Making Scientists: Some Assembly Required

science lab[This is a guest post by Jeremy Yoder, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota. You can find him online at Denim and Tweed, or follow him on Twitter at @jbyoder.--@JBJ]

One of the quirks of academic science is that earning a graduate degree in science doesn’t necessarily prepare you for teaching, which is one of the principal things one does after earning a graduate degree in science. Graduate school is primarily about learning how to be a scientist—developing new ideas, designing experiments to test them, finding funding to support those experiments—and those tasks have very little to do with the process of undergraduate education, right?

Not so, according to Gregory Light and Marina Micari. In their new book Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, (Harvard University Press, $24.95) Light and Micari argue that undergraduate education in the sciences should go beyond imparting a basic set of knowledge, and make learning science more like the experience of doing scientific research.

This is the philosophy of the Gateway Science Workshop program at Northwestern University, which Light and Micari developed over years of work with professors and students across the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The major innovation of the GSW is to have students study in small groups, led by peers from the previous year’s class. The small group practice began as a means to help students who struggled, but it proved to benefit students at all levels—gains documented through deliberate and ongoing observations of GSW participants.

From of their experience with and study of the GSW program, Light and Micari distill the six principles of their title (capitalization sic, summaries my own):

  1. Learning Deeply—Students should not only learn a set of facts, but learn how to determine what information they need to solve a problem, and how to find it.
  2. Engaging Problems—Coursework should be structured around specific problems designed to prompt deep learning by illuminating broader concepts and connections in the course material.
  3. Connecting Peers—Students learn best in small, collaborative groups that provide diverse perspectives on problem-solving.
  4. Mentoring Learning—Students need mentors in learning, and the peer facilitators in GSW-style learning groups should be prepared to play this role in a broader mentoring network that includes the rest of the university community.
  5. Creating Community—Even students in an undergraduate course should be able to see themselves as part of the broader enterprise of science, and connected to people who do research.
  6. Doing Research—A logical extension of teaching science like doing science, this applies the peer-group format to independent research projects, potentially within faculty lab groups.

Chapters elaborating on each of the six principles form the bulk of Making Scientists. And it was about midway into the first of these that I started to wonder when Light and Micari were going to discuss what they think I should actually do in a classroom.

I completed my Ph.D. without formal preparation for teaching beyond several semesters as a teaching assistant, and I’ve spent my postdoctoral years working to make up for that lack. Consequently, I’m familiar with most of the broad goals Making Scientists sets for undergraduate science education, and I’d certainly like to use them as the basis for developing my own teaching portfolio. But readers who, like me, came to the book looking for specific activities, assignments, and assessment strategies to further those goals will be disappointed by Making Scientists.

Instead, Light and Micari spend most of the text on exhaustively enumerated arguments in favor of their six principles, and on qualitative descriptions of conditions that favor each. For example, the chapter on Engaging Problems directly describes exactly one problem—a math question with notation that is completely opaque to this non-mathematician—and all Light and Micari have to say about it (via a quotation from a study group’s peer facilitator) is that the problem is “great” because it got students “drawing and talking [possible answers] all out with each other.”

“Suggestions for practice” at the end of each chapter provide a bullet-point list of goals for employing the principle described in the chapter. But these are often along the lines of, “ensure that the group, and not just the group leader, is actively engaged in problem-solving.” Okay! But how? Should instructors check in on group meetings to monitor progress, or through meetings with the peer leaders?

There’s a perfectly good reason for this lack of specifics. Making Scientists is a book about education in all the STEM disciplines, and while it’s easy to get a mathematician and a developmental biologist to agree that students should Learn Deeply, they will probably have very different ideas about what sort of coursework can achieve that. This forces Light and Micari to maintain a broad perspective, which is not necessarily a bad thing if their primary goal is to convince physicists, statisticians, cellular biologists, and engineers of the need to make science education more like doing science. However, those of us who are convinced will need to look elsewhere to figure out how to make that goal a reality.

Photo Science Laboratory at Waterpark College by Flickr user National Library of Ireland / No known copyright restrictions

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