this place?  How can we afford to dismiss the current generation of students as “not cut out for science”?  Are we really producing a generation of substandard students unable to “do” science?  Those questions reflect presumed opinions posed by more than one pundit.

I have another opinion.  Talk to the students and it is quite clear that they are plenty capable and as bright as their predecessors.  I believe we’re at a critical point in science education where the straight line we instructors see as the way to success in teaching and learning science does not align with the rapidly-diverging arc the students are following.  Something has to give if education is going to take place.  Do we force them to straighten out the arc and be like us?  Or do we learn to bend and so conform our teaching methods to better approximate their learning styles and expectations?  Do we take advantage of their exceptional skills or do we ask them to abandon those to use archaic ones valued more highly in our day and age? 

Unfortunately, students outnumber us and the cultural pressures driving the paradigm shift are not going way.  Our students fail in science because we are failing them, and how we respond to the growing challenge will be vital to our success as a nation in educating our children in science and math. 

Our response to this crisis is vital to our nation’s future, a matter of national security and concern.  Stay tuned as I provide my opinion about the true source of the problem and a possible way out of this abyss.

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Final Frenzy

by gwilson on Apr.15, 2009, under A Day in the Life...

dilutions3We are nearing the end of the spring semester at McMurry, and every course is experiencing the “crunch” that comes from too much left to do and to little time left for its accomplishment.  The BIMS program being in its infancy, we have had to settle for minor successes in most every class.  Sorting through the problems and issues associated with implementing a new approach to teaching has left us a bit disappointed while also very encouraged.

The Chlamydomonas races our freshman students were working on will have to be modified somewhat.  Isolation of the organisms from natural sources, culturing them, their purification, and selection of the fastest strains was not as straightforward as we’d hoped.  Too much light here, too few nutrients there, and we end up refocusing the course on how best to grow the “wee beasties”.  The final projects in Microbiology have been compacted into only two weeks due to overruns in previous experiments done by the class (the growth curve experiment previously reported, among them).  No doubt there will be some excellent projects still (one survey of produce items for Salmonella shows some promising early results, and another focused on how tobacco products influence bacterial growth and mutation looks to be very well designed).  The cancer research being done in the senior capstone course has been toned down a bit due to problems with culturing the cancer cells (as chronicled previously).  As a result, the DNA sequencing that was planned may now be modified into a less ambitious project.

Are we disappointed?  Yes.  Are we discouraged?  No.  Like research itself, the establishment of a new program or protocol is frequently a learning experience where adaptations and modifications are the norm.  In spite of the setbacks, much is being learned.  Faculty are learning our strengths and limitations and are sure this time next year the results we report will be exciting and interesting.  Students have experienced the “high” that comes from putting ideas to the test to find truth about nature.  More than one has expressed greater excitement and interest in research as a future.  As one put it, “If you don’t stop making science so much fun, I may decide I don’t want to go to medical school afterall!”

The greatest discovery of all this semester has been that our discovery-based approach in a research-rich and skills-laden environment works to engage students and deliver courses effectively to eager and willing and excited students.  We are encouraged about the future of the program and its impact on our students.

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Making Something from Nothing

by gwilson on Mar.28, 2009, under Projects

neg5The approach to teaching Microbiology labs at McMurry is really an exercise in making something from nothing.  This next week my BIOL 3410 students will be conducting growth curves of bacteria.  That is nothing unusual for students in a course like this.  However, my McMurry students have been challenged with creating their own broth media from scratch using kitchen items.  The competition pits groups against one another to come up with a medium that will support the growth of microbes.  We prepared on broths on Thursday, first step being to make sure their clear broths will survive autoclaving.  It is always fun to see what they come up with – this semester one group found the fluid from a can of tuna fish doesn’t make a clear broth as well as an extract from boiled spinach and potato.  SlimFast didn’t work so well, creating an opaque medium unsuitable for our study.  Another group found a protein supplement and vitamin water made a very nice medium.  Tuesday and Wednesday the games begin!

The organisms they will use are another exercise in making something from nothing, as they are the natural isolates (Staphylococci and enteric organisms) my students collected, purified, and identified earlier in the course.  Each group will try their medium with six of the cocci and six enterics, following growth spectrophotometrically.  Then the results will be pooled to see whose medium maximized the growth for the greatest number of bacteria.  All groups will report their results in the form of research posters that will adorn our walls for the remainder of the semester.  Winner gets an automatic advantage on their poster grade.

I could have given each group an organism and made their medium for them.  But what would my students have learned about the chemistry and content of media by doing that?  What would they have learned about the distribution of microbes in nature and the thought that goes into identifying them if I had given them cultures from our stock collection?  If you can get as much “bang for your buck” making something from nothing, why not make learning fun and relevant?

There is a way of teaching that brings deeper learning, the fun of competition, and the satisfaction of accomplishment in demonstrating mastery of skills and knowledge through problem-solving.  It is called discovery-based learning.  We do that through research-rich teaching.  McMurry’s BIMS program is committed to doing more to bring the science out of students – just putting science into students is not enough!

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