Nobel Laureate Urges Fundamental Changes in Science Education Nov 10, 2005
COLLEGE STATION —
According to a Nobel laureate in chemistry, too many college science teachers have got it all wrong, using classroom methods that turn students off from careers in those fields. Instead, he recommends that they borrow techniques from their colleagues in the humanities to stimulate inquiry into and excitement about problems taken from nature.
“Surprisingly, the humanistic approach to knowledge is more consonant with the spirit of scientific research,” said Dudley Herschbach, who is in his first year as professor of physics at Texas A&M University and continues to serve as the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard. “But most college science and math courses, especially at the introductory level, teach that there is just one right answer. Instructors in such courses do not foster the habit of self-generated thinking and questioning, which is the aim of a liberal education and crucial to conducting scientific research.
“Thus, students, especially those who do not major in math or one of the sciences, fail to grasp the rich culture of science, instead regarding it as difficult and abstruse, presided over by a high priesthood of nerds,” he added. “They don’t gain confidence in their abilities to solve scientific problems nor do they achieve a sense of ownership of the subject.”
Herschbach, who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1986, studies complicated problems in physical chemistry, but at Harvard he often teaches the freshman-level chemistry course. His methods there deviate so greatly from those the students are used to from their high school days that they have dubbed his course “Chem Zen.” He likens learning a science to learning to speak a foreign language, so his lectures emphasize acquiring a command of the vocabulary of chemistry, then mastering the scientific concepts that he terms its grammar.
In the classroom, Herschbach uses common-place metaphors or parables to explain complex ideas. For example, one of his favorite test questions involves relating the problem of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together to the second law of thermodynamics. To illustrate the gas laws, he uses a simple cardboard box and asks his students to calculate the amount of air that fills it or demonstrates how to crush a soda can without touching it. Or he may ask the class to calculate the probability that, right at this moment, they are breathing one of the same molecules of air that Galileo breathed (actually, such a probability is quite high, since molecules of the inert gas nitrogen, the main component of air, conceivably may have remained on Earth for hundreds of years, Herschbach notes).
Herschbach’s chemistry labs are structured to promote students’ development as researchers, with each of them required to complete an individual, personally chosen experiment and to write it up in the form of a journal article. His exams offer “resurrection points” — that is, questions missed on earlier exams can receive credit if students correctly answer questions about similar subject matter on later exams.
Herschbach worries that human resources cannot be created instantaneously, but must be nurtured over time. He recommends the incorporation of science and math knowledge into all courses, including those in the humanities and social and behavioral sciences. Other Nobel laureates and college science teachers agree with this approach, says Herschbach, and he refers those wanting more information about such teaching methods or seeking supporting data to this month’s Physics Today (“Transforming Physics Education” by Carl Wieman, 2001 Nobel laureate in physics, and Katherine Perkins, a university physics professor).
Herschbach discussed his ideas for improving science education at Texas A&M’s Graduate Teaching Academy, a program that aims to expose graduate-student teaching assistants to recognized expert teachers. In his remarks there, he urged budding professors to conduct their courses to minimize the didactic, encourage inductive learning and discovery, and to include “some illuminating science” in all courses. He practices what he preaches, not only in his college-level lectures, but also in his involvement with development of K-12 science curricula and to promote public understanding of science.
“Nature speaks to us in many tongues,” he says, “but all of them are alien to human languages. Scientific research is about understanding these messages.”
Contact: Judith White, (979) 845-4645 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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