When curricula and students resemble oil and water

CU professor and colleagues make cutting-edge efforts on basic science literacy

By Clint Talbott

Water and oil don’t mix, and we need no spirit risen from the grave to tell us that. But relatively few people, even among college students in the natural sciences, can explain why.

Here’s one reason: Many scientific textbooks give them the wrong answer and many courses fail to concentrate on the difficult, but fundamental ideas upon which the sciences are based.  Too often science is equated with facts, rather than understanding core concepts and the evidence upon which they are based.

Here’s another reason: Students’ scientific education is usually sub-par beginning in middle school, and it often does not improve dramatically with time.

Mike Klymkowsky, a professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology at CU

To Mike Klymkowsky, the oil-and-water confusion signifies a growing body of evidence that traditional curricula fail to teach students concepts they should know and fully master if they intend to become K-12 science teachers (or informed citizens).

Klymkowsky, a professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology at CU, says the water-and-oil phenomenon (and its thermodynamic roots) is Exhibit A in the case that universities are failing in key respects—such as knowing whether students grasp foundational scientific concepts. Once colleges and universities gain that understanding, they must adjust their curricula accordingly, Klymkowsky argues.

Klymkowsky is co-director of CU Teach, an innovative secondary math- and science-teacher-education program. A collaboration between the CU College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education, CU Teach is modeled after the University of Texas at Austin’s UTeach program.

CU Teach prepares outstanding math and science teachers, who are in short supply.

As the National Academies note, 93 percent of U.S. public-school students in fifth through eighth grades are taught physical sciences by teachers with no degree in the physical sciences. When teachers don’t really understand the science and math they teach, students won’t, either.

The National Academies contend that inadequate science and math education is hindering the United States’ ability to compete economically, and that the situation is deteriorating.  At the same time, many college science courses seem designed to discourage learning.

Clearly, universities are key to addressing that problem.

The first step is understanding what and how students think.  If professors assume students have mastered fundamental concepts and design curricula accordingly, Klymkowsky contends, many students are bound to come away befuddled and often turned off by natural sciences. He suggests that professors start from the beginning: defining a course’s learning goals clearly, determining the degree to which the goals have been attained and, if they fall short, reexamining those goals and the methods used to help students master them.

In the case of oil and water, only about 15 percent of chemistry majors taking one test knew that the two substances remain aloof because of entropy.

But among those students taking an introductory chemistry curriculum called “Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything”—or CLUE—about 65 percent understood the phenomenon. CLUE is funded by the National Science Foundation and was created by Klymkowsky and Melanie Cooper, a chemist at Clemson University.

Additionally, Klymkowsky and Cooper collaborate on an NSF-funded project called BeSocratic, which is developing graphics-based, interactive tutorials that respond “intuitively” to students by providing research-based responses designed to help students learn.

The team developing the software is headed by Sam Bryfczynski, a computer-science graduate student at Clemson; they plan to have both web and iPad-based versions ready by early 2012.

Such efforts could lay the groundwork for rethinking both course and curricular design. But Klymkowsky emphasizes that reform is no simple matter, likening it to imagining how one would go about building a living cell. “Getting people to rethink the curriculum is difficult.”

At the same time, some effective means of teaching have been known for centuries, he notes.

“Yes, there’s a better way to teach. We would hang out on the forum and we would be Socratic … but that would be a bit overpriced.”

In the real world, poorly designed curricula can become “unteachable” and thus “destructive rather than productive,” he adds.

“Ideas that are hard to understand, you’ve got to make understandable.”

Members of the National Academy of Sciences and the science education community are critically re-examining national curricular standards, but all too often scientists are ill-suited to the task, Klymkowsky contends. “They are highly scientifically trained but pedagogically naive.”

The problem is most acute when it comes to teaching science teachers, he adds. “Teachers are our most important target audience. They should be the most rigorously trained people on the planet.”

In part, this means ensuring that science students understand difficult concepts such as entropy. “The idea that building a membrane is an entropy-driven process is not trivial,” Klymkowsky says.

The fact that such concepts are inherently difficult to accept can make them hard to believe, he says, adding: “I don’t care whether you believe it. You’ve got to understand it.”

And understanding can be elusive in biology, which involves a host of confusing and counterintuitive ideas, he notes. “The weirdest thing in biology is that you have all these fragile cells in your body, and every one of them has a history that goes back 3 billion years … Well, that’s weird, and it’s unbelievable.”  Nevertheless, it forms the basis of biology.

Basic but non-trivial concepts even apply to mundane, but critical issues such as pharmaceutical side effects. “Why do all drugs have side effects? It’s because they work by binding to molecules, and these interactions are not completely specific—a drug can bind to the ‘wrong’ molecule or the molecule it binds to can have many functions.”  This makes the possibility of side effects in some people and some situations essentially unavoidable, Klymkowsky says.

“If people got that idea, they wouldn’t be surprised when they see these long lists of side effects (on prescription drugs), and they would be more skeptical of ‘chemical-free’ products, since everything is composed of chemicals.”

Such truths underscore the importance of deciding what to teach, how to teach it and how to measure learning, he says. Much science teaching leaves students essentially ignorant about how things actually work.  It leaves students without the key information that makes science intelligible.

On one of his Klymkowsky’s sites (http://virtuallaboratory.colorado.edu), he argues that conventional teaching “all too often accepts memorization and pattern recognition as true learning. … Both student and teacher can mistake this for subject mastery.”

Faculty members, and their students, would be better served by focusing on helping students gain a confident understanding of base ideas, an approach that could help “makes the disciplines less off-putting.”

Mike Klymkowsky gives a seminar at MIT based on the principles of his research. (Courtesy of The Education Group at MIT—http://educationgroup.mit.edu)

One way to facilitate that, Klymkowsky says, is to “be honest. Say this is difficult to understand.”  For example, geology would propose that the earth is more than 4 billion years old and that all organisms are evolutionarily related, but saying it does not make it believable. Understanding the evidence behind such claims is critical.  Yet, he asks, how many people could provide a clear summary of that evidence?

Emphasizing that some scientific concepts are difficult does not mean that all students should be expected to master all difficult ideas, he adds.

Klymkowsky offers reading as a comparison. “Do you want them to read medieval texts, or do you want them to read The New York Times?”

The goal should be neither to persuade all students to devour the letters of Hadrian nor to be content if their reading-comprehension abilities restrict them to trashy novels, Klymkowsky says.

Extending the analogy, he suggests that students should have a clear understanding of where scientific ideas come from, and the evidence behind them.

“People play sports. Are they easy? No. Are they fun? Yes, they are fun.”  In the same light, science is hard, but it does not have to be presented as a mystery.  More thoughtful course design can make it rewarding.

“There’s no contradiction between something’s being hard and fun. But there is no reason to make it harder than it needs to be.”

In the realm of science literacy, “I think the core ideas are hard enough. It’s worth recognizing how hard they are and mastering them.”

While Klymkowky does not pretend to have all the answers, he does hope to provoke discussion about teaching and learning, which he says is not a solitary behavior. Students benefit by being encouraged to “test out” their ideas, with others and with their teachers.

Teaching and learning are, he adds, critical endeavors at CU. “We have a lot of people who are really serious about helping people in the state. We take teaching your kids really seriously.”

That effort must start at the beginning, Klymkowsky reiterates. Paraphrasing Socrates, he says the unexamined course is not worth sitting through.

To learn more about “Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything,” see http://besocratic.colorado.edu/CLUE-Chemistry. To learn more about the BeSocratic project, see http://besocratic.clemson.edu. To learn more about CU Teach, see http://cuteach.colorado.edu. To read Klymkowsky’s recent articles on this topic, see www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article_print.aspx?id=11344, www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article_print.aspx?id=11724 and www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article_print.aspx?id=13071.


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