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Monday, December 11, 2006

What does a college biology professor say to a high school science class?

I was honored by a request, from a former student, now a high school teacher, that I speak to a high school science class this morning. She said "You can talk about science, your classroom experiences, academics, what professors expect from college students . . . that sort of thing. Sound interesting?"

In a word, yes. It's always interesting to distill experiences, in this case, 41 years of college teaching experiences. So here goes.

A. Let's start by defining terms. This is what the Free Dictionary says about science (1st meaning only):
1. a. The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
b. Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.
c. Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study.

I will restrict myself to meaning 1a, actually. How does science differ from three other honorable enterprises, namely the study of history, performing music, or working as a clerk in a grocery store?
The study of history usually can't involve experimental investigation. You can't see what would have happened if George Washington hadn't crossed the Delaware, for example. You can guess, and your guess may be right, but you can't know. But you can experiment in science. You can find out what happens if someone takes their medicine every other day, rather than every day.
Music performance doesn't involve much identification (in that you are classifying something, such as rock types or species of grasses) and description, nor theoretical explanation. It may involve experimentation, though.
Grocery store clerks don't do much identification, either. They may experiment, however, for example by smiling at some customers and not at others, but the amount of experimentation is limited. If they start only charging for every other container of milk to compare it with customer satisfaction, or giving more change that the customer is supposed to get, they'll get fired.

B. The controlled, replicable experiment, then, is one of the cornerstones of much science. Granted, even scientists can't experiment on everything. Historical geologists can't manipulate history any more than history professors can. Astronomers can't manipulate stars or galaxies. Where direct experiment isn't possible, most scientists may compare experiments, as it were, that nature has already provided. For example, how does the light from different stars, in different regions of the universe, compare?

A controlled experiment is one wherein, ideally, one property, and only one, is varied between groups, and everything else is the same. For example, you might test inbred fruit flies, all in the same environment, giving one a vitamin supplement, and one no such supplement, and compare their fertility. (It is usually impossible to make the environment absolutely identical for every organism, or for different attempts at the same experiment. Even inbred strains may have a little genetic variation.)

Replicable means that someone else can test what you have done, by trying the same experiment.

I understand that there is debate about how science really works, but I'm going to ignore it. See the Wikipedia article on "Science" for an introduction to this.

C. Science is clearly important. Think of global warming, energy use, and stem cell research. The products of science, often called technology, are also important. For example, according to the latest mail from my congressman, he is proud that he was a principle [sic] sponsor of legislation to use high-technology means to detect illegal immigrants along the Mexican border.

The previous sentence mentioned four important topics. I must say that none of them is a strictly scientific topic. All of them have legal, political, ethical, economic and even religious implications. If a scientist, for example, says that she is opposed to allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, or that human embryos can ethically be destroyed in the process of stem cell research, what she says on one of those subjects should carry no more weight than what a grocery clerk says, unless she is a legislator, in addition to being a scientist.

Sometimes scientists think that they are making scientific statements, but they aren't. They are merely scientists making statements, not making statements that are backed up by controlled, replicated, experiments. Watson and Crick, for example, thought that they had discovered the secret of life when they proposed the double helix. They had made an important contribution, but they hadn't discovered the secret of life. They hadn't explained how DNA came to be so central to living things in the first place. They hadn't given an explanation for how the information in DNA comes to be expressed (we now know a lot more about that, partly because of the work of Crick, himself.) Both of them, apparently, thought that they had ruled out any supernatural explanation for living things. But they hadn't. God could have created life with DNA as its main information carrier. I don't believe any experiment can rule that out (or prove it.)

D. Before leaving the subject of science, I don't want to leave the impression that science gets a better and better picture of how nature works only by doing experiments. As Thomas S. Kuhn pointed out, scientists get such a changed picture by new ways of looking at the world -- adopting a new paradigm. What experiments scientists do is determined by how they view the natural world. Galileo wouldn't have done any experiments on radio, because he didn't know there was such a thing. Newton didn't discover gravity. But he did (perhaps after watching an apple fall) realize that gravity could be explained as an attractive force. This wasn't because of any experiment that he did. The experiments came later.

Classroom Experiences
The best experiences I had in the classroom all involved (duh!) students. As a biologist, these were often on field trips, where we saw things that the textbooks (or I) could only describe. Sometimes they were in the lab, when something actually worked as they were supposed to(!). Once, an African-American student with sickle-cell anemia saw her own red blood cells sickle under the microscope (I got to see this, too) for the first, and, I suppose, the only time. (Red blood cells are normally circular. The cells of someone with sickle cell anemia assume an elongated shape when they become deprived of Oxygen.) I am sorry to say that this young lady didn't live long after this experience. She died from the complications of this terrible disease.

Often the most memorable experiences are one-time things, and happen when something goes wrong, or, at least not according to plan. I will relate two of mine. Once, a few students and I were injecting a rabbit. The rabbit died, for some reason. One of the students suggested that we dissect the rabbit, so we did. We had never seen the insides of a just-dead rabbit before, and seeing this was amazing. A rabbit's intestines include an (for a rabbit) enormous caecum, quite different from human anatomy.

Another such experience was when a student came in late for a bioethics class. I knew what had happened, because she had called and told me -- the class and I had been praying. Her father had just gotten a liver transplant. I had her sit on the table in front of the class and talk about it, and the rest of us asked her questions. Organ transplantation, of course, has some important ethical implications.

I have also had experiences where a student asked me a question that changed my way of thinking. One of my students asked me about human cloning, back in the middle 1970's. I hadn't thought much about it before, but decided that I should. Partly because of his question, the U. S. taxpayer supported my attendance at a six week conference on bioethics in 1979 at Indiana University. I was the only person in the group of a dozen or so who was trained as a biologist, and the only one from an evangelical Christian college/university. All of this resulted in a change in direction. I developed a new class at my school, and published a paper (the article is not available on-line, so far as I know -- the link is to a listing) on the subject.

Sometimes a student made a comment that changed my thinking. One once said "the Bible is inerrant, but our interpretation of it isn't."

I am glad to say that, sometimes, I could see students learn. Sometimes I could see that they had, when I graded their tests, quizzes, and papers.

Some of the greatest experiences came outside of class, when students came to talk to me about something unrelated to their class work, or I got to interact with, or observe them, in other settings.

I confess -- I married a student. (She came to college after being in the workplace for three years, so I didn't rob the cradle.)

Academics, and what professors expect from their students
Every professor is different. Different classes under the same professor may be different, and different universities, or different departments at the same university, may have different expectations.

Nonetheless, a few hints. They're just commonsense, mostly.
Go to class. That's pretty elementary, but it's good advice. Some classes aren't worth going to, or some sessions of a class may be a waste of time, but you should make it your goal to go to all your classes. Most universities don't monitor class attendance as rigidly as most high schools, nor do they usually contact your parents if you don't go, and the temptation to skip classes will be there. Don't do it. I have known some cases where students who could have had a promising academic career have messed it up, just by not going.
Be prompt, if at all possible, and if you can't be, let the professor know why, even if she doesn't seem to care (or even know who you are).
Sit where you won't be distracted, preferably in the front.
Stay awake.

Get enough sleep. You and I can do many things with little or no sleep, such as many types of work, or carrying on a social life, but serious learning often becomes a casualty when you don't get enough sleep.
There is a school of student thought that believes that the best way to study for a big test is to stay up all night before it is scheduled. Wrong! Sleeping on what we have learned helps us to remember it longer. "Cramming" for a test is probably better than no study at all, but it isn't very efficient, and it may mean that we don't function very well in actually taking a test, or in the other things we need to do on the day after a night with little sleep. We tend to forget material learned in a cram session rapidly. Often, we'll need to retain that material for a long time. In college classes, there are often two or three tests during a semester, then a comprehensive final, covering the entire course material. Or, in preparing for some professions, there may be a comprehensive qualifying exam, covering much of everything you are supposed to have learned in college. You will need to retain facts and principles for a long time.

Study. The best way to study for a big test is to study as you go along. Read your book. Review what went on in the previous class session before the next one. Ideally, you should know what the class will be about before you go, and be prepared with questions or comments. Study with someone else sometimes. Study should be about what's important. That is, what the professor may ask you, but also, what is important about this chapter, this diagram, this term, this lab experiment. Getting another perspective on this often helps. Even if another student knows a lot less than you, it will often help you to explain the material to someone else.

Look over terms and diagrams, chapter summaries, and questions at the end of a section or chapter, in your textbook. (Some texts won't have some, maybe any, of these things, especially in upper-level courses.)

P. S. Obtain your textbooks. Textbooks are expensive, and, let's face it, in a few classes, you don't really need them. But, in most classes, not having a text is a serious handicap. It's silly to spend good money for tuition, travel, lodging, and whatever other expenses you may have going to college, and not get textbooks. (You may be able to buy used copies, or borrow a text from someone who had the course in a previous semester.)

Most people learn through more than one sense. (Some learn mostly by hearing, some by seeing, some from other senses. In some classes, handling things may be important.) Hear your subject (In class, by recording the class, if that helps, or if you can't be present -- most professors will allow you to tape a class, or have someone else tape it for you -- they'll be thrilled that you care!) and read about it, so you've got two ways of getting it into your brain.

Turn your assignments in on time. Maybe even early. Give your professor cardiac arrest!
This means planning ahead. Start those papers, book reports, lab reports, and projects before the night before they are due.

Get noticed, for good reasons. Sit near the front, ask good questions, stay awake, occasionally talk to the professor after class, or in her office, or in other settings. Don't be a pest, but act like an adult who is interested in the subject matter.

Be interested in the subject matter.
Sometimes that's difficult. Try, anyway. Never ask "What good is this going to do us?" about a class as a whole. Your professor may not have a good answer (she should) but generally you are stuck with the class, anyway. The university, or your chosen profession, require it. Make the best of it. Sometimes you may get noticed in a good way by asking about the relevance of a particular topic, or by suggesting a relevant topic that the class doesn't seem to be going to cover.
Often, you will be helped by finding material other than the text that deals with the subject matter. The Wikipedia, although not totally inerrant, is a good source on almost any academic subject.

Pray a lot.
Pray for your professor, any teaching assistants she has, your classmates, and, of course, yourself. Ask for God's help in studying, in understanding the material, in getting to class, in staying awake, in taking a test. And, of course, do your part -- you can pray yourself into a failure, if you don't do what you are supposed to.

Thanks for reading.


andre said...


Thank you - this is really good. I especially like your "what professors expect from students". It's a little late for me but I think that's advice I'll want my kids to know

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. I hope it did/does someone some good.

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