Saturday, February 23, 2013

Improving Upon the Art of Teaching Science

I've been looking forward to writing this post for a few days now. As much as I enjoy the process of storytelling like I did in my previous entries, I find editorial work to be more challenging. A blog post by Sarah Werning, titled "Why Paleontology is Relevant", triggered a brief Twitter discussion between Brian Switek, Jon Tennant, and me. The result was a great question requiring a thoughtful answer which will hopefully provoke further discussion.

I'm generally not one for causes, because so many of them are are fast burners or seem to require a hive-mind philosophy. When I do pick a battle, I feel it's something I can directly affect on some level, and it's a battle I plan on winning. The rebuilding of science education will require the right people having good ideas and the willingness to push through any resistance, and I will do everything I can to be a part of it.

In my mind, the most important aspect of science is the collaborative nature of discoveries and advancement. There are big names that get most of the credit, but it takes a team to make progress. Changing the way science is taught is no different. Individuals can have minimal impact on the science of education, but the collective efforts of a group of like-minded individuals can change the way the world approaches teaching.

Common sense dictates that changing societal perspective begins with young people. Working to convince adults that their thinking isn't compatible with modern ideas is akin to trying to harvest pears from an apple tree. For paleontology to gain relevance as a real part of biology, we need to change the way children are taught science. 

Between recollection of my own childhood and a limited exposure to elementary schools over the past year, I've noticed that science has become an endless battle to see which teacher's students can memorize the most frivolous information about the modern world. There are millions of people in the United States that know roughly how fast a cheetah can run, but only a handful of them have any use for that information. Instead of building a mausoleum of knowledge inside a child's mind, we're just pitching a series of trivial pup tents.

The best model I can think of for science education is the growth of a tree. Construction of a building is also nice, but discussing foundations has become rather cliché. As every tree starts as a seed, every child's education should too. Most kids tend to mentally latch on to something that is cool and markedly different. This is where paleontologists have an advantage over traditional biologists. It turns out that dinosaurs are the coolest and most different thing a lot of children are exposed to. Thus far, the education system's chief failure is in not properly cultivating this seed.

From left to right: Jillian, Paige, dracaena tree, Macen, Shaela (nieces, nephew, plant)

The common populace believes paleontologists to be dinosaur hunters. I liken this to calling a rhombus a square. Addressing this misnomer at an early age would do wonders for the field and would probably get some children to defect to different branches within the field to study other remarkable creatures. By fertilizing it with the right combination of information and attention, the proverbial child's mind will become a seedling.

As a tree develops, it begins to branch out and requires more and more nourishment. To address this, we ensure it has plenty of room to flourish and fertilize it as needed. We use the same type and quality of food, but we increase the quantity. To the kids, the food type is dinosaurs, and the increased quantity is in the diversity of the studies.  

Through this interest in paleontology, we can discuss the fossil record and introduce children to the broader points of geology. Providing this early knowledge of the earth's formation and composition gives students a base that allows them to be more confident in learning about the more advanced physical sciences. Children who believe in themselves are like paint-by-number Picasso's. The hard part is done and if a teacher takes the time to do the job right, they will bear witness to something awesome and wonderful.

Now, the base of the tree is what really matters. The thicker it gets, the longer the branches can become. In this example, that base is biology. Using the children's interest in dinosaurs, we can introduce them to many facets of modern life science. A great start is using the evolution of non-avian theropods into birds as a stepping stone into comparative anatomy. From here, we can branch further into general tetrapodal structures and progress to the remaining known vertebrates. We might even find time to mention invertebrates. Kids do seem to enjoy jellyfish. (I'm kidding of course. If it was ever alive, it needs to be taught to some degree in school.)

Next, the tree will develop into a sapling with a solid root system. Moving forward, it will be mostly self sufficient, given that someone is there to provide a helping hand when it starts to struggle. At this point in the science education, a teacher's job is to be little more than a guide.  The text is provided and the kids have a preliminary understanding of the material. As long as the teacher is confident, knowledgeable and personable, he or she should have no problems giving the students the help they need to succeed.

Sometimes I wonder if I live in a jungle or an apartment. As long as I have internet, I guess it doesn't matter.

As wonderful as this system may sound, it is an unfortunate fact of life that not every tree grows to maturity. Some don't even sprout from the seed. The same can be said for students. Educators have a responsibility to accept this fact and divert attention to the students that have a chance to make it. This analogy fails in a fortunate area, as unlike trees, humans feel compassion and have a desire to help each other. A wise teacher will utilize this, encouraging the best students to reinforce the ideas to those that are falling behind. This increases the success rate, but some level of failure is unavoidable.

A major shortcoming of the current educational system is the quality of the teaching pool. I've heard it said that those who cannot do, teach. This idea is at its core rather illogical. I would much rather learn how to throw a curveball from Sandy Koufax than from his pitching coach. So many of the best and brightest minds finish college and move on to graduate programs and research, leaving the business and liberal arts majors to teach high school chemistry. If some of these graduate candidates moved on at some point to teach at the lower levels, they would be doing academia a great service and might even make more money. (Just a little grad school humor there.) This isn't an unrealistic path for me. Even if I pursue a Ph.D., I won't ever rule out the idea of teaching at any level.

Since my thinking revolves around science education, one could easily perceive that the more fundamental areas of schooling are being neglected. I don't have much concern in that regard. It turns out that science requires a high level of literacy, a firm grasp of language, and advanced math skills. Forgive me if this seems a bit facetious, but aren't those fancy ways of identifying the three R's?

I've heard a lot of people over the years talk about what needs to happen to fix just about every problem that has ever arisen. This has taught me that being a man of words means that you like to sit and burn excess oxygen for your own enjoyment. If someone has an idea that they truly believe in but don't think they have the influence to implement it, it should be their prerogative to find someone that does. 

As advanced as this challenge is, I must only accept one truth: it won't happen overnight. By writing this blog, I've already taken the first step. From here, I can encourage everyone to contact school administrators and political officials at the local, regional, and national levels to promote this broad-scope change in science philosophy. Giving those in power the right knowledge is important, but patience in the system is critical. We all must understand that change requires calculated persistence.

I honestly believe that this change is coming. As with any deficient system, it's inevitable. A field of grass is easy to grow, but the plant is stunted and weak. My goal is to start planting orchards of tall, stout, and bountiful trees capable of handling almost anything. As nature allows, the grass will still grow around them. I won't be able to do this alone, but if enough of us work together as confident individuals, we can make the world of science a place that everyone wants to be.

Note: Sarah Werning is also on Twitter, @sarahwerning.

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