Small Steps for Science Education

Professors gather at Howard Hughes Medical Institute to consider how to make courses more effective.
October 20, 2006

With report after report lamenting the scientific ignorance of many college students, professors gathered this week at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to talk about how to improve science teaching.

“I think we do have a crisis,” said Jo Handelsman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, noting that demographics play a role in the lack of interest in science. Handelsman cited statistics from the National Academies, noting that women earn around 50 percent of doctorates in biology but make up only 25 percent of faculty. Why so many female doctorates drop out of academe is unknown, she said.

Handelsman also noted that black and Hispanic students are seriously underrepresented in the college applicant pool. And for those who do enter college, very few major in science, engineering and math.

Participants offered a host of remedies to help slow the slide, but everyone noted a paucity of empirical data that measure program success. David Lynn, who chairs the department of chemistry at Emory University, spoke about Emory’s seminar program for entering freshmen. All Emory freshmen must take a seminar the first semester and the one for math and science teaches students how to think like a scientist.

The course consists of five modules. Each module is taught by a grad student who presents his own research, guiding students through the research process, from designing studies to defending results. For the final, students must write and defend a proposed project.

The project is not only successful for the students, but benefits grad students, who learn how to teach. “These teacher-scholars enrich their own understanding of their projects and come to understand the larger context of their own research,” said Lynn. Lynn said that Emory receives more than 70 applications from grad students to join the program each year, but picks only 5.

Tom Strekas, a professor of natural science at Queens College of the City University of New York, described another program to educate future college teachers. Most postdocs toil for years as lab rats before being plunged into classrooms, with no instructor training, once they get on the tenure track.

“Postdocs complain bitterly that this is not enough training in teaching,” said Handelsman. “The research is fine, but they must teach when they take on faculty responsibilities.”

To give them more experience, Strekas provided case studies from Queens College’s “Preparing Future Faculty” program, which trains postdocs in both research and teaching. One postdoc who studied transposable elements in humans and chimpanzees is not only continuing his research, but also assisting a junior faculty member in teaching a course in evolution. He is also designing a new class in genetics and mentoring a graduate student.

“It’s a startup position so that the person learns both roles about what it means to be faculty, and not just what happens in the lab,” said Strekas. He added that Queens is also developing a postdoc support program.


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