BIMS

Tag: STEM education

New Perspectives on Students – Part 4

by gwilson on May.27, 2009, under Students

yodaIf this were TV, I’d post a “cliff-hanger” and then not say another word on the subject until “next season”.  This isn’t TV. 

In my last post, I promised that I would resolve the issues covered so far:  the need to graduate more citizens with knowledge and interest in science and math, the crisis we see in STEM education, the changing student and stagnant faculty, and how technology has contributed to the problems observed.  I tried to convince you that there must be a better way to teach if we are ever going to reconnect with the students who are so quickly and unfairly dismissed as “not cut out for science”.  My promise was that this “finale” would chart out a new approach that we know works!  You’ll have to be the final judge on how I did.  And I must admit that, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, this solution will take two posts to fully explain in a convincing manner.

I have to preface the following by saying one major concession has to be made by faculty and programs to make this work.  It is to recognize that it is far better to know a few things well than everything poorly.  I’m afraid the curriculum for many a science course and major has turned out to be a mile wide (and growing rapidly) and an inch deep, totally unacceptable for providing a deep and abiding knowledge that works for a student in the world they will enter.  What is taught and how we teach represent the two prongs to building a successful science program.

So, how do we start?  Yoda would pop up right now and say:  “All is unknowable; unknowable is all!” 

“All is unknowable.”   We cannot know everything because scientific information is already too vast to master and increasing at a logarithmic rate.  So why does it make sense to perform intellectual hazing by starting today’s students off to do what we cannot do ourselves?  Why give students a taste of everything and call it a meal?  Today’s productive scientists limit themselves to deep knowledge in one area.  Generalists in any science discipline are not particularly useful individuals.  Their idea of “smarts” is Jeopardy knowledge that does not serve an employer, a profession, or an industry well.  A company could always save a paycheck by using technology to retrieve facts and figures 24/7.  Put your money instead into those who can use their brains to put their knowledge and skills to work.  General knowledge is helpful in critical thought, but it can never replace critical thought.  Never confuse the abilities of a general handyman with those of a skilled air conditioning expert.  Unless we limit the intended scope for our students and take them deep into the discipline, we are training them for obsolescence.

“Unknowable is all.”  Okay, for the Yoda-thing I had to say “unknowable” – but the better word choice would be “unknown”.  If we fix our educational eyes on what is not known instead of on what is already known, we will accomplish much more in engaging students and keeping the flow of bright minds into the STEM workforce.  Allow what is known to inform the search for what is not known – just as it is done in science – instead of letting what is known represent science.  Students thrive in such an environment.  Curiosity drives discovery, and discovery drives excitement.  Excitement drives motivation, and motivation drives success.  We must work on setting our bait well in order to reel in our prey.

Current science curricula and pedagogy at most schools miss the boat in this regard.  Typical programs fill their cafeteria trays with all sorts of delicious facts and figures and theories and such, and then take great offense when a student can’t eat it all.  “There’s no room in life science (or your discipline) for someone without an appetite for ___ (fill in the blank with anything – math, chemistry, genetics, physics, etc.)!”  Quite honestly, there IS room for folks with special skills and talents, even if they lack interest or success in ancillary areas.  We even approach our introductory survey courses as if the future of the world hung in the balance.  Too many faculty think EVERYTHING in a freshman course is foundational to a discipline… if so, why not just award the degree after the freshman year? 

In comparison to a completed house, a foundation is made of relatively few ingredients.  But they are put together carefully to build a strong base upon which to build.  You build on a foundation, but too many faculty believe the foundation and walls and roof and plumbing are inseparable and must be taught in Year 1.  Why not distill down to the fundamental principles the basics of our disciplines to provide the foundation, and then with these mastered by students go forward to use our knowledge to build our graduates intentionally by helping them explore where no man has gone before?  The foundations of a discipline move from being the end of education to becoming the means for education.  That doesn’t happen unless we acknowledge that the “unknowable/unknown is all”. 

What do I mean by “unknown” in all this?  I mean just that – the science yet to be discovered.  When we approach teaching our subject by engaging students in the pursuit of answers to new questions, we show them that science is a verb and not a noun.  We start them down the road to building useable knowledge by building curiosity, leading to motivation and success.  When we limit our focus to what’s important (rather than all that is known), and use pedagogy that engages the students in the act of discovery, we lay a foundation upon which subsequent courses will build highly-sought graduates who are effective problem solvers and productive scientists.  

So, let’s look at a new approach to education that is based on a better curriculum AND a better pedagogy.  I will outline this in the FINAL (I promise) installment.

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New Perspectives on Students – Part 2

by gwilson on May.13, 2009, under Students

dscn2796In Part 1, I introduced the issue of “today’s student” in old science programs, and the impact this has on our ability to retain and graduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors.  I recalled a conversation with a fellow dean who saw high failure rates as an indicator of program rigor and quality, and my belief that effective, high quality teaching should be measured by student success rather than student failure.  I also relayed the diverging worlds that exist – one in which we see the necessity of students to conform to our dated ways of approaching science, the other in their understanding of the way things work in education and the world.  

So what is the cause of the discord between faculty expectations and student performance?  I believe technology is to blame.  Technology has forever changed the way students relate to the world, and their embracing this change makes our old methods of teaching both ineffective and inappropriate to encouraging student success in education, particularly in the sciences.  An unintended consequence of the technology revolution has been a change in students that has left faculty unarmed in the “war of education”.

Unlike our own education, today’s technology tools make devoting time to mastering information much less useful than devoting time to managing information.  I remember a time when my fellow students went to go to the library or searched through textbooks or class notes to find vital information (all of which made the practice of “just learning the facts” to make the trips less frequent a logical activity).  Compare that with my class the other day, when I mentioned an antibiotic and a student had googled its mode of action before I could get the words out.  We lived in a world where growing intellectually meant working to dig out information and “owning it”.  They live in a world where no digging is required – there is more information at their fingertips than they could ever use.  Their intellectual growth hinges on being able to manage that information – picking what is important, picking what is trustworthy, picking what is useful.  Type a few words in a search engine and you have your result in milliseconds – often tens of thousands of pages of information of varying levels of quality and relevance.  Their society is one of instant access to information, the use of technology without having to know how it works, recognition that they move forward with the world while old codgers like me simply hang on as best we can.  Our focus was memorization and integration; theirs is critical analysis and application.  Our approach to learning was “just in case”; theirs is “just in time”.  Why memorize anything when it is so readily available?  Why stifle creativity and productivity by demanding the mind-numbing, labor-intensive commitment to memory of lifeless facts and class content that will be obsolete within a matter of months?  Too many faculty are card catalogs in a Google world.   (Ask your students what a card catalog is and see if they know the answer!  Better yet, go to a library and see if you can find one!)  And in so many ways, our approach to education is asking them to abandon Google and return to the Dewey Decimal System.  Who’s going to win that war?

So what has this done to today’s students?  They are impatient, they lack persistence, they come to college having had to do little for themselves, the education system has worried more about their feelings than their foundation, there is a sense of entitlement for “just showing up”, work is optional, and so on and so on.  Check the boxes, be a nice person, move on to college.  They are a fundamentally different educational species from ourselves due to the natural selection imposed by technology and a changing world.

And so our students come to class with much different expectations than we do about the form and substance of their education.  The buzz word around here among faculty frustrated with student performance is:  motivation.  “We can’t get them to do the work!” is the most common explanation for student failure.  So, some departments will diligently throw more work at them under the logical but ill-guided notion that with more work they will learn the material.  If a student doesn’t speak your language when you are asking him to pick up the 20-pound weight in front of him, does it make sense to then change the weight to 50-pounds and expect his hearing to improve?

One of my most frustrating experiences in the past decade came this last August when we brought Dr. Saudra McGuire from LSU’s Center for Academic Success to campus to talk to our faculty about motivating student learning.  I had heard her at a SACS meeting the year before and was amazed by something she said.  She was teaching chemistry at Cornell, and as she relates it, “I could explain freshman chemistry in 40 different ways meeting all the learning styles and giving abundant examples, but students were still failing at unacceptable levels.  It wasn’t until I realized what I was saying was not what they were hearing that I knew how to fix the problem.”  Too often, we want to work harder at the things we do well instead of studying our students, finding the problem, and switching to what works.  What is the saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome?  And we are scientists!  We, of all people, should understand if the outcome is not what we want, the approach we take must be changed!

But so many faculty don’t “get” that.  Their response to today’s new student is use of blunt force to make them learn.  There comes a point where added work reaches diminishing returns, unless the return you want is to so completely overwhelm and defeat a student that they decide to leave the sciences and abandon their dreams altogether. 

Fishing without bait or lure.  Ever watch a good fisherman?  S/he takes stock of the environment, studies their prey, and experiments to find what works to motivate strikes on their line.  They can tell you where the fish are, what they bite on, what time of day is best, where you should stand or anchor your boat.  And if they have no success with that, they have a few other successful approaches and favorite spots to turn to.  A fool would sit by a lake in the same spot for 12 hours with no success, using a single unproductive approach.  They might as well be fishing without bait or a lure, because what they are offering isn’t what the fish are biting on.  They can blame the fish all they want, but the fact is they haven’t “sold” the fish on their bait – the fish have no motivation to bite.  As educators, we must generate motivation to learn by taking stock of the learning environment (which, unlike in fishing, we can change!), studying our students, and experimenting with our educational approaches to motivate our students to learn.  Throwing more empty fish hooks in the water may increase the chance of a catch, but it is a terribly inefficient approach. 

In the next installment of the series, I’ll begin to lay out an approach that solves the motivation issue and provides graduates with a lasting, working knowledge of the discipline and that builds the skills needed to remain life-long learners.  This represents the heart of the BIMS approach to education.

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