“When Am I Going to Need to Know This?”
From time to time, I find myself in social settings revealing my current vocation as a teacher. As I share that I predominantly teach biology, there are oftentimes one of two reactions. One is a mildly patronizing appreciation for working with young people (it is a noble pursuit, so I’m told). Another is a response when people almost shudder at the notion that I teach a subject that plagued their own schooling experience. Both of these equally amusing interactions cause me to reflect about what it is that I actually do as a science educator (or more optimistically, what I like to think that I do).
People who tell me how little they enjoyed biology during their own time paint an all too common picture. I envision their biology classes as situations where voluminous amounts of information were simply poured into what were assumed to be empty vessels with very little enthusiasm or context. This is troubling since it perpetuates the idea that science is an exceedingly dull island to itself, inaccessible save for a few select individuals. After an experience like that, I can appreciate why someone would feel that way about something that I thoroughly enjoy. From the outset of my classes, I have spent much of my time as a teacher chiseling away at those myths of isolation and stagnation.
Tapping into a student’s own experiences is a key to making science accessible for any learner, irrespective of background and ability. Forming predictions, collecting information, processing that data, and using it to modify current understanding is something that we do instinctually from infancy. This system does get more complex as we mature, evidenced by a minority of adults who are astounded by a game of peek-a-boo. Proposing the idea to students that they have been doing science for their whole lives is a way of linking them to a larger scientific community. A topic that is personally relevant also makes for something that is memorable and more valuable to students. Having students research and present about a type of cancer has proven to be a powerful experience for many, as they learn about the disease which in some cases claimed the life of a loved one. Cellular respiration can seem obscure until it is discussed in the context of one’s own dietary choices, a personal connection if there ever was one. Exploring a subject like genetics can help students to better understand their own biological heritage. This is a very limited number of examples but the idea is that I strive to find some way of connecting complex concepts to something the student has some personal investment in.
Science is incredibly dynamic, with groundbreaking discoveries and innovations being made daily in all corners of the globe. I feel a sense of duty to share these findings with students whenever I happen upon them and I frequently task students with seeking out these new developments on their own and sharing with the group. Exposure to an ever-changing scientific landscape is critical since a student today needs to be an informed citizen and voter someday. Part of that is being aware of what is going on in the frontiers of science. Presenting the cutting edge is one way I try to get students excited and invested as well as a way to refresh, modify, and deepen my own understanding of what I am teaching. If I didn’t remain curious and hungry for new knowledge, it would be disingenuous of me to ask students to do so.
As students navigate through mountains of information, it is imperative that they are honing a critical life skill, that of scientific skepticism. I will make purposefully dubious statements to see if they are utilizing their emerging powers of skepticism. This is an ongoing process but as they become more adept at spotting discrepancies and suspicious claims, the curiosity I try to foster will hopefully help them form more well-grounded conclusions if they encounter information about potential dangers of vaccines or the absence of human-induced climate change. It is my hope that when students leave my class, they have a greater level of general inquisitiveness and are better equipped to hunt down the information they seek.
Occasionally, a student will blurt out, be it from a place of perhaps boredom or frustration, an iteration of the following question, “When am I going to need to know this?” (this may also take the form of a declarative statement). At that moment I am forced, much like when I encounter another adult who felt biology class was a punishment, to step outside of the arrogant notion that I am a bearer of critical and indispensable information and examine what it is that I do. While the opinion of that adult crystallized years ago, a student questioning why they need to pay attention to me as I prattle on presents me with an opportunity. It is an opportunity for me to acknowledge that indeed, in the grand scheme of things, the minutiae in a biology class may not be critical to most. However, the ability to seek out meaningful connections, to delve deeper for the truth, to remain curious, and to stay informed about the world are vital skills that transcend any particular subject and are not to be taken for granted. It is my hope that on my best days, I provide an arena for students to practice those aforementioned skills. At the very least, I’m hopefully not just building the case for a student to bristle at the mere mention of biology years from now.