Friday, April 27, 2007

learning

So I don't just complain about how shitty our classes are. I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes them bad, what this means for our education and science education in general, and how I can improve things. I think about this a lot, especially during section when I have to discuss tedious papers in tedious detail. I have had this stuff on my mind since the "town hall meeting" with the new head of BBS to talk about how to make the program better. Today three things have got me thinking about this stuff enough to blog about it:

1. This article form Nature's chemistry blog about students in the UK who start university in the sciences without enough preparation in math. This one's kind of self-explanatory. Maybe you can remember how people freaked out over the twist and writhe equations back from the beginning of the year.

2. This article from the new york times (if you don't have times select you should-it's free for university students now!) comparing science and science education in China and the United States. Now I'm not a huge fan of the neo-liberal crap about how we have to do better if we want to stay a global leader bla bla bla that this article is kind of about, but I really like the discussion about Einstein being a rebel. Maybe comparing Nazis and Harvard is a little too extreme, but I feel like I need to resist what I'm getting from the professors here in order to do anything interesting.

3. This paper about metabolic modelling (for our non-harvard readers it's Edwards et. al. Environmental Microbiology, 2002 if you are interested (which you should be-metabolic modelling is awesome!)). It starts with a quote from T.S. Eliot "Where is the Life we have lost in living?... / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" (when was the last time you saw a scientific paper with a literary epigraph?) and discusses how we have a lot of biological information, but not necessarily a lot of ways to use it yet. Yes.

Ok, here's what I'm getting at: I feel like our professors our doing us a disservice by even bothering to teach our classes the way they are. We aren't being encouraged to learn and think outside the box. We're learning to spit back stuff they tell us about cellular factors. They never give us equations (or apologize profusely when they do) as if we can't handle math at all even though there is almost no biology that does not depend on math and statistics anymore. if we're lucky we can get this stuff in our labs, but most professors were trained in a time before the genome. Instead of teaching us to be leaders in science, we're learning archaic methods and how to suck up to professors.

I'm not just crazy, right?

2 comments:

Scott said...

Christina, you are crazy. We wouldn't be friends otherwise.

I agree with you that there is something wrong about the courses we've been taking in grad school thus far. Overall, I find them to be dumbed down, full of low expectations, and focused on learning a set of information that everyone must learn in the same way, which is then tested in the same way. The classes demand mediocrity. If you have trouble memorizing what cellular factor does what, Tough Shit, you'll do poorly on the exam. Like to think about how the data might be different and think about other ways to investigate common biological processes? Tough Shit, just memorize these things and spit them back to us. Be mediocre. To be honest, it seems like most of our classmates lap that up. Maybe that is unfair to say.

Nature's blog is spot on. The UK system is a disaster, if you ask me. Sixteen year old students are asked to decide on their educational focus and take only four classes their junior year and three classes their senior year in high school. Most students will focus on the humanities or sciences. Students wanting to study biology or medicine usually take biology, chemistry, and either physics or PE (a class less about exercise and more about anatomy and physiology). No maths. No english. No history. Could you imagine trying to be a successful scientist without a strong background in maths or english? It is absurd.

The UK system is also far more guilty in demanding mediocrity than is Harvard. There are tests twice a year that demand that students learn a specific curriculum and then regurgitate it back on exams twice a year. It is absurd - no one learns out of interest, they learn out of necessaity for the grade and out of fear. Your A-level grades are asked for at nearly every job interview you ever have, nevermind applications to university. I left England with a terrible taste in my mouth about education practice in general, only to come home and see the testing trend becoming stronger in the US.

The Harvard University Planning Committee for Science and Engineering issued this report recently about changing science education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The report also focused on restructuring the science departments at Haravrd, advocating a much broader approach to science, encouraging the formation of interdisciplinary departments, where faculty from different departments are given an opportunity for collaboration, despite their different fields.

I was asked to review the report and discussed it with a Dean at the graduate school. I hailed the movement toward a more integrated view toward scientific study and thanked them for recommending a change in graduate education, where we would be encouraged to find interdiscplinary projects and work with many faculty. However, I was troubled by one idea. They suggested that undergraduate education should be less focused on teaching the basics of science, and more on laboratory experience and interdisciplinary classes. But wait, I thought, I showed up to college with virtually no understanding of science. The lab experience I did have my first two years felt empty, as I was being told what tube to mix with something else, without a firm grasp of what was taking place (sometimes that still happens). And after college I almost felt like I had been missing some of the basics of science - like a biochemistry class (despite having a degree in biochem).

The first and foremost responsibility of an undergraduate education is to indoctrinate the new students into the existing paradigm (some of you saw this coming). This is showing the students the box. (I just giggled). You can not think outside the box until you know what it is. "Why even tell students what the box is? Let them think in a new way!" That would lead to a waste of time. We must be taught what exists so that we can then think beyond it. Some people will never do that. They have only the capacity to work within a framework they are given. But the scientists we read about and are impressed with are the ones that go outside the existing framework and offer new ideas. No one can teach us to do that. We can be put in an environment that encourages us to think like that, and I think that we need more classes that can do that. Grad school is no place for memorization classes, no matter how much everyone tells me that we need to make sure everyone is in the same place. It is too late by now. Learn the basics in high school and college. Elementary and middle school science education is a total waste of time. We are not starting early enough with science education that we are years behind where we should be when we arrive at college, and even grad school. And at this point in our lives, we should be able to teach ourselves the pradigm - read a book and learn it. Then think beyond it.

That learning - the thinking outside the box - doesn't happen best in a classroom. Working in a lab, thinking about science as it pertains to your interests encourages you to think beyond what everyone has told you in order to make new discoveries. For those of us who can do that - and are extraordinarily luck - we will change the paradigm and become great scientists.

Yes, Christina, our classes are poor. The system of learning science in the US and abroad is poor. I even think that the designers of the system know it now. And might even be working to change it. But for us, our growth as scientists depends on us more than anything else. I'm done with classes. I'm ready to start thinking now.

Cressida said...

I think Scott covered everything I had to say. There is one thing that Christina mentioned that is a big pet peeve of mine: science papers with imitation-humanities titles. I used to work in a lab that had a lot of weird paper titles that, in my mind, don't give the reader any new information. They just let you know, Hey - we're educated in the humanities, too!! For example: "A microbial strategy to multiply in macrophages: the pregnant pause", or "A phagosome of one's own: a microbial guide to life in the macrophage," or my personal favorite, "The lactose permease meets Frankenstein." What the hell are these papers about? I know giving papers obvious titles must get old after 20 years, but seriously, these titles don't help anyone. There's a growing trend in the sciences to start collaborations with the humanities, and vice versa. Of course this is a good thing. But when your PI doesn't want to publish a paper until you find a Chinese proverb that describes bacterial pathogenesis, then I think we're missing the point.