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Culture in Science Teaching

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After examining the transformation of the science writing genre from the research laboratory to mass media, I gradually explored the humanities and the space available to the class here on the Serendip platform and in our bi-weekly class meetings. I had no prior background in the humanities before taking the Literary Kinds course and was only left with some baggage from high school and the Emily Balch freshman writing seminar. The initial challenges lie not on the content of the readings, but were at the heart of the culture of the English classroom and the backgrounds of the authors we have been reading.

The Literary Kinds course became a new experiment, appearing disguised under the humanities discipline but gradually resembled those in the science laboratory in its approach to learning. I was making observations on the intellectual and individual relationships that were formed in class and began testing a melting pot of diverse ideas and backgrounds. My initial hypotheses on the expectations and type of work were rapidly rejected. My philosophies on the humanities discipline have inevitably evolved to dismiss the stereotypes I have heard and admitted.

 I thought to reverse this experiment by 180-degrees. What if I was a student of no prior science background, first experiencing a college-level science course. The experience would be different in content and perspective, but would prove to be similar as the student would also be thrown in new grounds for learning. It happens to be precisely what happens when students, with a love-hate relationship for science (if not utter hate), are obliged to complete their mandatory college lab requirement. I hear of disgust and repulsion when some students share about their experiences learning science or in the science classroom. For some reason, taking a science course seems to be a far more challenging task to undertake. But why is that frequently so? Why is science seen as a burden to surprisingly many?

The socially-constructed belief of the irreversibility in learning between the humanities and sciences in education is the problem. Both disciplines are each of a unique genre, as distinguished by the subject content, but are both similar in the structure and form. As one of my physics professors Peter Beckmann would describe, both science and the humanities share stories, or models as may sound more familiar to the former. The processes by which specialists in either discipline undertake, revising and facing error and hardship in their projects, are very similar. While science aims to provide a model to describe the natural and physical world, the humanities share stories about social, cultural, and human events and happenings. The medium used to transmit the shared knowledge may be labeled differently but are both integrated to channel the information to an audience. The focus hence remains in emphasizing the parallels between the disciplines and flattening the grounds for a two-way exchange. (1)

As a tangent to my previous proposal to examine science fiction as a tool to teach science, I decided to explore the larger frameworks of science teaching and examine the  approaches that have been taken to popularize science learning. A more welcoming science teaching method is the objective. It may sound contradictory that teaching science should have as aim to be hospitable and greeting to a populous crowd. However, it is the first impression, the atmosphere, the space, and the people of the science classroom that matter to the student. The course title, the required laboratory portion of the course, and a specialized researcher might scare the guests away. We want them to spend a few nights or even a semester to reach the goal of popularizing science knowledge and enhancing the learning experience.  

Science culture appears exclusive and happens to frighten many students from it. As mentioned in my previous webpaper, theories and laws of science, especially the physical sciences, are structured through the language of mathematics. As a result, students who have a hard time contextualizing the rules and tricks in mathematics might be shut down from the science learning experience.  But science, in conjunction with the other disciplines, is required for the advancement of educational and technological infrastructures and is necessary in the integration of the culture and society.  The challenge hence remains in breaking from the fears of science and in founding more lasting, concrete educational and teaching methods that will guarantee its popularization.

It’s in the culture, that of the science classroom and of the student. They happen to be infrequently compatible, only when a student finds a connection to the mathematical structures and theoretical concepts. Some students have no culture to relate the theory of relativity or the laws of thermodynamics that govern many of the stories in biology and chemistry included.

Regressing to the larger questions in science teaching, the culture of the science classroom should opt to be more compatible to that of the students. The classroom environment and the pedagogical approaches that are employed have to work in favor of the student mindset. A student may find it hard to conform to the classroom, the solution would be to have the classroom mold to the students’ interests and motivations.

Approach #1: Science Fiction

“Science offers many possibilities, some grand and some highly dangerous. We all need to be able to understand enough science to distinguish it from the magic and superstition of earlier centuries. Today’s student can and must learn both the laws of nature already revealed by scientists and the scientific mode of thinking that will reveal new ones to survive and prosper in a future of our collective making whose borders will be staked at the limits of our imagination. Science fiction can allow students to test those borders and, as several fictional starship captains have said, ‘boldly go where no one has gone before.’”(3)

-Gary Raham, Teaching Science Fact with Science Fiction

            As proposed in the prelude to this final course project, science can be taught through science fiction. My recent and only experience with the science fiction novel, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, has offered an exciting experience exploring the block time universe through the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s time travels. Not too knowledgeable of this phenomenon beforehand, I was compelled to further expand my research and further investigate the possibilities of the timescape in the spacetime continuum. Science fiction, whether as a literary work or in film, has been an effective way in mediating popularized science at the forefront of popular culture.

            Not too far away in Temple University, professor of physics Leroy Dubeck has been using science fiction films as a medium to teach science. At a 1998 annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, Dubeck shared his experience in using science fiction film to teach science. For example, his lecture included Star Trek: the Next Generation to explain the Greenhouse Effect and explained space physics through the example of Star Wars. By using scenes from science fiction films as a baseline to relate the core scientific principles, Dubeck’s methods have shown much popularity from the students. Additionally, he noted that students do gain a better understanding of the scientific concepts that were being taught and maintained a high enrollment throughout the course of the semester (4).

Leroy Dubeck has also published books that further expand on the applications of science fiction for the purpose of science teaching. Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science through Science Fiction Films, an American Institute of Physics publication of his work, is divided into three sections that discuss fundamentals of physics and astronomy, biology, and detailed plot descriptions of science fiction films that were referenced in the previous sections as models for the science laws and concepts.

Dubeck writes, “The nonscientist may think of the sciences as simply processes by which to collect facts and formulate theories. But science is more than that: it is a creative activity that, in many respects, resembles other creative, yet ordered, activities such as art, literature, and music.” His work not only engages non-science majors to the study and appreciation of science, but also channels science as an art form, much like many fields in the humanities. As such, students are invited to examine science through a whole new lens that relates their past experiences in the humanities or other allied disciplines and strengthens their learning experience. As a parallel to my rejection of the humanities as non-interactive and stagnant when first introduced to the digital humanities, students who come across Dubeck’s message of science as an art are triggered to continue exploring the field and find comfort in collaborating to its many products.

For instance, one of his courses is specifically aimed at art students who need to complete their physics requirement. By presenting science fiction movies to art students in order to teach the core physics unit required of their degree, Dubeck uses an artistic angle to physics learning. Students are thus encouraged to learn not only about physics concepts applicable to their future artwork, but become more engaged as they expand their expertise in art via the science fiction film.

Leroy Dubeck has treaded a new pathway of teaching science through science fiction film that focuses on the welcoming culture. Dubeck’s approach structures a new culture of the science classroom that is relative to the students and extracted from  popular movie. The students are prone to make a connection to the course and enhance their understanding of science. The utility of science fiction as a bait for larger crowds of interested students in the science field clearly has an impact on the popularization of science. The shared culture of science fiction film makes this approach to teaching science productive in extending the science outreach to the larger community.

However, the absence of a science-interactive approach, as known as a lab, renders the experience of learning science less accurate. By being spectators of science fiction film but not doers of science, the students are missing a substantial experimental portion of the science learning experience. It is through practical laboratory section of a science course- the measurements, calibration, trial and error, data analysis- that challenge students to apply the science concepts and theories. An integration of a physically interactive laboratory section would not only match the expectations of a science classroom, in its content rather than environment, but would also ensure the mastery of the science concepts taught in the course lecture.

Approach # 2: Science as a Perspective

            For the freshman Emily Balch Seminar at Bryn Mawr College, physics professor Peter Beckmann has recently taught Ways of Knowing, Modes of Acting: Narratives of Self and World from a Natural Sciences Perspective. As referred in the course title, the course is not directly about science but as a natural sciences world-view or perspective. This course frame is an effective way in attracting a diverse student crowd not only limited to the science-prone students.  By this approach, a course channeled through conceptual science perspectives is employed to relate science to many of the daily phenomena to which many can engage in discussion.

            The syllabus of the course  provides a combination of novels and literary articles from the Scientific American journal and others included. The course is not limited to the novel or the scientific article alone but is framed such that they all are to be read in conjunction with one another to develop a multi-perspective story. In parallel to The Country of the Blind by H. G. Wells, other readings include Scientific American articles What Birds See by Timothy Goldsmith and The Evolution of the Eye by Trevor Lamb. Through these combined readings, the students are presented different stories and models about seeing and human vision that connect the bridges between science and the humanities. Additionally, this approach in teaching science, in connection to other types of disciplines, allow for an interactive way to learn and connect science to other fields.

            Peter Beckmann’s method in diversifying the syllabus content allows for a more constructive approach to learning science. Accompanied by other readings from other literary works, students are encouraged to draw the connections and parallels to other fields and examine the science perspective. Mastering the science perspective is an efficient way in teaching science as it calls for a careful understanding of the concepts involved. While this approach lacks a laboratory component or interactive science activities, it aims to strengthen scientific concepts to permit an interdisciplinary exchange through an opening science perspective.

Approach #3: The StudioLab

Sharon Burgmayer, a professor in the department of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, teaches Stuff of Art, taught in the fall which introduces chemistry through fine arts. This course, similar to Dubeck’s physics course for art students through science fiction film, targets fine arts students and aims to explain the chemistry in the materials used in the arts and their synthesis and transformation in painting.

In addition to a ninety-minute lecture session, the core of the course lies in the 3-hour studiolab, as a parallel to the regular lab section to a science course. As may be seen in the course webpage here, many of these studiolabs resonate with terms called out in an art studio. The paint colors, making and destroying a fresco, and metalwork are all relevant to an artist’s work. By having the lab portion of the course as a direct application to their work as artists, students will not only grasp the chemistry behind each studiolab but will fully participate in making an art piece through the channel of chemistry. The “studiolab” term used in this case, plays an important role in the design of the course. Students participating in it will be reminded that they will be running studiolabs, similar to their familiar work in the art studio completing a piece. Familiar term labels and coursework that applies directly to their field of expertise will guarantee that the students feel comfortable in the science lab environment and excel in their mastery of the science concepts (5).

The integration of the studiolab, both a studio art work and a lab, is crucial in the design of this type of course. This approach to science teaching to non-science majors proved to be the only way that a lab portion is incorporated in the course. The course optimizes the science experience through the more applied section of the lab and also speaks the language and backgrounds of the students.

Approach #4: My Robot

For a final pedagogical science technique, I thought to share my previous experience in a computer science course last fall. For the first half of the course, a robot was provided to each student and was to be programmed through the Python language. The Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE), a joint effort between Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College through the sponsorship of Microsoft Research, allows students to learn the basics of computer science, language, and programming through operating the robot (5).

What was remarkable about this science course was the direct result of each line of code. That is, the robot reacted to whatever was coded and it was fun to fully operate it and make it do tricks. In my experience in the course, I believed that the robot was extremely helpful in making sense of coding and programming as the outcome of my work was directly evident in the behavior of my robot. Similar science courses that would integrate a tangible device to work with would be beneficial in teaching some of the basics of a field.

All of these approaches to science teaching, other than the last one, have not been experienced directly and were examined in a hypothetical situation. A more accurate study would require meeting with the students and instructor to carefully examine their initial reactions and experiences in the course. The philosophies as seen by the instructor and structures of each of the courses did provide essential information on the effectiveness in the science teaching approach.

Science fiction as employed by Leroy Dubeck, Peter Beckmann’s science perspective for an evolved worldview, Sharon Burgmayer’s StudioLab, and My Robot in the computer science course all had as aim to find a means of connection for the students. What remains central to the questions of teaching science and how best to improve it is finding a culture to which the students can relate. Science fiction’s quasi-universal presence in popular culture and the StudioLab as a mirror to the art studio have effectively attracted students to the study of science through an alternative medium. Science courses should speak to the students, or directly converse with them in order to incite some exchange.

But does each of the approaches fully transmit the science learning experience as offered in science major courses? Well to some extent. All of these approaches offer exact, unfalsified knowledge about the science involved. The lab portion remains missing in most science courses offered specifically to non-science majors. So how can we try to integrate a laboratory section, a space for observation and experimentation, that will complete the science experience?

            “Let them play.”        

I have found myself again in Peter Beckmann’s office diffracting where we left off prior to my previous webpaper. It was simple. Playing had to be part of the culture of the classroom. “Laboratory” should be the unspoken word.

People’s association of the word “laboratory” with science, research, and all that is generalized about the science discipline makes the word choice derogatory to students who have not had a great past experience with science. But what is done in a laboratory setting? Scientists research and experiment, but it is all play. Tweeking parameters here and there to check for any change in results or running simulations for events to which the governing physical or other types of laws are known. After mastering the rules of this game through a mastery of the science concepts, laboratory work becomes a scientist’s play as he or she finds thrill in waiting to make new observations and publish new discoveries.

A similar philosophy has to be integrated for students who are new to a science course as well. Although they may not have a library of science concepts to dig from previous lessons, they should act out or play with the lecture topic. Integrating a “recreational activity” as part of the lecture would be the goal. It is important that this recreational activity be during the lecture, while the topic is freshly absorbed by the students. Extra three lab hours outside of lecture might be the main source of burden. It is all about making the necessary adjustments to the classroom that ensure maximized class participation and overall satisfaction.

The recipe to the ideal lesson plan would include an approachable culture, relative to the student group, and the recreational activity. Similar to when I was in 1st or 2nd grade, recess was always scheduled, halfway in the morning session before lunch. For the case of the classroom, the recreational fun should be done sometime in the middle of the classroom, as a break from a one-way lecture and a test for the students’ understandings in the course.

For the case of Slaughterhourse Five, as read together in the Literary Kinds course, discussions on the block time universe would first be included. Activities  aimed to teach more about the theory of relativity would then be done amongst classmates. As I tried to explain the blocktime universe and spacetime a prior week during a couple of our weekly class meetings, some of the theory I tried to explain was hard to grasp let alone relate to. As such, a group activity on relativity, for example, would be employed to further simplify the content. As shown in Brian Greene’s video The Fabric of the Cosmos: the Illusion of Time that I have posted as a sequence to my explanation of the block time universe in class, he describes the “reference frame”, “relativity”, “acceleration”, through acted out examples. By having a person with a ticking clock walk towards or away from a person sitting on the bench, Brian Greee describes how time can be dilated or appear to run faster. Similar activities can be run in the classroom where the relative motion between two classmates can be further exemplified as they move at different acceleration towards or away from one another.

The approaches that best capture the transfer of science knowledge from the instructor to the student or from peer to peer would require that the student may understand or feel comfortable to participate in that culture. The genre of culture in the classroom as well as the genre of the student group will determine the group learning in the classroom. There are no parameter knobs to adjust nor mathematical models that can measure which works, or so I say. It is rather bringing the student’s culture through the lens of science, finding ways that their day-to-day habits have some science behind them.

And so I finally return to the unclear, malleable understanding of genre. As discussed and questioned in the Literary Kinds classroom, genre was referred and broken down but never boxed in a final answer or definition. It evolves and changes, and so does the student-classroom relationship and the genre of each. The classifications of the two are not to be dismissed but emphasized in allowing us to identify how to adjust one relative to the other. In teaching science, it happens to be of utmost importance that these adjustments be executed to maintain student participation and learning.

1. Discussion with Professor Peter Beckmann on the science model and story parallel

2. Dubeck, Leroy, Suzanne E. Moshier, and Judith E. Boss. Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films. American Institute of Physics. 1994

3. Raham, Gary. Teaching Science Fact with Science Fiction.

4. Science Fiction to the rescue of teaching? Physics World.

5.  The Stuff of Art course webpage: /sci_cult/chemart/2010/schedule.html#studio

6. Institute for Personal Robots in Education