Rebecca Tarnopol: Rethinking science education

Monday, January 9, 2017 - 12:05pm

Last year, as I sat in my organic chemistry lecture, a rather disturbing thought passed through my mind: This professor could say pretty much anything, and I’d believe it.

After much reflection, I’ve come to realize this thought rests on two premises. First is the notion that science, as a discipline, consists of an anthology of objective, unquestionable truths. Second is that in order to really understand these truths, one must persevere through years and years of education, slowly but surely garnering an understanding for both the concepts and the jargon in a given field.

These two premises contribute to the student-teacher dynamic felt in most lecture courses: The professor, who holds a doctorate degree, serves as the end-all-be-all reservoir of knowledge for the content covered in the course, and the hundreds of undergrads enrolled in the course sit quietly and listen, absorbing this information, only interrupting for clarification.

This dynamic endangers the very future of science.

I’ll admit that though this thought dawned on me in organic chemistry, I didn’t really feel the weight of it then. Professors walked through chemistry concepts at the same pace students took notes. Exam problems required students to apply concepts, presenting them with novel problems from primary literature. I left the course feeling as if I had gained a solid understanding of the principles underlying organic chemistry.

It wasn’t until this semester, as I sat listening to professors rattle off names of compounds and processes off 60-plus slide lectures, being told to be able to “recognize” them for exams and nothing more, that I realized the full implications of this professor-student dynamic.

In a course taught like this — where the expectation is to memorize terms instead of applying concepts or solving problems — students feel pressure to adhere strictly to what the professor presents. This  results in a class full of future doctors, researchers and engineers accepting information at face value, afraid to challenge the professor, in fear of jeopardizing a grade in a course that will grant them a spot in a professional or graduate school. The course turns into a game of memorization, rather than an opportunity to understand how these facts fit into a greater scientific whole.

I found this especially problematic during times when my professors would contradict themselves by saying something incompatible with previous content presented in the lecture. I struggled with how I was supposed to navigate these contradictions — was I supposed to seek out the “truth,” or accept what the professor said as the “truth” within the context of the course?

But even if students try to memorize and regurgitate all the information they learned for an exam, they don’t necessarily secure a good grade in the course. According to research conducted by University of Michigan professors, students, on average, performed worse in large introductory STEM lecture courses than they did in courses in other disciplines. Though all students experienced this grade penalty, female students experienced a larger penalty than their male counterparts, a difference attributed to factors like stereotype threat. I wouldn’t be too surprised if research revealed similar findings for other minority groups in science as well.  

Of course, it may be argued that the lower grades are a result of the material being “more difficult” in STEM courses than in other disciplines, but difficulty is only one factor among many that can adversely affect student performance. I’d argue that poor grades in these types of courses can also arise from the lack of a true student-teacher relationship due to class size or the lack of student engagement with the course material — memorizing facts and figures isn’t a particularly stimulating task.

However, the bigger implication of these findings is that poor grades in these large lecture courses discourage key groups of people from pursuing scientific careers, eliminating diversity in science from the get-go. The same study found that grade penalties against women were not present in lab courses, which more readily resemble the types of environments that professionals in scientific careers encounter. Yet large lecture courses are often a student’s first taste of science at a collegiate level, and I can only imagine how many stereotype-threatened groups (or students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, whose schools might not have had strong science programs) abandon a science major before even realizing their prowess in the field.

The problems caused by the unquestionable “objectivity” and jargon that characterize scientific discourse transcend the classroom and render the discipline largely inaccessible to the general public. Perhaps the reason we live amid such rampant climate change denial is because much of the scientific evidence is incomprehensible to the average person; that is, the average person would likely more readily believe political pandering about a scientific topic than believe that elevated carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are correlated with rising temperatures. A similar assessment may be made to the camps driving antibiotic overuse and skepticism toward vaccination, two other salient issues that may endanger public health in the upcoming decades.

I’m not arguing that we should water down science education to make it more inclusive, but rather that we should increase the accessibility of scientific ideas by presenting them without condescension and in a way that fosters inquiry rather than blind acceptance.

The former starts with us: We mustn’t be so quick to dismiss people as unintelligent for failing to agree with scientific evidence that they likely do not understand. Instead, we must invite these people to the scientific conversation, acknowledge their side of the argument and give them the resources and guidance necessary to understand the implications of scientific research.

As for creating courses that encourage inquiry and discussion, departments and faculty must work to revise curricula in their fields. The University already offers some courses that accomplish this task, such as the Authentic Research Connection sections of introductory biology and chemistry labs, which foster an inquiry-based alternative to the normal curricula for a small group of students each semester. REBUILD is also working on curricula revision across “foundational courses” in different STEM fields to foster “active learning” and make the courses more accessible to students of all identities. Making this shift across all introductory courses — especially large lecture courses — will undoubtedly take much time, thought and money, but it is integral for the creation of stronger, more inclusive science education.

Until that happens, however, students must keep thinking critically about the “facts” they are presented. The future of science depends on us, after all.

Rebecca Tarnopol is a co-editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily.