Science is hard

by Kevin Boehnke

Much of my science education has done remarkably little to make me into a critically thinking scientist. I passed my college classes, typically getting decent grades. I dutifully memorized the stages of photosynthesis, the enzymes used during the Krebs Cycle, and how to balance equations of chemical reactions.  Do I remember any of it now? Only a little bit. Did it make me a better scientist and analytical thinker? I doubt it. One thing I do remember is how learning through memorization felt futile and made me question whether or not I wanted to continue studying science.

Chlorophyll? More like borophyll!!

Unexpectedly, studying ancient history initially inspired more critical thinking than the sciences and gave me to skills to analyze arguments. Why did historical figures act in certain ways? What was life like in Athens during the Peloponnesian War? How did the assassination of Caesar affect the development of the Roman Empire, and would our world be different today if he had not been murdered?

File:Cesar-sa mort.jpg

Caesar, you devil! You got me interested in science!

These questions fascinated me, and I started thinking critically  about how to answer them and suitable methods to test them. What evidence is available? How reliable is it? What assumptions were the interpretations of history based on, and are the assumptions valid? After questioning these sources, I began applying this method to my scientific interests, and science sank its talons into my brain. So why can’t science classes stimulate students the same way? After all, the scientific method is a thought process; one makes observations and weighs evidence to judge how or why something occurs. But this is not the process that many science classes use.

A common argument for emphasizing memorization is that scientists need a strong basis in broad scientific knowledge to understand the field. One must understand the foundations before identifying knowledge gaps and being able to delve into more complex questions. In my experience however, this approach leads to a pedantic, uninspiring teaching style.  College-level science classes (especially introductory classes) are typically lectures with hundreds of students. Questions are allowed, but not often encouraged.

As a student, intense memorization and passive participation is boring. Of course, it is necessary to learn that photosynthesis occurs and that enzymes perform all kinds of functions in our bodies. However, this ignores the key ways that students become interested in a field of study: through personal connections or by working directly with it. For example, I’m interested in water quality because I traveled to India and saw firsthand how drinking unclean water makes people sick. My work experience with water treatment reinforced my belief that this was a worthwhile endeavor. My dissertation project grew out of a Peruvian doctor’s interest in figuring out why so many people were dying from gastric cancer. When one is interested in the subject matter, they learn more easily.

So, WHY are so many science classes (especially at the introductory college level) so ineffective at sparking interest and critical thinking? How can we get students excited about their science education and how can we make their experiences better and more thoughtful?  What are some of the main barriers to improving science education, and what can be done about them? While these problems affect science education in middle and high school as well, my focus is on college-level classes. 

Lack of training

Too frequently, researchers do not have to have the necessary teaching experience to land faculty positions. Most professors have PhDs in their area of expertise; they understand that field better than most other people, but they don’t necessarily know how to communicate it to non-experts. Their research credentials do not translate into teaching credentials. Furthermore, there is a lack of institutional support for training; faculty consistently cite lack of time, training, and incentives to support their own teaching development.

Even in introductory courses with excellent teachers, the class size is often very large. This leads to a good deal of the teaching being delegated to graduate student instructors, some of whom may have as little as two days of training before being thrown into classrooms. This lack of training stems an academic culture that incentivizes research success over education outcomes.

Lack of Incentives

Science faculty surveyed about teaching thought that the most important way to improve undergraduate education was through better teaching. Despite this, these same faculty members admitted that they would be more likely to promote fantastic researchers, even if they do not have any teaching experience!

As in a number of other academic disciplines, antiquated, ineffective educational practices proliferate. Due to insufficient incentives to change, the status quo continues unabated. Universities typically do not reward faculty members who promote innovative teaching methods. Innovative educators must also contend with students who are conditioned to memorize and are afraid of analyzing critically. These students may push back against changing curriculum and instruction styles, so innovation may be punished in teacher evaluations.

Most faculty members define their professional identity by their research and publications. Typically, scientists are trained to be researchers, which are considered higher on the professional food chain than teachers. External recognition is earned for extensive publishing and earning grant money; rarely is good teaching rewarded or even acknowledged. This lack of institutional incentive deprioritizes the need to devote time to learning how to teach.

"Despite their personal feeling that education is important, many academic scientists eschew teaching in favor of research. Scientists at leadership positions at top-level universities - despite the university's publicly stated mission of education - direct more funding, awards, and job security to outstanding researchers than to outstanding teachers." From Time to Decide: The ambivalence of the world of science toward science education 
Potential solutions?

Many universities have Schools of Education that train teachers for elementary, secondary, and graduate level education. Faculty members devote a lot of time to reading scientific literature to stay at the cutting edge of their field, but typically don’t do the same for their teaching practice.  Spending a small amount of time staying informed about new and innovative techniques, or learning about best practices in science pedagogy would help improve science education outcomes. Members from Schools of Education should also peer review teaching practices and offer advice about how to improve.

Tying promotions to excellent teaching would help address problems with science education. By offering incentives (tenure, raises, etc…) and other rewards for good teaching, the pressure to both teach and research well would become more balanced. Students should help in this process by evaluating their professors honestly and basing their evaluations on what they are learning opposed to what grade they are receiving. Separating faculty positions (research, teaching, or both) is appealing, especially because in our current system, lecturers are often underpaid and overworked. Unfortunately, this would reduce the chance to learn from renowned experts, which is not ideal either. It may be easier to address the problem by determining how classes are taught.

For instance, all of my lab classes (which I thought would give me experience with the scientific method) were taught by students and focused on carrying out known experiments. This typically involved following pre-determined methods and hoping they worked so I could go home.

However, I did take one class my senior year where I formulated hypotheses and tested them. I wasn’t especially interested in the subject (animal behavior), but this experience gave me a stronger understanding of what it means to gain practical experience analyzing data and testing hypotheses. I finally had to synthesize my vast pool of background knowledge into something simple and testable. This class was small (~9 students), and taught by a professor. The small class size allowed me to work directly with my professor in more of an apprenticeship context where her research expertise could be applied to own my questions. By offering more real-world opportunities like this, students would learn about the scientific method and better understand how to think critically.


Science education needs re-working. A lack of incentives, institutional support, and sufficient training for good teaching has contributed to a system that promotes research at the expense of education. This misguided view leads to dull classes overly focused on memorization rather than critical thinking. As a result, students do not learn to understand  the scientific method or how to think critically, and become stuck in a rut where they may push back against learning how to do so. They learn that science is insurmountably dull and complex – a profession meant for monkish nerds rather than for those who wish to inform us about the human experience.

Disclaimer: For the record, I don’t think that the USA has a shortage of extremely talented scientists; quite the opposite. Check out here and here for a couple nice articles on how the STEM “crisis” may be overblown; they suggest we may have a glut rather than a lack of scientific talent. 

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