Field of Science

Tormenting the Students

My Teaching Mentor?
This represents my 5th year teaching at Nature of Life. This is an outstanding program for incoming first year students in the biological sciences. For three days, these soon to be college students (I guess they are now technically) take three 4 hour laboratory classes some of which include some field work, have a number of workshops, listen to some guides for success in college, and get to know each other. Oh, did I mention there's an exam?

I teach a module on environmental sensing and how environmental conditions can affect morphogenesis. However, I mostly try to expose them to ideas and/or concepts of critical thinking. About an hour before a module begins I get the cells going and then write something on the board for the students to see when they show up. I arrive about a minute before the module is supposed to start.

This year I did some variations on themes I've used in the past. For example:

Several times I simply wrote 'Skepticism' on the board. When we start I ask the students what connotations the word 'skepticism' has. Invariably the results are negative. One of my modules I asked 'What's the opposite of skepticism?' after the students told me skepticism was a negative thing. I heard 'gullibility', 'taken advantage of', 'trust', and of course 'faith'. I expected trust and faith, but after these students told me that skepticism was kind of a bad thing, the first thing antonym out of their collective mouths was gullibility!!! Regardless, I make a point that they are scientists, or at least training to be scientists, and they should embrace skepticism. I suggest they need it to be good scientists, but even if they decide that they do not want that kind of career, skepticism will serve them well if they are to be productive members of society.

Once, just to screw with the students, I put an obnoxious completely bogus formula on the board. I started by writing 'As you will recall from your biology course(s) growth of an organism in a given environment can be defined as:' then a bunch of formulaic BS. 'However, this is clearly only valid for spherical cells in static conditions. In nutrient rich environments,' slightly altered formulaic BS. 'What is the formula in nutrient poor environments?' Since I arrive just before the module begins, they can stew on it for awhile. Most students realize it's bullshit, but there is still a bit of concern.

Finally, several times I wrote 'Critical Thinking' and left it at that. We then briefly discuss what they think it means. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, most students have heard the phrase and can use it in conversation, but if you ask them to define it......I tell them critical thinking is the way to evaluate truth statements/claims.

During the module we keep coming back to the concepts of skepticism and critical thinking. We talk about controls, predictions, assumptions, bias, and whatever is relevant based on how the discussions go. While I mess with the students a lot and force them to play along, overall the students have seemed to get a lot out of it. (We'll see this year, once I get the evaluations.)


Linden Higgins said...

Another fun exercise is to ask students to write a dictionary-style definition of "science." I particularly like to do this in non-majors settings, then come back to their definitions at the end of the course.

It would be interesting to see what majors think science is.

The usual answers are along the lines of "collections of facts..."

The Lorax said...

That is an interesting question. I may have to try to incorporate something like that into a freshman seminar or future NoL stint.