Dear Science Faculty,
I want you to ask yourself why you choose to study science. Then I want you to ask yourself why you choose to teach. I study science because I love asking a question that triggers a cascade of a hundred more. It brings me joy and excitement to explore why things work the way they do. It gives me a way to interrogate and make sense of my life and my place in the world. In a slam-poetry piece entitled “If I Should Have A Daughter”, American poet Sarah Kay promises to cultivate her unborn daughter’s curiosity and love of learning: “I’m going to paint solar systems on the backs of her hands so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, “Oh I know that like the back of my hand””(Kay). Children have big eyes and small hands that try to catch all the knowledge and experiences they can. But somewhere along the way, their eyes become less probing and eager; their hands feel full and tired. It is impossible to know anything completely, and that can become discouraging. It is part of our responsibility, as professors and students, to keep our eyes wide and eager, to keep questioning, and to accept that we will never comprehend the world in it’s entirety, but instead of giving up, continue to push the boundaries of our understanding.
I’m writing you with a request to approach teaching and learning as a system, a complicated web of actions and interactions where individuality informs intellectual and social growth. In other words, adopt an ecological approach to the study of science.Introductory level science courses ask students to divorce their subjectivity, their identity, from what they are studying. The goal of an ecological curriculum is to create a space for student identity and voice in the classroom. Divorcing oneself from the study of science creates a false sense of objectivity that only interferes with learning and growth. By humanizing the experience of studying science, students can conceptualize systems of nature and their role within that system. This ignites their curiosity and gives purpose to their growth.
In order to promote curiosity and enable meaningful learning in a classroom, a professor must allow space for student identity. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher, advocated for a pedagogical approach that contextualizes learning within a student’s lived experience. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire states, “The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to "fill" the students with the contents of his narration—contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity”(Freire). Students are not empty vessels to be filled with information and knowledge. Lecturing enables this limiting pedagogy for it can enforce the idea that reality is a static entity separate from a student’s lived experience. An ecological pedagogy rejects the definition of teaching as “filling” students with knowledge. Instead, it allows for learning to occur within a complex network where people can play the role of both student and teacher.
Science seeks to explain systems, to examine parts of a whole, to comprehend nature’s action and reaction. Science is dynamic, so why do we limit the study of science to a lecture? We are learning about systems, but to truly explore a system, student’s need to be able to place themselves in relation to what they are studying. They need to be encouraged to ask hard questions that may not have an answer. An ecological pedagogy gives a student the position of practitioner, not just a passive observer. This is the only way for students to meaningfully engage with learning.
So now you know my theory behind why adopting an “ecological pedagogy” is essential, but what would it look like in practice? Here, I have outlined seven ways to help implement an ecological pedagogy in an introductory level science course.
1. Group Work
Study groups of four to five students can be established to meet weekly and apply concepts from readings to small projects throughout the semester. These projects could be a journal review, poster, diagram, short animation, or even a creative game. This is ecological because students can pursue what interests them—it’s creative and open ended. They also have the opportunity to collaborate and work with one another, like scientists do in the “real world”. No discovery or innovation happens alone; learning shouldn’t have to either.
2. Peer Tutoring
It should be strongly encouraged for upperclassmen to become peer tutors to mentor younger students. Freshman and sophomores should be required to meet with a peer tutor at least one time. Tutoring is often stigmatized as supplementary help for “struggling” students. But peer tutoring can be an essential tool for learning for all students. Working through questions and concepts with another student allows upperclassmen to take on the role of a teacher, incentivizing their own pursuit of understanding the material. Younger students, additionally, can use tutoring as an accessible means of communication about science. Peer tutoring is also a great way to meet future mentors and colleagues in your field.
3. Peer Lab Work
Haverford College’s Senior Thesis program can be enhanced, if freshman and sophomore students were encouraged to shadow, or even assist, science seniors in their thesis lab work. One day, I asked my friend in the Biology department if I could see what she was working on in her thesis lab. As she was following her protocols, we talked about nerve cell regeneration, enzymes, disulfide bonding, and chicken embryos. This unstructured, student-based learning is an ecological practice because it encourages peer collaboration and informs a student’s passions.
4. Real World Fridays
“Real World Fridays” is about ten minutes of class time devoted to connecting what is being taught in the classroom to scientific discoveries and processes in the world. It is an opportunity to map modern day science research across different geographical locations and cultures, allowing students to “zoom out” and see the intricate ways in which what they are learning can be applied to their lived experiences.
5. Project Assessments
Testing has merit in that it demonstrates the information individual students are able to grasp and understand. But testing cannot be the only mode of assessment in a classroom. This is because studying before a test is often not “ecological” because it requires memorization at the expense of actively engaging with the material. Projects, however, can enhance a curriculum because they encourage students to develop an understanding of the material by exploring their own interests.
6. Diversifying Class Time
Class time can be made more “ecological” by encouraging student participation. It is important to have some class time devoted to lecture, where a professor, an expert in their field, offers their experience and knowledge to a class. But after that offering, students need to make sense of it, to digest it. A good example of this is an activity that my high school Biology teacher had us do one day. After a presentation about protein folding, she assigned each student an amino acid and had the entire class stand to form a polypeptide chain. Then, depending on our chemical composition as an amino acid, we had to determine who we would interact with based on their composition. This allowed the entire class to kinesthetically learn how primary, secondary, and tertiary protein-folding structures are constructed.
7. Getting To Know Your Students
This is something that Haverford professors do really well. It is encouraging when a professor knows you by name, greets you in the hallway, or even checks in on how you’re doing outside of class. I would encourage professors to also open an avenue of communication where students can express what works for them and what doesn’t in the classroom. One way to achieve this would be to schedule short conferences with your students asking why they are taking your class, what they hope to get out of it, how they learn best. By doing this, you are validating their identity and placing them within a system of ecological learning.
An ecological pedagogy enlists you, as professors, to paint solar systems on the back of your students’ hands. Ecological learning, subsequently, encourages students to interrogate systems, question their function, and pursue every enticing connection. This is how we can learn and grow in meaningful ways.
Class of 2017, Haverford College
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993. Retrieved from http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-2.html
Kay, S. (2011, March). Sarah Kay: If I Should Have A Daughter [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_kay_if_i_should_have_a_daughter?language=en
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