Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Science-Ed Paper of the "Day"

In a similar vein to the astronomy paper from the other day, I have a stack of science education papers sitting on my desk that I'd like to read and store my thoughts. Most of these I get off of ERIC but there are some sources from other places. (It really sucks not being at a university without a big ed library now.) And like the astronomy papers, I'm going to focus on stuff I'm interested in, like student perception of science, teacher perception of science, student/teacher perceptions of each other, interesting framing of science topics, and efforts to bring science to disadvantaged students.

So, to start . . .

"Putting a Human Face on Chemistry: A Project for Liberal Arts Chemistry"
Kriz, G. and Popejoy, K.
2003, Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching

You know, I kind of like these little stories about what people do in their classes to make science more "interesting" or "applicable". As much as they probably don't do a whole lot in terms of changing whether non-science major students actually learn any science, at least they show that professors can try to do something different, and in this case, that a science professor can actually talk to an Ed school professor. (You'd think that after the last 10 years or so, we'd be beyond that being interesting, but I guess the world does move pretty slowly.)

The long and short of the story is that a professor of a non-major chemistry class decided that they wanted to look more at the human aspect of science, so they had the students research different chemists (living or dead), pick a chemist that they would like to visit their class, propose to the class (in the form of a presentation) why that chemist would be good to visit, choose one of the proposals, think up questions for the visitor, and then have that person (or an actor) visit. In my opinion, it's actually a half way decent idea. I think alot of people don't connect with science because they have no idea that scientists are human beings and have human stories. In fact, Kriz and Popejoy administered the "Draw a Scientist Test" (DAST) to their class, and found very similar results to other studies of young children. If we never interact with scientists in a meaningful way, we only conceptualize them as the movies tell us too, and often that means that scientists are alot smarter than the rest of us.

As such, the class picked Bill Nye, the Science Guy as the chemist they wanted to come visit. Don't get me wrong, I think that Bill Ney has done an amazing job of exposing children to science, as Don Herbert did before him. It's just that Bill Nye isn't actually a chemist. He doesn't do chemistry research. He does crazy things, and teaches children how to reproduce experiments that have already been done. I think the result of the class picking Bill Nye to come visit their class as a chemist, correlates highly with the results of the DAST for this class, and says alot about our public image of scientists. (Let me clarify that I don't blame Bill Nye one bit for this. I think he does a great job. I blame scientists mostly, and the media partially, for poor images of scientists.)

Some of the other proposals from the class included Neils Bohr, Marie Curie, and Linus Pauling. Granted they're all old and dead, so actors would have come pose as those people in this class, and the effect might not have been so great, but still research chemists who (at one time) stood at the edge of human knowledge were available. So, what does it say about a group of college students in a physical science class, who when told to choose a chemist to visit their class, don't choose a chemist? What does it say about their previous schooling and interaction with science, and what does it say about the fields of science themselves?

(I don't have answers right now.)

In the end, Bill Nye couldn't come anyway, but Kriz and Popejoy present survey results that say that the students' feelings towards science had greatly improved over the course of the semester and through this project. Particularly students' personal feelings about science improved, and their gender associations towards science improved. Unfortuately, the paper does not present data as to whether the students learned more than in classes without this activity. (I could launch into a diatribe about why university level classroom research is really difficult because of the innate structure of the university itself, but I won't.) This is unfortunate, but typical (hell, I've done it too), of these types of papers. It's largely a result of scientists not knowing much about assessment and experimental design. So, we're left to try it on our own.

Things to take from the paper:

1. Try crazy things in your classroom sometimes. Plain lecturing about chemistry (or physics or astronomy) hasn't taught many people much about these subjects in non-major classes anyway over the past 30 years, so you might as well try something different. (In Dr. Phil language, "How's that workin' for you?")

2. Hoagieboy thinks its a good idea to connect science with people. More students might learn more science when it's taught through the story of human interaction with ideas as opposed to formulas in a book. But don't go too touchy-feely.

3. How do we change our perceptions of science (or change science itself) such that when college students are given the task of and opportunity to interact with research scientists, they choose to do that? (Again, Bill Ney is great at what he does, but he isn't a research scientist.)

4. How do we make accessible the methods of education research to scientists, so that they can play around with their class and see if what they're doing is actually working?

2 Comments:

At 6:47 PM, Blogger maki-girl said...

Good food for thought. Thanks hoagie boy. Could you give an example of what you mean by #2?

 
At 9:25 AM, Blogger hoagieboy said...

Ok, here's an example from personal experience. . .

A long time ago, I had told Mrs. H that my house growing up, got water from a well. Being a suburban girl, she didn't exactly know what that meant. I tried to explain to her, but apparently, she never really understood.

Recently, my parents were moving out of my childhood home. For some strange reason we were in the garage, and my Dad pointed out to Mrs. H where the pump room and the well were. She said she didn't know how that all worked, and he went into an explanation that included stories about how he had to pull the pipe out of the ground a few times, and how he had talked to the previous owners about the well, along with how a well actually works. Mrs. H was able to develop a good understanding about the well from that conversation, and it lead to a longer conversation about geology and aquifers on our ride home.

What caused her to learn about the well the second time? Certainly, she had visual cues and individual attention. But I think more importantly, was the fact that she could make a personal (somewhat emotional) connection to a person related to the concepts. She much more wanted to learn about wells when they involved a human story.

I think there's alot of people who would do better learning about Newton's Laws if they either learned something about Newton, or they learned something about someone who uses Newton's Laws (say an engineer who designs cars). I think we greatly undervalue the importance of human interaction in science education.

 

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