motivating tomorrow’s biologists

That’s the title of Susan Musante’s paper in the latest issue of Bioscience (& many thanks to David Winter for sending it on). It’s a summary of some key points made by speakers at an NAS convocation called "Thinking evolutionarily: evolution education across the life sciences."

Now, I find science fascinating, exciting, & endlessly interesting, & I’m sure my colleagues feel the same. The thing is, how to pass all that on to our students? As I’ve said before, simply providing them with quantities of facts is not going to do it. At the convocation, several speakers stressed that

[simply] regurgitating the biological knowledge generated by the scientific community or conducting "cookbook" laboratory experiments does not result in genuine understanding or excitement on the part of students… Instead, the nature and process of science, the unifying concepts and connections to the real world, and the problems encountered and discoveries made by scientists are what make biology come alive.

Biologists, of course, recognise the complexity of their subject all too well. However, I suspect that our desire to ‘get the facts across’ obscures that complexity and at the same time works against – rather than for – student engagement. So, how can biology educators motivate their students as they come to understand our fascinating subject?

One part of the equation is how it’s taught, something I’ve discussed before (here, for example). While those lecture-room techniques can make a real difference to student understanding and mastery, there are other learning environments to consider. Beginning to move away from ‘cookbook’ labs is part of it. Yes, there are practical skills that students need to learn, but why not look for ways to deliver those skills in contexts that are more meaningful and relevant to the students? For example, in the B semester our first-years practice a lot of those skills in the context of solving a ‘whodunnit’, finding out who disposed of the paper coordinator (me!). (OK, we chose that one because of the generally high interest in shows like CSI; other contexts would work as well. Anything to move away from following a recipe to get a result that most in the class probably realise is a ‘given’.)

Another tool – and an important one, if we’re hoping to give our students a feel for what scientists actually do, is to give them a chance to work with primary data – something that is in ready supply in universities 🙂  There are some great resources for educators in the BioQUEST database, such as the Beagle Investigations Return with Darwinian Data, or BIRDD, to use in giving students that experience. Musante also quotes David Mindell (of the California Academy of Sciences) on the benefits of field trips:

We have a real disconnect between students and the natural environment

he says, and we should recognise that

allowing students to explore the outdoors through research projects is a proven way to encourage them to inquire deeply about the world in which they live.

This is something that the University of Sydney’s Pauline Ross uses to great effect with her undergraduate students.

We can use well-designed assessment tools to provide some extrinsic motivation to students, but giving the opportunity to gain personally-relevant experiences through such activities may well be more effective in the long run. Letting students gain those relevant experiences seems to be particularly important

for students that are under-represented in the sciences and students that initially have low expectations for success,

according to another speaker at the convocation, Paul Beardsley. This is something that deserves much closer attention here in NZ, especially when the Tertiary Education Commission’s funding priorities are taken into consideration. 

Musante’s thoughtful summary provides links to a range of databases that teachers should find useful, and ends with a reminder that educators need to be students as well – not only adding to their own subject knowledge, but continuing to learn

about what motivates students and works to engage them, [so that] their students will be able to take ownership of their own learning. And that is essential if we are to increase the biological literacy of today’s students, who are tomorrow’s politicians, school board members, precollege teachers, and voters.

S.Musante (2012) Motivating tomorrows biologists. Bioscience 62(1): 16 doi: 10.1525/bio.2012.62.1.5

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *