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.


How I Became a Scientist

Recently I found myself at a table across from wide-eyed students at a job fair asking me how I became a scientist.  I knew immediately that answer to their question was my experience at Outdoor School as a high school student leader. Here is a great video from Oregon Field Guide that shows what Outdoor School looks like.

At one point, every sixth grade student in Oregon attended Outdoor School, which is one reason Portlanders and Oregononians claim the “outdoorsy” stereotype proudly. This article describes that fundamental role Outdoor School plays in our community.

But now, not all school districts have funding for their students to have these experiences. A new movement, Outdoor School for All, aims to get every sixth grade student in Oregon back out for a full week of Outdoor School. As this program started with government funding, a sustainable solution to get all of our kids outside now relies on government funding again. So in order to help secure House Bill 2648 and Senate Bill 439, we need letters to explain why Outdoor School matters. You are welcome to use this letter generator to write one too!

Here is how Outdoor School ignited my passion as a scientist:

Dear Lawmakers,

Science is my path to make a difference. I discovered this passion in the pouring rain beneath a forest of big-leaf maples covered in moss with five inquisitive sixth graders. We were testing the dissolved oxygen of the Salmon River when Rosa’s eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “I never knew I could learn all this!” When this student realized she was capable of understanding the natural world and cared about the world she discovered—this same moment I knew how I would spend my life. I built community, excited students about learning, and discovered my talents in creating joy for ecology. My exposure to science while volunteering as a student leader for the MESD Outdoor School program gave me the momentum, passion, and confidence to become a woman in science.

There are a few reasons Outdoor School is a powerful way for students to learn. First, the Outdoor School textbook “chapters”: plants, animals, soil and water, are written in words every child can understand by touching, seeing, and experiencing each one in order through a full day dedicated to experientially studying each area. Second, throughout one school week at Outdoor School, students have enough time to process each day of field study and make connections between them. I have seen countless students in awe of how interconnected the plants, animals, soil and water really are. I feel it too. Because of this, I live with more connection to the earth, more affinity for discovery, and more passion for sharing this awe with the global community.

I finally understood why this feeling of awe can be so powerful when Dr. Kelly Swing, the director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador, quoted an Amazonian tribe leader in a presentation to visiting students:

“We only know what we see; we only love what we know; we only care about what we love”. This has become my personal mission statement.

Some days I feel powerless. Numbers can be defeating—statistics on global carbon emissions, deforestation rates, biodiversity loss, increased poverty, inequality in human rights, and school shootings lead me to question whether I can have a positive impact. Science gives me hope; through science more people have a reason to care. My goal is to create research to discover new results, my findings will allow deeper understanding, and through understanding my work will facilitate an affinity for ecology. Through practice I know I have the power to connect as a science instructor and I have the power to connect across cultural boundaries—both of these skills started at Outdoor School. Of course I am still refining the art of connecting people from many different backgrounds to science, but luckily science inquiry is a task that has brought me joy ever since I learned how to teach at Outdoor School.

Teaching others to wonder and think like a scientist has arisen from my own process in asking questions about the natural world. By asking questions I gained many answers and many more questions. I have learned to measure the success of my scientific endeavors by the questions they lead me to next. Many mentors have shaped the way I frame my curiosity. This also what makes Outdoor School successful: mentors. High school students act as role models while presenting science to sixth graders, all while learning from their own mentors, the Outdoor School staff, how to be a leader and their best selves. I am extremely grateful for my mentors from Outdoor School that helped me build confidence and joy for life. I carried this confidence with me to study biology in college and eventually returned to work at Outdoor School to give back.

While I worked as a Field Instructor, I struggled for a long time to develop a curriculum that fully encapsulated all of the desired concepts, to be sure each student was able to feel that awe when they understand how everything connects. But then I realized from watching my high school volunteers engaging their students in measuring the dissolved oxygen of the Salmon River, that community was the secret ingredient generating passion for science. In moments of discovery and connection to community: that is where change happens.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration. Please give all kids in Oregon the chance to experience Outdoor School. I ask that you move the Outdoor School Legislation, HB 2648 and SB 439, out of committee with funding in order to be voted on and passed into law.


Adrienne Godschalx