"I’m not really a science person.”
I’ve been hearing that phrase in the first week of class for over more than 15 years now. I always want to ask back, “What is a ‘science person’?” Instead, I just tell them not to worry; this class is for people like them.
I think the assumption is that “science people” have some magical skill set that allows them to think across physical scales, memorize formulae, and revel in arcane knowledge. Most scientists I know have as their intellectual underpinning the sentiment “That is so cool! How the hell does that work?” True, you do need to develop a narrow focus (in part due to the need to study and manipulate a tightly controlled system, and in part due to funding necessities), but the underlying drive is usually a state of wonder.
Science is about questioning. That ultimate questioner, Charles Darwin, said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” The more you know the more you begin to question. As a teacher you see the questions and sophisticated inquiry jump up dramatically about two-thirds of the way through the semester. That’s when you get all the “But wait a minute!” questions from students as they put it all together.
I teach the conscripts, the science-phobes, those made to take two natural science classes to graduate. Most don’t intend to have my class impact their careers. Fine by me. My goal is not to produce more scientists or doctors, but young adults better equipped to think about the natural world around them and their place in it. However, they may be parents, voters or even congressmen determining national science research budgets. We live in a world increasingly driven by scientific innovation (stem cell research) and questions (determining the cause of global warming). Science literacy cannot be for an elite or restricted class. That is a recipe for a dysfunctional society. How do we measure evidence? What constitutes proof? Why is the sky blue? (Trust me, you will be asked that last one by your kids someday…) Being scientifically literate doesn’t mean you will have all the answers. It means you will say, “Let’s tease this apart” and know how to question and analyze the answers you find. Science is a mindset more than a body of knowledge.
The best way to create science literacy is to show the relevancy of the scientific process to significant social issues. No, this isn’t a bait and switch tactic. The two are intimately intertwined. How can you decide the ethics of removing an HIV+ child from her mother if the mother refuses treatment (for example) if you don’t know how the drugs work, how well they have been tested, what their toxicities might be, etc? As citizens we need to learn to ask questions, analyze different answers and question assumptions— holding our personal views in abeyance so we can be open to new conclusions. That’s a “science person.” It turns out that this approach to teaching science also engages underrepresented groups who are interested in biology, but feel that their passion for social connections isn’t found in many “regular” science courses. After carefully analyzing the demographics over several years in my HIV/AIDS course versus another science course I taught that had less of a social framing, I found that the “science in a social context” course had a 30 percent increase in the number of female students and a 100 percent increase in the number of African American students enrolled.
At the heart of all my teaching is the concept at the heart of all biology: evolution. A failure to understand evolution led to a former surgeon general of the United States to declare that the war on infectious diseases had been won. (This comment was followed by the emergence of SARS, AIDS, Ebola, MRSA, bird flu and swine flu.) The Gates Foundation wants to eradicate malaria. Great goal, but you can’t do it without understanding what Darwin outlined over 150 years ago. Just two years after introducing nets into a village, mosquitoes will have evolved new behaviors to either avoid landing on nets or be resistant to the insecticides in them. Life will always go on evolving endless forms. We forget that at our peril.
Traditionally taught introductory science courses can be daunting. Studies have shown that standard intro biology classes require learning more vocabulary than a first-year Spanish language class. I have been at two institutions where it has been debated what the “core” ideas in biology are. It usually comes down to 1) the molecular basis of life; 2) the processes of evolution; and often 3) the resultant diversity that automatically occurs once you throw in inconceivable amounts of time. But in truth, the “core” idea of science is seeing facts not as individual items to be memorized, but as parts of fascinating stories about life or answers to puzzling questions. That idea is critical to thinking like a scientist.
It’s a wonder we all can share.
Sherryl Broverman is an associate professor of biology and global health. Her research interests include science literacy, science education reform and the linkages between gender, education and health in rural Kenya. She is also the Chair of the WISER NGO (www.wisergirls.org).