Teaching science, scientifically

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Sandra Porter

Many science experiments are carefully thought out. Often, the procedures we follow have been thoroughly tested. We measure everything we can at every point that we can, so that we can determine if a procedure, like isolating DNA, is working properly and if the procedure doesn't work, we can determine what went wrong. When the procedure is done, we analyze our data to determine if our experiments really gave us an answer. Then, we present our data to others, in venues like lab meetings and conferences, subjecting our work to review to the toughest critics we can find.

Every act of teaching is a kind of experiment.
Why then, do we treat like teaching as if it were magic, with students the educational equivalent of a black box?

Before going farther, I want to thank Mike Dunford for unintentionally starting a public teaching journal and sharing his experiences with the world. It's not easy when you're a graduate student. You're assigned this class, and although you've had formal instruction and you're an expert in the subject matter, you haven't been instructed in teaching it. Presumably you're supposed to acquire those skills by osmosis or diffusion or maybe by drinking the Kool Aid . (yes, a joke was intended, if you don't get the point, you may have to look at Mike's first post on this subject). And the students are not sympathetic. After all, they (if it's a community college) (or their parents, if it's a four-year school) are paying you and you are probably a rank amateur compared to their high school instructors.

What do you do? The first class I TA'd was composed of pre-med students. All I wanted to do was hide under a table.

There is another way. You can apply the same habits of thought, that you use in the lab, to teaching science.

Using science to teach science
It wasn't until I had been teaching, full-time, at a community college for about six years, or so, when I learned that there are people who use science to guide their teaching. I was on sabbatical and took a class at the University of Washington from Mary Pat Wenderoth and Harold Modell on teaching and active learning. It made me view teaching in a very different way.

Wenderoth and Modell left me with the persistent idea that science teaching should be guided by the very best elements of doing science. In other words, science instructors should peruse the literature on education research (I didn't even know this existed!), read about the biology of learning and neuroscience, use proven techniques, and apply scientific principles to our teaching with as much care as we do to our laboratory experiments.

How could a scientific approach have been applied to Mike's Zoology class?
With those ideas in mind, let's look at Mike's story and see how we could approach this class from a scientific standpoint. I'm going to try putting the biology experimental steps and the class experimental steps sequentially, to the highlight the parallels.

Step 1.

Let's say we're using PCR to make some DNA for a cloning experiment. We combine all the different reagents: the DNA polymerase, the template, primers, and nucleotides in a tiny test tube. We choose a program on the PCR machine, to control the temperature, and put the tube inside. The DNA will be copied over and over again for a specified time.


We tell the students to go look up some definitions. A week passes between class periods.


We checked the results of our PCR reaction. A common way to run a gel, stain the DNA and determine if there is any DNA in the gel and if the piece of the DNA that we made, through PCR, is the right size.


The students were assumed to have found and understood the correct definitions.

I'll leave it to you, how would a scientific approach to teaching made a difference in Step 2?