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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science Education"
April 28, 2006

Peter Brodfuehrer
"Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Science Education"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Participants: Peter Brodfuehrer (Biology), Anne Dalke (English), Wil Franklin (Biology), Paul Grobstein (Center for Science in Society), Rachel Horton (Biology), Selene Platt (Centers Office).

Peter spoke as the principal investigator for the current HHMI grant to BMC, one of many intended to "change the culture of science" by funding educational institutions "to come up with trends." The culture of change HHMI sees is interdisciplinary, and the scope of science at Bryn Mawr has broadened as a result of a number of HHMI grants, past and present. Since these grants began (in the country and @ Bryn Mawr) in 1988, the "state of science" has changed. The original HHMI grant @ BMC was explicitly intended as an interdisciplinary intervention; it gave rise both to the program in Neural and Behavioral Sciences and to the Summer Institutes for K-12 Teachers. Subsequent HHMI grants led to the development of the Programs in Computer Science and Environmental Studies, as well as the minor in computational methods. The focus, in each of these grants, was on "doing away with specific subfields, and thinking across levels of organization."

Discussion focused largely the next grant upcoming: @ a time when 1/4 of the students @ BMC are majoring in STEM fields, what aspects of science education might we most profitably and productively focus on here? Might we look even more intently @ the move toward the intersection of the sciences? A good take-off point for a new grant proposal might be the undergraduate curriculum: how can we help students and teachers in all of the science departments learn to better communicate with those in other areas?

It was agreed that science literary can be improved at the College. How to best go about incorporating this within the current structure of course offerings? Three components were identified as important:

  • technical skills
  • communication skills
  • history, philosophy and ethics of science.
In order to negotiate "matters of departmental turf," at a time when "all departments feel that they are maxed out," a process like the following could be initiated: --First, identify a set of general applications and technical skills that are not discipline specific, but needed in all fields (such as skills in statistics, graphing and modeling), which could then be taught under a common agreement that they be incorporated as an explicit component in every intro lab course.

--Second, require all science majors to enroll in a common course in ethics, history and philosophy of science.

--Third, make "communication" an explicit part of the practice of all these classes: teach science students "to speak different languages"; give them practice and experience in talking with people unlike themselves. (There was some debate here about whether students "lack the conceptual power" to translate among fields, to apply specific knowledge to more general cases.)

--Fourth, agree on a general pedagogical approach to all the labs, one that encourages a "personal engagement and relation to the material." We need to "get our students away from simply reviewing and presenting material back to us," instead requiring them to "do something with it, to add something to it." One way to do this is to require them to "write web papers, to teach the public." Students could be told to identify something that interests them, to go learn about it, and then to describe it to others. They would put in an accessible form a description of what had changed in their understanding, changes that might be helpful for others to hear about.
In order to develop that set of skills in all students, throughout the science curriculum, we would need to first agree on the need for communication among the sciences, and then on the core skills that are shared among us. Putting together the core stipulations for all the intro courses, and designing a new upper-level course in common to all the sciences, would be intellectually interesting, fun, and easy to do--but it will also be politically challenging to figure out how to require these courses across the whole science curriculum. How can we pull all the science departments together on this initiative? Could we offer it as a division-specific replacement for the CSem II writing requirement?

Might the next HHMI grant proposal, like the present one, be used to support development of the fairly unusual concept of post-doctoral positions explicitly designed to combine teaching and research? Keck and Tidal Pool supported these sorts of positions in the past. This would be a direct way to create better science teachers. It involves, however, changing the culture of science, since post-docs have long provided cheap labor for the research enterprise @ large institutions. This means that, historically, neither graduate students or post-docs (which means: most college science faculty) have any introduction into teaching. To offer post-doctoral fellowships that are 1/2 teaching and 1/2 research is an intervention in the current fiscal dynamics of how science is done in this country: at large universities, all support, prestige and political pull relates to research productivity (although this has begun to change in the last 10-15 years). Sponsoring such positions would mean offering a counterbalance to the current value structure in the sciences, supporting a withdrawal from the "research rat race." Can such students acquire the necessary lab skills, while working to reorient the general mind set regarding the relationship of teaching to research? This would constitute an intervention into a culture that does not critique, mentor, or even attend to the art of teaching.

Collaborative teaching was discussed as another possible contribution to this intiative: another way to learn from our peers would be by working together on a course. Could we bring this project under the "communication rubric" we discussed above, structuring the new hypothetical "science literary" course as a "science ed" course? We have not been encouraging undergraduates to explore careers as science educators, or even talking self-reflectively about science education in the courses we currently offer.

New communities have been built as a result of earlier HHMI grants. How might we widen the effect? How might we, for instance, draw more senior faculty into team teaching? Could the administration be asked to be more proactive in helping us in this initiative, by rewarding departments that engage in it, "speaking with dollars about how much they value the enterprise"? ("If you won't play, then you play with less.") Howard Hughes wants to see a commitment that the programs they fund will be kept going, by the institution, after the four-year term of a grant ends.

Discussion of these ideas continues on-line. Contact Paul Grobstein with suggestions or for information about the resumption of the series in person in the fall.

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