Habits of Mind That Drive Science

We are all now familiar with the widely-spread story that the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology, Sir John Gurdon, was not encouraged early in his (inauspicious) academic career.  His high school biology teacher wrote, “If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

In higher education we have structured layers of opportunity (introductory courses, minor and major degrees, postbaccalaureate courses) to acquire increasingly higher levels of disciplinary knowledge and skills.  We hope to send non-science majors into society knowing how to ask and answer scientific questions.*  We hope our undergraduate science majors have opportunities to engage in the practice of science and learn facts and habits needed to become professional scientists.

The opportunity to climb these disciplinary layers is typically based on academic achievement.  Grades in prerequisites (like Sir Gurdon’s high school biology) and “gateway” introductory courses are the keys to further advancement.  As Jo Handelsman and coauthors wrote in their important article on “Scientific Teaching” back in 2004, “the majority of life sciences courses rely on ‘transmission-of-information’ lectures and ‘cookbook’ laboratory exercises techniques that are not highly effective in fostering conceptual understanding or scientific reasoning.”  Shouldn’t we focus instead on those learning outcomes?** Should opportunities to practice science be granted only to students who get great grades or have more seniority?

So how did Sir Gurdon end up a Nobel laureate (surely the pinnacle of disciplinary layers!)? He immersed himself in the practice of science when given the opportunity (by mistake!).  Like many of us scientists and engineers, he probably didn’t gain inspiration or learn well from lectures and cookbooks. We know he joined a genetics research group and – as they say – the rest is history.

There is a wealth of research and evidence*** showing “that supplementing or replacing lectures with active-learning strategies and engaging students in discovery and scientific process improves learning and knowledge retention.”   Handlesman and coauthors go on to write, “Active participation in lectures and discovery-based laboratories helps students develop the habits of mind that drive science.”

Here we are nearly a decade later and NSF, NIH and HHMI are still waiting to see wide-spread adoption of these research- and evidence-based practices in undergraduate life science education. This week John Wingfield (the assistant director of NSF’s BIO division) wrote on the PULSE community forum, “There is much interest across the National Science Foundation (NSF) in coming up with ways by which we could raise the bar for service courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Freshmen and sophomores sometimes endure these courses often taught by different faculty resulting in a lack of consistency. Yet, if these courses really inspired students and gave them a glimpse of the amazing breadth of STEM, then it could transform those preparative years leading to intro courses for their majors and upper division courses.”

This summer I heard NSF program officers encourage PIs to figure out ways to incorporate their research into undergraduate courses…so that they will be competitive for future research funding!  Over the last handful of years CSUPERB has funded CSU researchers (who, of course are also wonderful educators) to bring their scientific passion into the classroom.  These seed grants have transformed introductory courses into interdisciplinary explorations**** of the Sacramento river delta, coastal environments and bacterial communities.  The learning outcomes and impact on student engagement are encouraging and remarkable in many ways (increased student retention, student interest in science majors, student interest in undergraduate research opportunities, etc.).  We’ve organized a “Scientific Teaching” workshop at this year’s symposium to get us all talking about engaging students in life science courses.  Koni Stone (CSU Stanislaus), Wayne Tikkanen (CSU Los Angeles), Anya Goodman & Alex Dekhtyar (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) will present some of their forays into scientific teaching.

We released this year’s Programmatic Grants RFP in October (proposals due Feb. 4, 2013).  We’re looking to fund “innovative general education courses, laboratories, and first-year experiences, as well as revisions to lower-level or introductory biotechnology-related courses.”  I encourage biotechnology researchers to take a second look at this “educational grant” opportunity.  Perhaps the work it seeds will set you up for success in your next research grant renewal!  Importantly we hope you go on to inspire and involve a future Nobel laureate or two!

* The recent press (here and here) provides plenty of evidence that today’s society needs the ability to think analytically!
**Apologies for the higher ed jargon – I tried to outline undergraduate science degree learning outcomes in the second paragraph above.
***We just restructured the “faculty” pages at the CSUPERB website  – check it out if you’re looking for information on life science industry partnering and undergraduate education and research.

****One grant even partnered scientists with dance choreographers (the world premiere will be at this year’s symposium).


    This entry was posted in Grants, News, STEM Education and tagged , by Susan Baxter. Bookmark the permalink.

    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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