This school year is under way. Students everywhere have started new classes and many have encountered science in their curriculums. As a scientist myself, I’d like to think that most of the students in those science classes are there because they’re excited to learn about how our universe works. And while I know (or hope) that this is indeed the case for some, I’m not unaware of the fact that for a large number of those students, science is a required class that they’re simply looking to “survive.” Let’s talk about why that is and what can be done to change this perception of science.
What’s the problem?
In many ways, when it comes to science communication, we have the classic problem of having great content but poor presentation. I think most people would find it fascinating to have (at least some) insight into how the world around us works. However, in practice, what is taught in class often amounts to raw, bare-boned facts, stripped down to anything but fascinating. And if this alone doesn’t crush one’s enthusiasm, then making students memorize these facts (and regurgitate them later for tests) will, for most, be the final blow. It is no wonder, then, that for many, the picture I just painted will be their first impression and may very well turn them away from science forever.
Why does it happen?
Before going further, let me make it clear that I know not all science teachers conduct their classes in this way. In fact, I benefitted from some amazing science teachers throughout my education. Moreover, even for those who do teach in this manner, I am convinced that their presentation is not a reflection of their lack of excitement or passion for science – scientists are very passionate about their work. Rather, it’s merely an artifact of one’s training towards becoming a scientist.
Simply put, scientists are taught to clearly distinguish facts from opinion, and to use those facts alone to draw their conclusions. Additionally, when scientists talk with one another, write a scientific paper, or present their work at a scientific conference, they use vocabulary and language that is consistent with this premise (not unlike speaking a foreign language). Indeed, it’s a great system for solving problems, finding underlying truths, and eliminating conjecture. However, it’s not a great way to get nonscientists excited about amazing discoveries.
Why should we care?
By now, you may have guessed – correctly – that the premise of this article is my conviction that whether or not one pursues science (or STEM in general), everyone can reap benefits from knowing at least some science. The process of discovery that embodies science allows one to see, think, and understand the world in a unique way compared to other (albeit important) manners in which we take things in. Specifically, the process of scientific discovery allows one to build powerful problem-solving skills and to inquire with a healthy amount of skepticism. Ultimately, it provides a foundation for becoming one of the most important things one can become: a critical thinker. On top of this, for kids, seeing a “scientific project” through to completion can build confidence, empower, teach perseverance and patience, among other benefits. The importance of science to everyone seems undeniable. So, how do we fix the standard way in which science is communicated?
How do we fix it?
We already discussed that science is often taught in terms of strictly the facts. However, the reality is that behind those facts there’s an overarching story. It’s a story that involves actual people who were extremely passionate about their work, who sacrificed and suffered for it. Along the way, perhaps they were able to solve a great mystery about the world we live in. However, when we teach science, it’s rarely taught in this way. Here are some ways we can liven up the presentation and get students more engaged.
Tell it like a story.
Let’s face it, everyone loves a good story, and amazing stories surrounding scientific discovery are numerous. The trick is to take the raw facts and to flesh them out and shape them into an actual story, one that is complete with a plot that incorporates hopes, fears, and struggles, along with the thrill of discovery. Of course, those raw facts are a product of all these things and more.
Humanize the science.
All good stories have compelling characters, and in science, it’s the scientists themselves. It’s important to take the time to introduce the students to them, even if only small slices of their stories. Who were these amazing men and women? What did they struggle with in their work, or in their personal life? In doing so, the students will find that, in many ways, scientists are very much like themselves. In turn, they will begin to connect with the scientists themselves, and then to the science. This approach humanizes the science and makes it seem less abstract, which will make students feel more connected to it.
Give it context.
With much of the science that students learn being foundational, it will often seem to them that these are simply things that happened long ago, with little impact on their day-to-day lives. To overcome this obstacle, it helps to give some history around the discoveries. Why were scientists working so hard to find answers to these important problems at the time? Why are these still important concepts that affect our lives even today? When put into a historical perspective, these seemingly abstract discoveries from “long ago” become more meaningful in today’s context. Ultimately, this will help the students see science as something that is timeless.
Use books other than standard textbooks.
Standard textbooks often don’t incorporate the concepts we’ve discussed in this article. Their main goal is to teach students the science and the process of scientific interrogation, which means working through a multitude of problems. Indeed, working problem after problem is part of every good science class and has a rightful place in our education. But it need not be the only resource; other books can provide valuable supplemental materials. Don’t be shy about incorporating history, biographies, or popular science books. That way, the student is exposed to a more complete picture of what science is really about.
Science offers a unique opportunity to uncover the mysteries of the universe we live in. The inquisitive nature it encourages and the problem-solving skills it hones are some of the priceless life skills offered to all who engage it. Unfortunately, most kids encountering science find it a dull, lackluster pursuit filled with raw facts to be simply memorized. However, the stories embodying the actual scientific discoveries are awe-inspiring tales that celebrate the fortitude and perseverance of the human spirit. Its these stories that we need to tell along with the actual science itself.
Dr. Scott Bembenek is a principal scientist in the Computer-Aided Drug Discovery group at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development in San Diego. He is also the author of The Cosmic Machine: The Science That Runs Our Universe and the Story Behind It. To learn more about Dr. Bembenek and his work, visit http://scottbembenek.com and connect with him on Twitter.