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the classroom teacher

 

The more I learn about science, the less it feels like I know about anything else.  When I finished [a previous chemistry class], I had learned a whole lot, but it felt like I didn't know anything.  The more I dig for answers the farther away they get.  I told this to one of my friends once, and he said, ‘maybe that's how a scientist is supposed to feel.’ — CHEM 181L Student

What does it mean to think like a scientist?  When I ask the first-year students in my Chemical Principles Laboratory course (CHEM 181L) to address this question, they often say something about the scientific method or how a scientist should be observant or creative.  And if you piece together five or six of their replies, you get what is probably a pretty good “textbook” response.  I challenge these students on the first day of class to throw out what they think they know about the way a scientist thinks and begin to live it firsthand, to grapple with the limits of what scientists know and the limitless possibilities open to them, to experience opportunities for imagination, creativity and ingenuity as well as moments of frustration and failure, to realize that science is serendipitous but only to those prepared to seek out and master their own luck.  I ask them to immerse themselves within the discipline by reading and seeing science, by writing and hearing about science, and by experiencing it in context and within the context of their other interests, even when their interests are far removed from chemistry.  If the students are willing to do so, they open up the possibility of learning to think in a new way.

For CHEM 181L students, learning how to think like a scientist begins during a weekly, one hour lecture and continues in a three hour, hands-on laboratory session.  The “lecture” is sometimes lecture but typically not.  Instead, the students and I often have a conversation one that gently nudges them toward understanding.  They help me explain why a hippopotamus’s skin is pink, how the steps taken to wash a car are related to solving quantum chemical equations, and what a man in a gorilla suit tells us about scientific bias.  I ask them to actively engage the material, enlisting burgeoning live-arts performers to act out the forces influencing atomic nuclei or allowing students to play with Lego™ structures to help them learn how to write a scientific procedure.  In laboratory sessions, students use advanced instrumentation, such as Infrared Spectroscopy and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, and perform computational experiments with state-of-the-art software to explore ideas covered in lecture in an inquiry-based, and often times, choice-based environment.  Covering a wide range of topics, some which are traditional and others which are more current, cutting-edge, students tackle interesting and meaningful questions.  How and to what extent did my sunscreen protect me this summer?  How can I make a violin that sounds like a Stradivarius? How can I unambiguously identify and ultimately synthesize a cancer drug discovered in an endangered rain forest?  I believe that only when students explore these types of questions, ones relevant and aligned with their interests, does significant learning take place.

Answers to many of these questions are not easy to come by.  Students and I work together to develop, test and analyze their hypotheses so that they can begin to form their own answers.  Like scientists, the students find this challenging and often frustrating.  I remind them that learning is hard.  It takes patience, perseverance, and a willingness to ask for help.  Students are responsible for the first two traits; I’m responsible for the latter.  Simply learning their names, or learning about their academic and personal interests, or actively engaging them in lecture and lab, or being available in and outside of office hours, or providing thoughtful feedback on assignments, or celebrating successes is not enough.  It is the sum of these that encourage my student to say, “I don’t understand. Can you help me?” “Of course, I can,” I say, “Why don’t you explain to me what you think might be going on here.”

Shifts in thinking are slow, often subtle, almost imperceptible.  So how do I know, over the course of 15 weeks, that students are beginning to think more scientifically, that they are asking better questions, offering better answers and viewing the world through a scientist’s eyes?  No single measure gives a definitive answer; however, I believe that when assessment of student learning is aligned with a course’s goals and when it is learner-centered and frequent, one can begin to make such judgments.  Students in CHEM 181L demonstrate their learning — their shifts in thinking — by doing authentic science.  The doing manifests itself in the form of writing.  Students write about their research experiences in the lab, their reactions to the chemical literature and guest speaker presentations, and, through personal reflection, their own work.  I provide clear criteria and standards by which their work is assessed, and they are given constructive, personalized feedback on these assignments through written comments, peer-reviews, and informal conversations.  By semester’s end, students’ writings confirm they are observing the subtle color changes during a reaction, forming better hypotheses about why giraffes smell so awful, providing strong evidence for the identity of a “mystery” drug, and are developing thoughtful analyses of potential chemical weapon detection methods.

“You can’t get someone to think like a scientist in a semester,” remarked one student.  He is correct, but probably not in the way he thought.  I can’t make anyone think like a scientist, but I can provide a challenging, supportive learning environment to create the possibility.  I can offer students the opportunity to experience “how a scientist is supposed to feel” — excited, confounded, inspired, disappointed, awe-stricken, frustrated, triumphant. It is up to the student to accept my offer to explore this new way of thinking.

EXPERIENCES SHAPING MY PHILOSOPHY