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Planet of the Apes
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Oh! Rats! [UPDATED]
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Rethinking Education
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Elephant man, rabies and leprosy
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DonorsChoose - give early and give often. [UPDATED]
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Flying 101
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One to Rule Them All
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Hypotheses: The most disposable of lab supplies
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REPOST: How Many Papers for Tenure?
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I'm a molecular biophysicist in a biochemistry department. In a college of medicine. And I'm funded by the NSF. Not too sure my dean likes that... I'm here to blather on about things that interest me and to raise the average age of the bloggers here by at least 1.2567 years. And I'm Australian.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Rethinking educationLet me start by thanking those who have contributed to Donors Choose, whether through my page, someone else's at LabSpaces, or elsewhere. You rock!!!!!

Recently a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video that has got me thinking about education in general, and science education in particular. If you scroll through some of the science-related projects on Donors Choose you'll find a great many of them are aimed at getting kids excited about science. A great many kids find science, and the canned educations they currently receive, boring. Any efforts to present science as it truly is, exciting, is well worth funding. So watch the video below (sorry, no nipple shirt). Then go find a Donors Choose project that aims to make science exciting and give.

Give until your eyes bleed.

Oh, and my favorite line in the video? By the time they get to Washington they've lost it completely.

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Canned science is boring! As an educator who is fortunate enough to teach advanced students in a free-form, hands-on, collaborative high school program, it is very clear that our students are neither challenged nor excited by the science they learn in their normal schools.

There has been much "reform", but very little improvement in the quality of the education provided to elementary, middle, and high school students in the US, and it is important that all of you undertaking scientific research do what you can to help the students who will one day be trying to further the research you are currently so passionate about.

Washington University School of Medicine
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Good point, Goose. A woman I know teaches elementary school science, and we often talk about ways to engage the students. I try to make myself available to her as much as possible in an effort to encourage the kids to get excited about it.

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The problem here is that "reform" = standardized testing. And that is not real learning.

Washington University School of Medicine
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I agree. So what can be done about it? Is there a better way to measure student progress across districts, states, etc.? How can we, as practicing scientists, help good teachers keep doing what they're doing and, maybe more importantly, show other teachers a better way to reach the kids?

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I don't have any suggestions right now other than knowing that adding additional layers of testing is NOT the answer. Nor is tying funding to school performance on standardized tests. Of course teachers and schools should be held to some level of accountability, but, at least in the experience of my kids, the current level of testing and how it is tied to funding means teachers spend more time "teaching to the tests" than anything else. That's not what education should be about.


Washington University School of Medicine
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Do you think that another aspect of the problem is the way textbooks are written? They tend to teach broad concepts, but rarely apply them in a way that clicks with kids. I do a lot of tutoring, and when I explain a concept in terms of something that the kids can relate to, they get it, and can even properly explain it to other students. It seems like the textbooks are just so one-dimensional.

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I'm sure traditional textbooks don't help. There have been some advances there with inclusion of more interactive web-based material - the Berg and Tymoczko updates to Stryer's classic "Biochemistry" springs to mind. But really, I think with science in particular there needs to be far more hands on experimentation by the students. There's nothing more likely to make a concept clear than doing an experiment that demonstrates/applies it.

I think Robinson makes the right point in the video though - the whole traditional approach to education isn't working for many, many kids. Fixing textbooks is a step in the right direction, but really the entire system need to be rethought and redesigned.

Deidre Tronson

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Hey, I agree totally with enthusing students of all ages (I once gave a poster paper on how I had 'done' science with kids aged between 5 and 55 yrs).  I have been doing it, both informally and at tertiary education level, and with non-science majors, and now in a 'Scientists in Schools' program funded here in Oz by the Australian Federal Government. I'm sure all the respondents here do it too. I have personally met the most AMAZING science teachers at schools and universities.

And I agree that many students, particularly at secondary school, find their science lessons and their 'canned lessons' irrelevant and boring.

Byt some of that is because much of science is boring.  Even when you are working on the most exciting science research in a lab, most of it is boring.

And science isn't one thing.  I am passionate about some aspects and totally turned 'off' about others.

HOWEVER, getting people enthused and passionate - particularly kids who may (hopefully) grow up to be the next generation of scientists, educators and generally well-educated citizens - is only the first step.

The next step, often forgotten by 'reformers' is helping them understand that you have provided an overview, you have provided hands-on activities that they may find fun, you have encouraged them to overcome their inhibitions and actually pose theories and hypotheses and test them with experiments and thinking about analysis .... BUT THAT IS ONLY THE FIRST STEP.  I think the problem is this.  HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE THEM TO KEEP THIS OVERVIEW IN MIND, BUT STILL GO ON AND LEARN THE BORING STUFF? Because, at the end of my career, I have come to the conclusion that some rote-memorisation is necessary, and some boring stuff just needs to be mastered.

(For example: any taxonomy and the names of THINGS, aspects of the periodic table, units of measurement, and whole new languages for every different discipline (biochem and chem have different terminologies for the same reactions and processes).

After all, babies practice and practice before they can talk - and that is something that comes naturally.  Reading is not quite so natural, but we all know that needs practice and some rote-learning,and we 'should' know by now that different people prefer to learn reading differently.

It is the same with science.


WE can and 'should' provide some fun, some overview, much discussion about relevance, hands-on where possible.  But in the end HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE THEM TO REALISE THAT, NO MATTER HOW ENTHUSIASTIC AND PASSIONATE THEY ARE, THEY ARE GOING TO ENCOUNTER SOME OF THE BORING STUFF?

If we don't prepare them for that, of course many will be 'turned off' when they either find something that is a bit boring for THEM, or a teacher who isn't as 'good' for them as the teacher they had last year.  If they have a longer-view of what they can do 'when they grow up', then they will help themselves, be metacognitive about their own attitudes, and just plug through those times - or else be motivated to work out a different way of learning for themselves.

If we do that, we will have 'taught them to fish' rather than 'giving them one meal of fish'.

Also, what I tell all my 'classes', from age 5 to 55, is that SCIENCE = THINKING.  The other stuff is there too, observation, analysis, fun, occasional bad smells and explosions .... but basically, they have to WORK HARD at the THINKING, and that is the part that has been the most sustainable, the most fun and the most satisfying for me. And that is what I try to leave them with at the end of my association with them.


d. (retired chemist - still involved in the local chemistry institute).

Washington University School of Medicine
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Thanks for your input, Deirdre. I think it's something that many of us struggle with. I bet if most of us thought about it, there was probably one person involved in getting us excited about being in science. What was it about that person? What did they do to encourage us, and how can we replicate that experience for other people?

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Yes, exactly.  And when we are passionate, we do not KNOW whom we are influencing and how, and sometimes, pleasantly, we find out years later - and that little person has grown into a big person and is inspiring others.  But at the time, we had no idea - unfortunately.



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