The Front of the Train

One major goal in science education is to teach students how to think like a scientist. In many cases, this means teaching science the way we do science, which is often through inquiry and research. But before students can strike out in the lab on their own with a pipette and a new question to answer, they need to learn the foundational information that came from research before them.

I like to think of this challenge using a visual from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The front of a train represents the interface between the past experiences we carry with us and the unknown track ahead. Even while being hung up on a past memory or anxious about what may come, the front of the train is what we continually witness: here and now, moving through time.

Science research is also the front of the train, where discovery happens. The challenge in science education is starting at the back of the train and working forwards to cover all of where we have been (which is usually presented in textbook format), in order to get students to the front of the train, asking their own questions and making their own connections.

However, covering the entire textbook before getting to the inquiry and connecting part creates a problem: we are training students to passively ride along like a train car as we move forward in what we know, until suddenly, students make it to the front and come up against what we do not yet know. If students have not practiced asking questions or thinking about how to figure out the next step, when they do conduct research, they are not prepared to discuss it.

A true discussion explains how this new piece of information fits into our understanding of the world—how the shape of our overall understanding changes with this new dimension. To connect new observations to the big picture requires not only extensive background knowledge on the subject, but also creativity. Drawing lines that never existed or imagining a differently-shaped perspective are essential skills in science.

I watched this happen as a high school student I was mentoring in research presented her work to her high school. She was able to introduce complicated biology topics: plant secondary metabolism and symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, describe what she did in the lab, and even interpret a few graphs. But then she pulled up a slide titled “discussion” and she listed potential sources of error, including the size of the pots, and even “human error” in her count data. I was baffled by this until a colleague reminded me that the science most students do in school has a known outcome, and if data do not match that outcome, students are trained to explain why not by citing sources of error that caused results to stray from what they were supposed to find.

This is an important paradigm shift. A well-designed, controlled experiment does not have sources of error because the result is not yet known. So how should students discuss and interpret unknown results?

A true discussion explains how this new piece of information fits into our understanding of the world—how the shape of our overall understanding changes with this new dimension. To connect new observations to the big picture requires not only extensive background knowledge on the subject, but also creativity. Drawing lines that never existed or imagining a differently-shaped perspective are essential skills in science.

So how do we teach these skills if we have to cover sufficient background info for students to grasp the current state of science knowledge with enough proficiency to draw new connections? A formal answer to this question is a recipe for grant funding, but I think any educator intuitively knows the secret ingredient:

Learning how to ask questions.

Question confidence is where science progresses- where the massive train of knowledge comes up against the wind at the front. This also explains why many funding agencies highlight the importance of scientists coming from diverse backgrounds: to ask diverse questions, use creativity to draw conclusions and serve as role models for a diverse group of students learning how to gain their own question confidence.

Feel free to offer resources or ideas about how to help more students think like a scientist.

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Incoming call: National Science Foundation

I knew grad school was about publish or perish—and in the meantime—secure some funding. What I did not know was that this daunting, impersonal process would contain happy instances of genuine personal interaction, like when a program officer called me to award funding over the phone.

The National Science Foundation is a government funded organization that supports a large chunk of federally-funded basic science research. Virtually every incoming graduate student  is encouraged to apply for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program, referred to as the GRFP on the streets. Part of the science lingo I had to learn in my first year of graduate school were all of the grant acronyms. The DDIG is the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, which funds research that allows PhD Candidates to take their work to the next level.

I had almost forgotten about my NSF DDIG grant proposal since I submitted it in October. Five months between deadline and verdict is a normal timeline for grants, which is both frustrating and a saving grace. The grace comes in taking some time apart from my own writing long enough to forget about it, lessening the blow to my writing ego when the funding judgement day arrives.

This time judgement day came in the middle of my commute to work as I was singing along to my guilty pleasure cd from a musical I saw in New York: If/Then. Not only am I obsessed with Idina Menzel, but I also love the challenge in this story about wondering “what if” along with every decision and life event, big or small.

And then Doug called.

It wasn’t completely out of the blue, since he sent me an email to inform me he wanted to call about my proposal, but the email sent me into a panic that something was missing or I selected the wrong category in the online application and my proposal was rejected without review. I was prepared to defend why this grant would improve my dissertation when Doug said, “Congratulations!” As he walked me through the logistics, I could not get over the fact that a program officer from the National Science Foundation called me instead of informing me mechanically by email. Hearing someone’s voice and knowing their name felt personal and genuine. Classy move, Doug.

-A

Note: Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.