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'Captivating' and 'Science' Can Go Hand in Hand

My three-year old son is a scientist. He is growing small lilac plants in an egg carton full of dirt. And he loves it. All children are scientists. They discover how the world around them works, and they find it exciting.

Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered classical physics and calculus, said that science is the discovery of how nature works. Memorizing the names of dinosaurs is not science. Learning all of the elements in the periodic table is not science. But science is baking a loaf of bread, mixing plaster, or growing a lawn. So much of what we do in our everyday lives is basic science. We make hypotheses, we design ways to test them, and after the tests we assess how good our hypotheses were. A little less yeast here, a little more water there. There should be no mystery or intimidation attached.

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But we have gotten confused about science, and it is largely the fault of our educational system. We have learned so much about how our world works and have begun to fill our classes and textbooks with so much information that very little science remains. The average college student has a 20-minute attention span (it was less than this when I taught high school math and physics), so if we lecture straight for an hour, the last two-thirds are wasted.

If we take a break from the preaching to ask a question, try an experiment, give a demonstration, even in a large lecture class, it can do wonders for getting students thinking about science again.

If there is any confusion about this, just ask the students. We did so when we recently made a major overhaul of our undergraduate curriculum in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. We started from scratch and created a new system with much more flexibility and many new courses, and actively sought input from our current undergraduates. More than anything else, our students wanted hands-on, research-oriented courses. So we created three new classes that center around outdoor fieldwork in the areas of geology, geochemistry, and geophysics, and an additional seminar course on research techniques. Students go "into the field" to take direct measurements in a variety of ways.

Students in one class used magnetometers, for example, to discover what is likely the base of the giant Ferris wheel on the former site of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis (currently a golf course). In addition, almost all of our undergraduate majors actively participate in research, either for credit or as work-study jobs. Many become co-authors on published articles and give presentations at conferences. It is fun and exciting, and a disproportionately large number of our students go on to pursue research-based careers once they have had a taste of it. But again, this sort of captivating experience cannot be obtained from passive learning out of a book or during a lecture.

So my advice to science teachers at all levels is to stop trying to cover all of the "required material." Don't rush at the end of the class to try to get it all in before the bell. Stop talking early and ask questions, or try an experiment, even a thought experiment. Pique your students' interest. Have them design a lab. They will learn what they need to know. Most important, they will learn to see the trees, rocks, and every part of their world as things to explore, rather than names to memorize.

* Michael Wysession is an associate professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Washington University in St. Louis.

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