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Science Education as Interactive Conversation

Materials for and from a presentation at the SENCER Washington D.C Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Session, April 2008. The presentation reviewed ongoing changes in biology and interdisciplinary science curricula at Bryn Mawr College, and was supported by the College's Center for Science in Society and HHMI undergraduate science education progam. The focus was on emphasizing interaction between observations and interpretations as well between students and faculty and among students themselves, and on the role that science classes, and the students in them, can play in broader scientific literacy by contributing to public conversation about science, on both its implications and its directions. Comments on these materials are welcome in the on-line forum area below.

Presentation abstract:

It is being increasingly recognized that effective education in science requires greater focus on the process of inquiry, including more attention to an ongoing cycle of observation and interpretation, to the significance of science in human contexts, and to exchange among students as well as active dialogue between students and faculty. For the past several years we have been modifying our curricula along these lines and exploring a further extension of science education as conversation, one in which science courses are opened to broader public interaction, so that both teachers and students conceive their task as contributing to a wider public discussion of science and hence to greater scientific literacy world-wide.

We have implemented various levels of interactive conversation in introductory, intermediate, and advanced biology and interdisciplinary courses, serving both science majors and non-majors. Faculty and students typically have some initial reservations, but our general experience has been that students become more satisfyingly engaged with course material as they feel themselves to be meaningful contributors both to their own education and that of others, and that faculty acquire a refreshed engagement with curriculum design and course planning. In many cases, we have made use of the Serendip website as a mechanism for public dissemination of student products and continuing public discussion of issues they raise. We have found that these materials generate both substantial public readership and significant ongoing public conversation.

Poster, in powerpoint format

Presentation notes, in power point format

News report in Bryn Mawr Now


  • Peter Brodfuehrer, Professor of Biology, Bryn Mawr College
  • Laura Cyckowksi, Senior Biology major, Bryn Mawr College
  • Anne Dalke, Senior Lecturer in English, Bryn Mawr College
  • Ashley Dawkins, Senior Physics major, Bryn Mawr College
  • Ann Dixon, Serendip web master
  • Wilfred Franklin, Laboratory Instructor in Biology, Bryn Mawr College
  • Paul Grobstein, Professor of Biology, Bryn Mawr College
  • Ian Morton, Senior Biology major, Haverford College

Supplementary materials

Meeting Photo Gallery (see also on-line forum below)

Addiitonal relevant materials

On-line forum


Ashley Dawkins's picture

rethinking physics education

I have been reflecting and questioning my experiences at the SENCER meeting. I am happy that there are people out there that are rethinking science education and how to engage various types of people. This seems to have worked well in the area of Biology. There are many pressing issues in today's society that link very well to biology, such as the many conversations around global warming. Even chemistry can cover such topics as AIDS or cancer. I, on the other hand, am most interested in addressing physics at a high school level. Therefore I left the meeting thinking about civic engagement responsibilities that could be link into a high school physics classroom. Although I haven't come up with any ideas yet, I am glad that my interactions at this meeting has encouraged me to think about education in a different way.
Anonymous's picture

I see safety issues as very

I see safety issues as very relevant to both physics and K-12 students. Who decides on the final design of new features in playgrounds and or amusement parks? How much should we spend on repairing important infrastructures (bridges, tunnels, intersections) versus replacement? Who is liable and to what degree do the concepts of physics enter into the legal considerations? Who in the approval process is expected to know what level of physics? What are the ethical considerations in sending people to live for extended periods of time on the space station even if they volunteer to go?

A few ideas I had after reading your notes.

Anne Dalke's picture


As it "happened," I had the good fortune to begin and end this past week by attending two contrastive conferences: last weekend I went to D.C. to talk about science education, and this weekend I participated in a workshop on the teaching of writing @ Bard College.

The first conference was sponsored by SENCER: Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities; I was invited there by Paul Grobstein, who has long for some time been engaged in innovative, interdisciplinary science education at Bryn Mawr. The second conference was one of the long-standing Institutes for Writing & Thinking; I was invited to participate by Alice Lesnick, who was moderator and one of the workshop leaders, and who also now runs the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program. Paul and Alice have for some time been hosting a series of local conversations on open-ended transactional inquiry, so it is no surprise that these two conferences had much in common. What was more intriguing, and quite instructive to me, was the gaps between them, the places where they didn't quite line up, where they rubbed against each other. It is those spaces I'd like here, for a moment, to explore.

What was by far most striking for me @ the SENCER conference, as I said above, was that it was so student-centered; the discussions were cross-generational, and student perspectives were incorporated in all the presentations. SENCER is clearly positioned in the a model of pedagogy that begins and ends with questions that students ask.

In that context, it was particularly striking to me to find that presumption challenged at Bard. When our keynote speaker quoted John Cage-- "personality is a flimsy thing on which to built an art"--I found myself wondering if it was a steady enough thing on which to build a curriculum and an educational plan. When we learned that Marcel Duchamp "got tired of his own hand," and so "used chance to forget the hand," I found myself wondering if our student-centered curricula are not a little cock-eyed and lop-sided....

Our first writing workshop opened with the exercise of looking at a text, asking, "What is most important to me in this passage?" We asked next, "What is most important to the writer in this passage?" and finally, "What is most important to the text in this passage?" We were cautioned, however, to "omit question #2" in a science class, because "that's not how science works."

In other words, science as conversation, and students as participants in it, hasn't caught on yet in the humanities.

But the way the humanities (at least this particular subset of humanities teachers!) talk about learning is also strikingly similar to the way progressive science educators do, and strikingly similar to our local talks in particular about emergent systems:
  • to "make a way out of no way,"
  • trying to design a curriculum that "prepares our students for the unintended and unexpected,"
  • to (paradoxically) help them "prepare for what is not prepared for,"
  • "awakening the mind into right relationship with a happening world,"
  • to "have a mind that is able to respond...this is the gift of happiness."
The marvelous keynote address from which I take these phrases was given by Lewis Hyde, who focused our attention on "how a wandering intelligence makes itself at home in the world with what it finds": "how do we understand a lucky find?" Well, Hyde explained, there are at least three ways:
  1. "there are no accidents": they reveal a world of pattern elsewhere (this is the ancient presumption that chance is the way the gods speak to us, and divination a way of reading that message; as Milan Kundera observes in The Incredible Lightness of Being, "everything expected is mute, only chance can speak to us"; as Robert Burton says in The Anatomy of Melancholy, ""Columbus did not find America by chance...the discovery was contingent to Columbus, but necessary to God");
  2. "accident is the revelation of accident": it shows us the lack of structure in the world, not a hidden pattern, but chaos primordial (as Michel Serres observes, "the real may be sporadic, made of fluttering tatters");
  3. "chance favors the prepared mind" (as Louis Pasteur famously observed); what's important here is the mind of the finder, the way in which intelligence can be catalyzed by gift; it involves bringing intelligence and adding craft to accident; think of this as "smart luck," having the presence of mind to shape what arises, because "shift-y" and agile.
And yet--as revealed in a marvelous Freudian slip of Hyde's, in its resistance to "teaching to the test," this workshop was insistently "teaching to the text," bringing us back again and again to the authority of what had been written (and what we ourselves wrote, and so archived, pinning down the fleetingness of our minds' wanderings). The respondents to Hyde's talk found themselves unable to go much "off script," even though he surprised them with a new text. One of the audience members invited us all to think more about the "potential for conflict between the finite text and the agile mind"; how do we prepare ourselves for the unexpected in written form? One answer is of course to remember the instability of the text, and its revise-ability, to recall its origin in the oral tradition.

This error is the sign of love,
the crack in the ice where the otters breathe....
The teacher's failings in which the students ripen....
the picnic basket that slips overboard and leads to the invention of the lobster trap,
the one slack line in a poem where the listener relaxes and suddenly the poem is in your heart like a fruit wasp in an apple,
this error is the sign of love!
(Lewis Hyde)
Peter D. Brodfuehrer (BMC)'s picture

SENCER transformation

The lesson I learned at the SENCER meeting is that does not take much to transform one of my courses (SENCERize) to incorporate civic engagement, make it relevant to students, and allow them opportunities for 'conversation' - their thoughts and perspectives on a given topic. My guess is that any course could be SENCERized and in the end, both faculty and students will benefit.

Anne Dalke's picture

citizen intellectuals

I also attended the conference, and was also quite heartened to learn of the varieties of ways in which conversational and socially responsive science is being taught @ a range of institutions; it's nice to see so many fellow-travelers!

I actually found myself most intrigued, though, by the conversations which highlighted the rough edges of this way of doing things, since that's where the learning can happen. So: what's the difference between doing politics and civic engagement? What happens to the "objectivity" when one is politically invested in the outcomes of one's experiments? What sorts of problems arise when research programs are explicitly directed by liberatory political goals? What troubles occur when "social value" is used as a standard from which to judge and fund the work of science?

I'd spent some time thinking about these questions before I got to the conference, but our conversations there highlighted them again for me. The interdisciplinary nature of the conversations also highlighted the challenge of dealing with each others' rhetoric and sense of certainty. As David Burns has commented, With friends like these...we should expect resistence by "those students who succeeded in the old way." But what was most remarkable about these discussions was that they were cross-generational; the greatest delight for me--what really distinguished this conference from others I've attended--was the incorporation of student perspectives in all the presentations.

But if the "key SENCER manuever," as David also reminded us, is "locating some interest," then where is the civic engagement in those projects that are less community-driven than student-initiated? How to market courses with topics that are important and hard to face, like "childhood obesity"? How to teach emerging activist-scientists pleasure and hope along with civic responsibility? How to help these students learn to evaluate (but not over-weigh the value of) other opinions?

A number of presenters talked about the difficulties they had applying the assessment tools SENCER supplies; what other measures for assessment might be used, other than those currently available to us? How much gatekeeping and guidance do our students need? One of us felt that "the worst thing is to send them on a wild goose chase"; another quipped that it's only responsible "to send someone who is interested in geese on a wild goose chase"; others of us (I include myself in this group) felt that identifying for themselves a worthwhile project to pursue is precisely the kind of work that young scientists need to learn how to do.
Paul Grobstein's picture

SENCER and social change, in science education and ....

As I have been in the past, I was impressed both by SENCER's commitment to finding ways to effectively engage more students with science, not only as a professional activity but as an essential component of becoming effective and empowered participants in society regardless of one's professional identity. SENCER's impact on a wide array of institutions, including two year colleges, is a valuable reminder that prestige institutions are not the only players in town and may in fact in important ways be behind in some significant innovations rather than leading them.

The meeting was also a valuable contribution to my own continuing thinking about the balance between advocacy and questioning in social change. While SENCER is clearly being successful in engaging significant numbers of both students and faculty in thinking about science education in new ways, it is probably having less impact (at least in the short run) on students and faculty who have been and are being "successful" in traditional science education modes. Ought one to challenge and seek alterations in the SENCER community to address this, or be content to congratulate and contribute to sustaining the community with the expectation that its successes will spread outward and contribute to valuable change elsewhere as well? What is the relation between this particular question and the more general tensions between disciplines and transdiscipinarity? between getting it less wrong in the near term and supporting continual innovation/emergence in the long run?

Anne Dalke's picture


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