The Future of Science Education by Charlie Zhao

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One of the talks of the evening was initially entitled “How do you teach students who don’t give a sh-?”. Its presenter, a UBC professor who received his Bachelor’s at Cambridge University, had thought better of it, and decided to use a more politically correct title.

This was the first night of Western’s Conference on Science Education (WCSE-pronounced “wixie”), a biennial event that attracted university educators from across Canada and the US. The first evening consisted of a series of “Ignite” talks – 5 minute presentations consisting of 20 slides that automatically advanced every 15 seconds. This often resulted in hilarious results. One presenter spent more time swearing at the unyielding slide advances than on actually presenting.

Beyond this lighthearted introduction, the conference had an ambitious agenda. Attendees had flocked to Western’s Physics and Astronomy Building to discuss how to best teach science. In other words, how do you get students to “give a sh-”?

“Under the right conditions, learning, like sex, is biologically motivating and pleasurable to humans”. This was a quote by Ira Shor, an English professor and philosopher. In “Brain Rules”, John Medina uses studies and observations of babies to suggest that human beings naturally learn by exploration. But stay in a first year lecture hall for long enough, and I’ll forgive you for concluding the opposite. If learning is like sex, then students certainly have a very strange view of sex.

How did we get here? During the colonial era in New England, colleges were set up by missionaries to train ministers. The earliest of these institutions was Harvard, established in 1636. Over the centuries, the role of the university has expanded as an institute of higher learning. The curriculum shifted away from Aristotelian epistemology to accommodate for advances in science. Latin replaced by English. Religion diminished. In 1963, the Robbins Report commissioned by the British government set forth the objectives of higher education in the UK. The report stated that universities should, amongst other goals, teach practical skills, promote critical thinking, cultivate a desire for truth, and edify moral character.

It is hard to believe that these goals can be met in Canada’s already overtaxed universities. Between 1980 and 2010, undergraduate enrolment in Canada nearly doubled from 550,000 to 994,000 students. Meanwhile, budget cuts meant that precious funds were channeled more into research, even at the expense of instructing next generation’s scientists.

Nor is the problem entirely a matter of resource. Most professors mean well and want students to succeed, but, as one conference attendee pointed out, there isn’t much emphasis on developing teaching skills in graduate school in the first place, so can professors even be expected to be good teachers? On the opposite side of the lecture hall, most students are too concerned with practical career goals to be inspired anyway, so what’s the point of trying?

As the conference went into its third day, everyone was inspired and motivated toimplement change. Yet, lingering in the back of every social innovator’s mind is a biting apprehensiveness. Students don’t like change. They like the idea of it, but not the thing itself. The WCSE educators who have tried something radically new recounted with horror of their encounters with social inertia. Explorers beware, for this is dangerous territory.

But even in this inert field, we have moved forward. The lecture-style teaching method finds its roots in medieval universities, where a teacher simply read notes from an original source. We now have massive open online courses (MOOCs) that may one day displace the lecture, and have taken forays into “experiential learning” projects. One of the WCSE presenters, for example, introduced “Molecular Modeling” – using Play-Doh to teach biology as a hands-on approach. Even professional schools, such as Stanford’s Medical School, have attempted innovating in their teaching by “flipping” the classroom. For the most part, these innovations are the exception, and not the norm. Education is a heavy beast, unwilling and sometimes unable to budge.

Our idea of creating the Science Case Competition (www.scinapsescience.com) was an attempt to help students see science as a creative and interdisciplinary pursuit. The success of the competition shows that not only are students ready to become more engaged in their learning, they can also play a big part in shaping it.

In education, students should not be treated as consumers, and we should stop acting like we are. A revolution in higher education can happen, but students will have to play a major role. Let’s make learning sexy again.

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Charlie is in his fourth year studying Bioinformatics at Western University. Participating in MSAC Cohort 3 made him aware of issues faced by students, and helped him develop a passion for science education. He believes the need for experiential learning opportunities for science students, and is the creator of the Undergraduate Science Case Competition. He is also co-founder and President of Scinapse Education Group, which provides professional development opportunities for science undergraduates.

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