Why Science Matters
Teaching Science Today for the World of Tomorrow
by Victoria Kidd - Assistant Director of Advancement Communications
Then and Now
On Fridays, you spend several hours in a laboratory examining microscopic slides of amoebae, those fascinating globules of one-celled protozoans that no college student can avoid. As the lab progresses, you dissect frogs, rats and maybe even pigs. If you are lucky, you walk away from the semester with more than the smell of formaldehyde etched in your memory.
Step back into a freshman or sophomore biology class 20, 30 or 40 years ago at almost any college in the country, and you find yourself in a large lecture hall, maybe even an auditorium, with several dozen, if not hundreds, of other students. You meet Tuesdays and Thursdays in a dimly-lit, sometimes sleep-inducing space where you stare at Professor X pointing to diagrams on an overhead projector and lecturing on Darwinian theory or the development of cells into organisms.
This, of course, is an exaggerated version of the undergraduate biology experience, and to be sure, there were plenty of talented professors imparting valuable and lasting knowledge to young adults. But it's not far from what comes to mind when many non-science majors think back to introductory science classes.
Today, the situation is quite different for students. "The distinction between lecture and lab is disappearing, and the students are the ones who benefit," says Terry Winegar, professor of psychology and dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences.
As David Richard, professor and head of the Department of Biology, explains, "The old way of doing it was to disseminate a standard box of facts. You need the facts because they provide the context for the process (but) knowing the facts alone is like knowing the telephone directory. It's meaningless."
Getting Education Down to a Science
"In these [today's] classes, you will sometimes have lecture, sometimes discussion, sometimes problem-solving, sometimes a lab exercise, and what you do when depends upon the day," says Richard, explaining the integrated approach to science education, often called active learning, discovery-based learning or investigative learning.
Systematic Biology is one class taught in this manner at Susquehanna. As Jessica Mangus '07, a biology and Spanish major from Columbus, N.J., who is taking the class this semester, explains it, "Classroom time is more about working independently or in groups. Instead of just listening to a lecture, and possibly not really understanding the material, I get the opportunity to apply material, and then ask questions about specific things that I realize I do not understand."
Co-taught by Professor of Biology Jack Holt and Assistant Professor of Biology Carlos Iudica in two overlapping sections, Systematic Biology incorporates teamwork, hands-on research and fun(!) into the teaching process. For example, each Monday the student teams play a web-based quiz game similar to the TV game show "Jeopardy." But the game only accounts for a fraction of the interactivity in the classroom. Danielle Purciello '07, of Nutley, N.J., says student groups write journal-quality research articles, read from various sources and have graded discussions with their peers under the direction of the professors. Interaction isn't limited to class time either. Jamie Feretic '07, of Floral Park, N.Y., says, "You have to interact with your group on almost a daily basis. In communicating better with the members of your group, you learn to work better in a team."
Classes such as this are also smaller than traditional science classes, affording students and faculty more one-on-one interaction. "The teacher-student relationship in the class is absolutely phenomenal," says Dana Ward '07, of Stockton, N.J. So too is the method of teaching, according to Melissa Wright '07, of Queens, N.Y. "The interactive nature of the class allows the information to sink in a lot better. For me it is a lot more helpful to see an organism under a microscope than on page 201 in my text," Wright says.
An Evolution in Perspective
One reason for the change in teaching method is new technology. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the study of mathematics.
"The computers these days can do the number crunching," explains Kenneth Brakke, professor of mathematical science and head of the Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences. "The key steps for humans are to translate the real world into a mathematical model. The computer then does the calculations in the mathematical model and the human has to interpret the data back into the real world," Brakke says.
According to Margaret Peeler, associate professor of biology and chairperson of Susquehanna's curriculum committee, the perspective from which educators teach science is evolving too. "We talk about science more as a human endeavor. Twenty years ago, teachers just assumed students would see the connections between what they were learning in class and what was happening in the world," Peeler says.
Students who recently took Issues in Human Biology, the equivalent of Biology 101 or Introductory Biology, explored current topics such as genetically modified foods, the use of harmful pesticides, bioterrorism and science-related issues such as stem cell research connected to the 2004 presidential election. According to Peeler, connecting science principles to practical experiences in students' lives is one of the best ways to engage the non-major.
Professor of Physics Fred Grosse, who has been a science educator for 45 years, says he's discovered similar threads of truth regarding effective instruction. "In some ways I'm consciously unorganized with teaching. I'm firmly in control of the material but I let students' interests direct the class," Grosse says. "Science is like anything else. If you get interested in something, you'll learn all you can about it."
Bigger Isn't Always Better
Research Corporation is the second-oldest foundation in the United States and the only one devoted solely to the advancement of science. According to Andrew Feig, the foundation's Cottrell Scholar and assistant professor of chemistry at Indiana University, "Independent research with a faculty mentor is one of the most valuable educational experiences available to undergraduates. All interested students should have access to a research experience as part of their undergraduate education."
Although space restraints, limited resources and fewer faculty members are obstacles for small undergraduate liberal arts colleges, Peeler says students at such schools are much more likely to get involved in research than those at larger schools where graduate students are given priority for such opportunities.
Thomas Steitz, Sterling professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, points out that liberal arts colleges employ faculty who are motivated teachers.
"The faculty at liberal arts colleges are committed to teaching by career choice. Their reputations are heavily tied to teaching, and teaching that is simultaneously rigorous, innovative and popular is especially prized," Steitz says, noting that these faculty members are also committed researchers.
Science as a Liberal Art
Among the other benefits offered to students at small liberal arts colleges, Steitz recognized the advantage cross-training in the humanities and arts can have for science majors. He also highlighted another value of humanities classes for budding scientists -- the development of communication skills. It's a sentiment echoed in the science curriculum at Susquehanna University.
"We don't have worksheets and say, 'Fill in the blanks,'" says Christopher Janzen, associate professor and head of the Department of Chemistry, "We place a curriculum emphasis on communication and writing skills."
Conversely, science is emphasized in other disciplines. For instance, the core physics course most music majors take is Physics of Music. "There is an enormous amount of physics in music, and music instruments become a vehicle for teaching physics," explains Richard Kozlowski '75, professor and head of the Department of Physics. "It pushes students to do what they would have learned in a textbook but the vehicle is different."
Other endeavors, both on and off campus, are embracing the interdisciplinary nature of science education. The Centralia research project, an ongoing study by SU faculty and students of mine fires consuming a town in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania, was recently awarded a grant from the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research. The grant will fund expanded research to include communications and history majors beginning this summer.
"Since science and non-science students will be working together on a single project, I hope that both groups will see how their respective disciplines inform each other," says Tammy Tobin-Janzen, associate professor of biology and director of SU's Center for Teaching and Learning who will co-direct the project with Edward Slavishak, assistant professor of history. "Ideally, the non-science students will then be more motivated to learn about science, and the science students will be more motivated to learn about non-science fields."
So What, You Say
Students with no intention of entering a science-related career may question why science education matters, and why it is one of the few disciplines that all Susquehanna students are required to study over the course of their college career.
"Science education is essential in forming the broad liberal arts base necessary for specialized study in any field. It is a key component in preparing students to draw sound conclusions from observation and research and developing in students an understanding of the diverse world in which we live," says university President L. Jay Lemons.
According to Winegar, people need an understanding of science now more than ever. "These days all of us are being exposed to information and decisions that require us to be more knowledgeable about science and scientific method," he says.
Jan Reichard-Brown, assistant professor of health care studies and biology who serves as director of the health care studies minor, says, "Science isn't just for the smart kids. All students are capable of learning science, and all students need to learn science.
"What students don't understand is that most of their lives they will make decisions based on science," she says. According to Reichard-Brown, an understanding of science helps people make decisions about everything from prescription drugs and organic foods to their positions on drug policy and environmental issues.
In the future, she says, "'Joe Q. Citizen' is going to have to be even savvier."
One area of study "Joe Q." needs to brush up on is environmental and geological sciences. "It seems every day's news includes something that can be used as a case study, from oil spills to climate change, flooding risks to tsunami hazards," says Daniel Ressler, assistant professor and head of the Department of Environmental and Geological Sciences.
"Even as we continue to develop new technologies which seem to distance us further and further from the natural world, events like hurricanes, landslides and tsunamis remind us that we are only one of the powerful forces that shape our world," Ressler says.
Understanding how mankind affects the world and how the world in turn affects mankind is vitally important to the survival of life as we know it. "There is no one who can remove themselves from those interactions, and the more we understand the nature of those interactions, the more likely we will be to recognize the critical nature of relationships before something catastrophic develops," Ressler says.
Holt also believes science is, and will continue to be, more vital to the general population than it was in the past. "We live in a culture that is dependent on technology and the science that feeds it," he says. "Science education that serves the citizen and our society must be aimed at how science works rather than an encyclopedic collection of facts. Otherwise, the future citizen becomes an intellectual slave to those who do understand and can twist information and explanations to their political ends."