Question and Answer Comments
THE NEXT GENERATION: SCIENCE FOR ALL STUDENTS
Marye Anne Fox (Moderator)
Chancellor, North Carolina State University
Participant: Dr. Marcia Linn, I am very excited by the stimulation of what getting controversy in the class might do, but I would like you to contrast that observation with what struck me as an important presentation by Sheila Widnall when she was president of the AAAS. Her address was published in Science.
She did a little personal survey of female graduate students at MIT and asked them about their experience at MIT (and they were mostly in hard sciences), and they said, to make a long story very short, that they had no problem competing with the men in all the work in the graduate school, but they found the experience exceedingly uncomfortable because they didn't like being forced to compete in sort of Oxford high table style of put-down-the-other-person-intellectually in the classroom.
They wanted a more cooperative environment in which people's interactions in the classroom were intended to be supportive rather than confrontational. It sounds a little
bit like it is a different message from the excitement born of controversy, and I wonder if you would comment on that and specifically with respect to female students?
Response: Dr. Linn: Thank you very much for asking that question. I think that is really important, and that was part of the pedagogical content knowledge that the teachers needed to work out because they wanted to provide a window on science in the making. They wanted students to be linking and connecting ideas, to be considering alternatives, and to be asking each other questions. One of the things that they worked out was a system where, for every presentation, all the students in the class needed to write a question down, and then they gave all those questions to the person who made the presentation.
So, everybody was treated the same, and everybody felt like, you know, this is part of science rather than, “Oh, my God, somebody is going to ask me a question. I won't know the answer. I don't want to take a risk,” and it is also true that we encourage students to use an on-line discussion where they could participate anonymously, and both boys and girls, actually equally often chose to be anonymous.
So, I agree with you. I think actually the issue here is, as one philosopher described it, that science in the making is a seething conversation and what we want to do is to communicate the excitement of that, the fact that it is a sustained reasoning process, and that it is okay to revise and rethink your ideas. Right now that is very rare in the science classroom.
Participant: Yes, my comment is for Dr. Richard Tapia. I really appreciated your comments. As a Ph.D. student in chemistry, everything you said strongly resonated with my experience, and I think that you are correct. The missing link, in this whole equation, is the mentorship that is necessary to bring minorities and women into science, and my question is what incentives can universities put in place to make mentorship an integral part of the educational experience?
Response: Dr. Tapia: I appreciate your comments, and right now the National Science Foundation, and I am on the National Science Board, we realize that, and what we are trying to do is make the department a focal unit. At Rice, I could tell you three departments that are socalled “good” departments and three departments that are “bad” departments (and you could guess which ones they are) and I have tried to get our administration— our deans, our provost, and our president—to reward those departments for that activity. Our department, which takes a strong lead, and the individuals in that department have been very strongly rewarded.
So, they put this in alignment. In other words, the reward system is now in alignment with the mission statements that presidents often say, and so I am saying that at the National Science Foundation and within the university those departments that do good jobs, and notice as I said before, not everybody has to do the same thing, but look at the unit and say, “You will be rewarded.”
We have been extremely well rewarded and treated well, and it was started by some of our
deans and provosts who are in the audience here, but we have been very well rewarded and the faculty buys in to say that this is a positive thing. Look at the rewards we get. We get travel funds. We get an extra position. So, I think we have to tie it together and put it into the reward system.
Participant to Dr. Linn: I was also somewhat concerned about the feeling I was getting that science was a branch of forensics, and the hardest thing I have had to teach graduate students and postdocs is when they have written a paper and they get things from the reviewers they say, “I have to refute this.” I say, “Maybe you should read it first. Maybe he or she is right,” and they quite often are, and this goes on up to the very top level in science, and the newspapers always try to emphasize these controversies, when I really think if the real history of science were known, it would be people trying to explain things to one another rather than to fight with one another.
Response: Dr. Linn: Thank you very much for that question. I really agree with you. The term “controversy” is accurate because it really helps students connect to what happens in their daily lives and in the newspaper, which is, for most people, their likely source of science information after they finish science class. One of our goals is really to get students to realize that they need to rethink and reflect on their ideas. So, although we are calling this “controversy,” we definitely think of it as knowledge integration and reflection, and sort of helping students understand the way controversy works, in science, is not just people shouting at each other, but actually a process where ideas are warranted with evidence, and in fact, as you saw that one student's presentation. What happens in the class is the average argument that a student makes in the debate is warranted with two pieces of evidence.
In contrast, if you look at a discussion, in a typical science class, it is much more similar to the review process that you mentioned where students just say, “No, that is wrong. Well, I think this,” and so in fact, I think that what the goal here is to actually get people to engage in discussion about science that has the real evidence as part of their thoughtful process.
Participant: Thank you. I wonder where in all this, if anywhere, is there anything to do with antiscience and pseudoscience and so on. This is a considerable problem. I mean where do the children learn to discriminate or how do they learn, if at all?
Response: Dr. Linn: One of the things that we are interested in is helping students early become critics of the Internet material that they encounter, and indeed, if you want a good source of alternative medicine, actually one of my favorite Web sites now, and I will refer you all to it is astro-economics, where you can use astrology to improve your economic forecasting skills. I think that starting early with developing critical thinking skills about the Internet materials that are out there and available is really a great opportunity, and one of the things that we are trying to do in this program is present the Internet as something that needs to be viewed with some skepticism.
The most common assignment currently,
today in science class, is to go to the computer room and just look at three Web sites, but not with any information about how to be critical with regard to those Web sites. So, one of our goals is really to help students develop an inquiry process that includes thoughtful ways to look at two different pieces of evidence and try to understand whether they fit together as well as good skills in trying to determine who posted this information, and under what circumstances should I actually believe it.
So, it seems to me that the Internet is a great opportunity for developing critical thinking.