Peer Review, Winter 2005
Engaged and Engaging Science:
A Component of a Good Liberal Education
By Judith A. Ramaley, visiting senior scientist
at the National Academy of Science and professor of
Biomedical Sciences; fellow of the Margaret Chase Smith
Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine;
and president-elect, Winona State University; and Rosemary
R. Haggett, director, Division of Undergraduate Education,
National Science Foundation and professor, Animal
and Veterinary Science, West Virginia University
We live in a period of rapid and complex
socioeconomic change. The forces driving this change are reshaping
the educational landscape in ways that we are only beginning
to understand. Many recent reports and books, including the
2002 report from the Association of American Colleges and
Universities (AAC&U), Greater Expectations: A New
Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, have
explored the implications of these changes and have identified
growing gaps between the intentions and assumptions of faculty,
the actual experiences of students, and the demands of the
workplace. The lack of clarity of purpose in undergraduate
education is the outcome of a complex set of changes in higher
education that need serious attention. Among these crucial
elements are (a) changes in faculty career pathways as well
as faculty roles and responsibilities; (b) changes in the
demographics of the student body and patterns of enrollment
and participation in postsecondary education; and (c) escalating
demands created by changes in both the campus experience and
the workplace that are driven by widespread use of technology
and the emergence of high-technology industries and applications.
In light of these developments, we must
reconsider who teaches, what they teach, who learns, how they
learn, and what our graduates will do with what they learn.
According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, nearly
60 percent of all students attend more than one institution
as undergraduates, and they do so in a variety of ways over
often prolonged periods of time. Increasingly, faculty must
think about shared responsibility for improving the coherence
and purposefulness of their expectations for their students,
not only by working with colleagues in other disciplines at
their own institution, but also by working across institutional
boundaries. Faculty and administrators are beginning to address
a set of common questions that must be answered in order for
the academic community to articulate the broad outlines of
a common set of goals for undergraduate science education.
We must work together to attract a diverse and talented group
of students to the study of science while, at the same time,
ensuring that all of our students enjoy a high-quality education
in which science plays a meaningful role.
What Does It Mean to Be Educated?
The basic skills required for successful
entry into the workforce and reasonable professional progress
are more demanding than they were even a decade ago. In The
New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next
Job Market, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane (2004) argue
that computers are better at deriving solutions than people
when the problems can be described in a rules-based logic
that provides a procedure for any imaginable contingency.
What a rules-based system cannot do, however, is deal with
new problems that come up, problems unanticipated by the program
of rules. Most importantly, computers cannot capture the remarkable
store of how-to or tacit knowledge that we all use daily but
would have a lot of trouble articulating. As Levy and Murnane
(2004) put it: "In the absence of predictability, the
number of contingencies explodes as does the knowledge required
to deal with them. The required rules are very hard to write."
One wonders, in fact, if the rules underlying creativity and
innovation can be written at all.
Increasingly, capacities such as cognitive
flexibility, creativity, knowledge transfers, and adaptability
are becoming the new basic skills of an educated generation.
The Business-Higher Education Forum, in its recent report
Building a Nation of Learners (2003), explores the
"widening 'skills gap' between traditional
training and the skills actually needed in today's jobs
and those of tomorrow" and urges higher education to
adopt new approaches to learning that offer more engaging
and relevant content and experiences targeted to individual
learning styles and needs. In an earlier report, the Forum
identified nine key attributes necessary for today's
workplace: leadership, teamwork, problem solving, time management,
self-management, adaptability, analytical thinking, global
consciousness, and strong communication skills (listening,
speaking, reading, and writing). Those attributes echo the
vision sketched out in AAC&U's Greater Expectations
(2002). In combination, the message is clear. It matters
not only what we know but also how we know it, how we use
what we know, how we work with others who have different expertise
than our own, and how well we respond to unexpected challenges
that we encounter.
What Role Does Science Play in
the Undergraduate Curriculum?
Taught in an engaging and engaged way,
science offers a wonderful vehicle for introducing and practicing
the habits of mind, inclinations, and skills required in today's
society. Science as a subject matter, and as a way of making
sense of the world, is important in its own right. Fostering
a deeper understanding of how science is done, how knowledge
is tested and advanced, and what science can and cannot offer
us must be critical goals of a quality education in the twenty-first
century. In addition, the study of science, when it is engaging
and interactive, is an appropriate and necessary component
of a good liberal education because it offers an opportunity
to practice the advanced skills so important in today's
world--leadership, teamwork, problem solving, analytical
thinking, and communication. We have also learned that changes
that make science more attractive to nonmajors may also encourage
students who might not otherwise have considered a career
in science or engineering to major in a scientific field.
So, from the perspective of the science faculty, improving
science education is both a matter of service to the education
of all students and self-serving, in the best sense of that
How Should Science Be Taught
in the Twenty-first Century?
As in other aspects of the curriculum,
the teaching of science and its place in the requirements
for graduation have settled into familiar forms and patterns
that must be reexamined and updated in order to bring the
content in line with how science is advancing today and what
we have learned about how people learn. They also need to
be rethought in light of what we know about how studying science
can contribute to the development of the qualities of an educated
person and what we are learning about why students choose
to pursue science or decline to do so. The award portfolio
within the Division of Undergraduate Education in the Directorate
of Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation
(NSF) offers an excellent vantage point for examining the
core assumptions that have shaped the science curriculum in
the past and that are being held up and carefully examined
in today's scholarship of teaching and learning.
Enrollment in a class is not a proxy
for real student engagement. Faculty cannot assume that
their students are either engaged with the material or even
really interested in it just because they have signed up for
a class and are paying tuition. Faculty must engage students
in the learning process and recognize the diversity of people
in their courses who differ in interests, backgrounds, cultural
experiences, expectations about their own education, and commitment
to pursuing an education.
Science does not always have to be
introduced in a hierarchical and sequential way. There
is evidence that the careful step-by-step building of a base
of knowledge that usually determines the sequence of science
courses can leave students cold. Recent experiments with the
use of interesting problems, questions, and case studies as
"hooks" to intrigue and engage students suggest
that it is important to build a case for why something is
worth knowing before plowing into it. (For examples of investigative
case-based learning see Waterman and Stanley 2000).
The nature of scientific inquiry
is changing and will allow for changes in the way science
is taught and learned. The nature of science and the
ways in which scientific knowledge is advanced are changing
in significant ways. As this happens, our approach to the
curriculum must change to reflect the new capacities made
possible by advances in science as well as by the capabilities
in new instrumentation and infrastructure. A particularly
interesting analysis of these issues can be found in BIO 2010
(National Research Council 2002). In the future, according
to this report, the scientific disciplines will be shaped
by the following assertions.
New educational tools will have profound
effects on the nature of education and will enable new approaches
to involving students in research, new strategies for introducing
contemporary scientific ideas and theories into the curriculum,
and new ways of thinking about public outreach and engagement.
The revolution in science will affect our goals for learning,
how we approach the curriculum, and how we shape the student
experience, resulting in
- the convergence of the disciplines, with a blurring of
disciplinary boundaries and the emergence of integrative
- the growth of multidisciplinary interest in the science
of learning and the availability of deeper understandings
of how people learn;
- the capacity to model dynamic systems.
Taken together, these advances will allow
those involved in education to model, investigate, and manipulate
"continuous, dynamic, simultaneous, organic, interactive,
conditional, heterogeneous, irregular, nonlinear, deep, multiple
processes" that are difficult to understand and that
are increasingly characteristic of world affairs. The result
will be a revolution in science education.
There are many reasons to offer laboratory
experiences, but there is very little agreement on what we
seek to accomplish through hands-on work and how best to design
experiences that lead to the outcomes we do identify. We
need to learn more about when a lecture is a good idea and
when it is not. We also need to examine when and how to mix
didactic material and delivery with more significant student
engagement with original material or data or simulations.
What do students learn from each of these experiences? Do
we want our students to learn how to do research, what research
is all about, or to develop skills of inquiry? Do we simply
want to illustrate important concepts and ideas that are hard
to get across in a classroom? Do we want to stir the imagination
and show students that science can help them to achieve their
own goals? Are we simply hoping that getting students physically
involved in doing something will also get them mentally involved?
There are a number of ways to engage
students that do not involve actual laboratory experiences.
Active learning can take many forms. It appears clear
that creating active participation in lectures through peer
instruction (Mazur 1997; Fagan, Couch, and Mazur 2002), studio-style
classes where students work in groups (Beichner, forthcoming),
and other active learning strategies can help students develop
the habits of mind that are characteristic of scientists.
Slowly, science faculty are becoming aware of advances in
science teaching and learning and are becoming interested
in applying the same standards of scholarship to their role
as educators that they do to their own research programs.
As new approaches are being developed to record, document,
and make publicly available the results of the scholarship
of teaching and learning, the ideas and commitments will spread
more rapidly. Much of this work is now accessible on the Web
(Handelsman et al. 2004). Now that the work is being made
public, assessed and critiqued by colleagues, and built upon
to create a shared body of experience and knowledge, this
kind of scholarship can establish its legitimacy.
Linking the study of science to societal
problems can prove especially helpful in attracting and retaining
women and students of color. Engagement models also can facilitate
the accommodation to different interests and learning preferences.
Although there is no agreement on whether there really
are different learning styles, most people have come to believe
that there are multiple ways to stimulate the interests of
students in a particular subject and that, as John Dewey argued,
linking learning to life is an especially good way to engage
most students. By the time students reach the postsecondary
level, their interests and learning predilections are becoming
clear. There may be, in fact, good reasons why some students
seek to avoid the study of science or mathematics. They may,
for example, find the objective model underlying scientific
inquiry to be too "cold" and analytical. Or they
may simply be intimidated by the mathematical reasoning required
to understand many scientific concepts. We need to understand
those reasons and provide ways for students who do not wish
to think like prototypical scientists to bring their own interests
and capacities to the study of science. Is science more approachable
and interesting for many students if it is blended with the
study of other subjects or approached through the study of
large societal questions that have a strong scientific component?
Should scientific content be introduced through service-learning
programs that link science to concrete community issues? Evidence
suggests that women and underrepresented groups are more successful
in learning settings that emphasize hands-on, contextual,
and cooperative learning (Goodman Research Group 2002). Is
a community setting a better laboratory for some students
than a virtual laboratory in cyberspace or a campus science
lab? What do students learn in these different settings? What
about these environments fosters both motivation and learning?
A Growing Interest in the Science
of Teaching and Learning
From the perspective of the NSF, we can
see a pattern of growing interest in teaching and learning,
both within individual scientific disciplines and across disciplines,
that extends back over a decade. This work is spreading through
a combination of collaboration among investigators, incentives
at the federal level to improve the quality of undergraduate
education, commitments at campus levels to rethink faculty
roles and responsibilities, and investments in campus infrastructure.
Building from new knowledge about how people learn (Bransford
et. al. 2000), faculty are gaining a better understanding
of what happens in their classrooms and how to adapt the curriculum
both to meet contemporary needs and to respond to changes
in the students they serve. One result has been the use of
new approaches such as Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) (Novak
et al. 1999, Patterson and Novak 2003) and Peer-Led Team Learning
(Gosser et al. 2001).
Although we are far from seeing the widespread
adoption of a scholarly approach to the challenges of enhancing
undergraduate education, this work is beginning to expand
more quickly and we have hopes that soon it will be expected
that full-time faculty carry responsibility for designing
the curriculum, engaging students, and ensuring successful
learning outcomes. This work may take several forms. For some,
it will be an ongoing professional commitment and may be the
core of their scholarly contributions. Some disciplines such
as physics have already taken serious steps to incorporate
research on learning in the discipline as legitimate work
for tenure-track faculty. For instance, there are a growing
number of doctoral programs in physics education. Other faculty
members may simply open up their courses to study by colleagues.
Some may shift their interests from "basic research"
to aspects of educational scholarship in the course of their
careers. At the very least, faculty are becoming more aware
of and informed by discipline-based educational research.
What is most encouraging about the growing
interest in the scholarship of learning and teaching is that
the work has become steadily more rigorous and convincing.
The evidence is mounting that faculty at institutions of all
types are growing more serious about their educational responsibilities
and that they are approaching this work in a scholarly manner
similar to the way they pursue an idea in their own disciplines.
The authors would like to thank the following
program directors in the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education--Susan
Hixon, John Haddock, Herb Levitan, David McArthur, Jeffrey
Ryan, and Jeanne Small--for raising some significant
issues in undergraduate education with us; that discussion
catalyzed this paper. We also thank Dr. Paul Feltovich of
the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition for his careful
reading of our manuscript and for his thoughtful suggestions.
The opinions in this article are those
of the authors and are not intended to represent the official
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