Reimagining STEM Education
Beauty, wonder, and connection
April 12, 2022
From the editor: As the higher ed community works to support students from Ukraine and other areas in crisis, Mays Imad’s essay, which originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Liberal Education, reminds educators of the importance of bringing humanity into the sciences and other fields of study.
When I was in graduate school, I was preparing for my comprehensive exam while the 2003 invasion of Iraq was underway. My extended family still lived in Baghdad. Each morning, I dialed the Red Cross 1-800 number and listened to an automated message to find out if my family’s neighborhood had been bombed the night before. After determining that my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were safe for yet another day, I went to the lab and sat at the electrophysiology rig—and tried to pretend that all that mattered was my education and degree.
As an undergraduate, I was most intrigued by the philosophy of science and human consciousness. A professor suggested that I read Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Halfway through the book, I knew that I wanted to study neurobiology—to continue to unravel the connection between the “purely” mechanical science of human action and the ensuing bio-logical or chemical relation to emotion. But when I began graduate school, completing my doctorate suddenly felt insurmountable for two unforeseen reasons. First, my undergraduate training was in philosophy, with minimal coursework in basic sciences. Second, the intellectual passion and personal connections of my undergraduate years were increasingly absent, and I found the impersonal approach to my training difficult. From the beginning of my graduate education, the pressure to “publish or perish” and secure grant funding overshadowed the adventure of learning.
When I voiced my disenchantment with the way higher education expects students to prioritize purely intellectual pursuits and research over connecting who we are to what is happening in the world, some of my dissertation committee members encouraged me to become a social worker, suggesting that I was “too nice” and “too much of an empath.” These professional educators, whom I greatly admired for their scientific acumen, seemed to believe that being a scientist and having compassion were mutually exclusive. My parents supported my educational goals, but they too wondered whether I was tough enough to persist against such strong, conventional headwinds.
I stuck with it, however, and in 2006, I graduated with my PhD and went on to receive a National Institute of Health postdoctoral fellowship. Despite my success, my professors’ doubts about my suitability for a career in science haunted me. I experienced what I later learned was a powerful bout of “imposter syndrome.”
When I began teaching, I again faced the dilemma of our tendency, as educators, to expect students to leave the world behind and concentrate solely on the day’s lesson when they come into the classroom. I began to doubt not only the way I taught science but also the ways our educational system has shifted from an integrative approach to learning to one that is overly concerned with quickly testable answers and job placement. Yet, even if higher education is to indeed focus on the pursuit of “satisfied customers,” we must listen to those student “customers” in order to deliver a rewarding educational experience. It has become cliché to bemoan the influence of the profit motive in higher education and to speak wistfully of a time when education was viewed as a self-justifying public good that valued and taught leadership, citizenship, and other contributions to society above employment, but I am here to assure you, with concrete data, that students themselves are bemoaning this loss. Our students want more out of their education than courses packed with content and frequently devoid of personal connection and the creative and collaborative problem solving of real-world challenges.
In 2016, I was teaching general biology at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, when a student described how bored he was in class. At the time, I took his comment as a personal critique of my teaching. The following year, another student, Bree, waited for me after class one day. With tears in her eyes, Bree told me that her father had always said that when she went to college, she would learn about the interconnectedness of life. She had made it to college but felt as if she were learning only dry and lifeless information. When Bree walked into our science classroom, she felt as if she were expected to leave her vitality and curiosity at the door and transform herself into someone distant and detached from her thoughts, her life, and even her joy. She was “disappointed in the dissonant experiences” of her college education. Bree felt that she and her classmates had little opportunity to nurture and “expand their minds.” The compartmentalized world of science made her feel disconnected from the realities of her world.
Bree’s disappointment mirrored my own in graduate school, and our discussions left me wondering how typical her experience was. Did her classmates feel similarly disenchanted? What about science students across the multi-campus Pima Community College? Or students at other institutions of higher education across the nation? When I queried STEM colleagues (locally and nationally) about what they believed their students wanted to get out of science courses, they too often gave the oversimplified response that their students wanted only an “A” in order to get into graduate school or secure a job. Expressing disappointment, instructors often said that during class discussions and lectures, students incessantly asked, “Is this going to be on the exam?”
Although I sensed my colleagues’ frustration, I didn’t understand why a student asking whether information was going to be on an exam indicated that the student didn’t care about the course content or wasn’t motivated by the sheer pleasure of learning. As I continued to question more science educators, I realized that their perceptions of what STEM students want from their science courses and their educations were, in fact, assumptions rather than empirically accurate descriptions.
When I asked my students to describe, either in their journal entries or on anonymous surveys, what they hoped to get out of college, I also expected such typical responses as “to get a job” or “to go to medical school.” Instead, their answers surprised me. One student wrote that the aim of higher education is “to get assistance in the growth of knowledge and understanding of concepts and ideas that help develop an individual.” Another student wrote, “I struggle with a lack of belonging and sense of purpose. Having opportunities to grow as an adult and be more social with others is something I always crave.” A theme was emerging in my students’ feedback—the longing to experience meaningful connections.
So, what do I do when one of my students writes, “I do not think my science education prepared me to be an autonomous and independent thinker,” pleading with me to include more critical reasoning and logic training in a science course? Or, when another student writes that “it is important that we bring social justice . . . into the class, because it already shapes the way we live our lives outside the classroom”?
I began to regularly ask myself, Who (or what) sets my pedagogical framework and, as a result, influences the design of my curriculum? Is it the quest for truth and knowledge, my students, industry and future employers, professional schools, or the scientific community that I respond to when preparing and delivering instruction? Do I have an ethical responsibility to truly listen and accommodate students’ suggestions and expectations, or should I adhere to a curriculum increasingly influenced by industry’s demands and expectations? What might I risk if I don’t listen and respond to my students who want more than rote learning?
I have watched talented, creative, high-potential students walk away from the sciences because STEM curriculum lacks ethical, political, and creative significance. As another student wrote to me, “Life is hard and can be coming on you on some days, and the world feels drab and dull without passion. I wish my teacher knew just how badly some people struggle with the weight of the work and the world as you try to wriggle your way through the tight and unrelenting cookie-cutter format of the educational system.” I fear that such “cookie cutter” and impersonal education may alienate our most vulnerable students. Perhaps even worse, I worry that such education will sell short all of our students by not pushing them to reach their full creative potential.
As a neuroscientist, I recognize that learning is a complex endeavor reflecting the multidimensionality of human beings. Fundamentally, learning (and teaching) entails changing the shape and activity of our brain’s nerve cells. In order for learning to occur, we must cultivate meaningful connections and relationships. If my students are feeling disenchanted by a disjointed educational curriculum, they will likely not reach their learning potential.
For me, it became increasingly critical that I tune in to my students and rethink my approach to science education. The stakes are high for both our STEM students and society as a whole: any educational philosophy that does not actively integrate, affirm, and promote creativity and freedom threatens to model and reinforce conformity, fragmentation, and overspecialization. What might be the effects of professional overspecialization on the world of higher education? By narrowing our curricular pathways, science education risks failing today’s students not only by limiting their potential career paths but also by essentializing science by minimizing or ignoring its broader connections to other disciplines. A narrowed scientific curriculum also results in a lack of appreciation for the essential humanity of science—the beauty it both illuminates and inherently possesses.
As today’s workforce expects, and even demands, highly specialized skills from its employees, educators must guard against the downsides of extreme specialization, including a reduction in the number of scientists capable of critiquing work outside their small and contracting fields of expertise, as well as monopolization of knowledge by those hyper-focused experts. Research suggests that scientists working within super-specialized fields and subfields experience a pronounced level of monotony, resulting in a decline in scientific productivity and innovation. Divergent and interdisciplinary thinking is needed for nearly every major global issue—from climate change, adequate access to food and water, mental and physical illness, and potential pandemics to the extinction of species and even inequality and racism. These challenges will require complex, sophisticated solutions developed by highly trained scientists from multiple disciplines who are capable of drawing from a depth and breadth of knowledge. Our future also depends upon scientists who represent greater diversity, which brings multiple world views, values, perspectives, cognitive styles, and experiences into the problem-solving processes to engender more robust solutions.
Science education must support the development of the whole person rather than just “the scientist within” if we are to prepare such informed, reflective, and collaborative thinkers. My students’ comments repeatedly allude to their desire for more than scientific facts and information. A chemistry student, for example, described his learning as lacking in humanity: “We—teacher and student—really don’t see each other as fellow people or beings,” he writes. “It is taught that we need to act robotic and scientific, without realizing that no matter how methodical we act and learn, we are people dealing with outside influences that affect us and our success in the classroom.”
A holistic approach to science education necessitates that educators cultivate healthy and meaningful relationships between the learner and knowledge, self, peers, professors, and community. For my own teaching, this means highlighting how what we are studying connects both to the course and to the world beyond the classroom. I ask students how the topic affects their daily lives, their peers’ lives, and their community. In a recent class, I used a lesson on osmosis to challenge students to think about where water comes from and what water scarcity is. We discussed the current and predicted water crisis around the world and tied the conversation to learning about the technology of reverse osmosis.
Another way to ignite students’ passion for science is to intentionally focus on the beauty within science and bring a sense of awe into the classroom. During a discussion of my views on the integration of aesthetics into science, one of my colleagues said, “But biology is full of beauty.” I replied, “We don’t teach the beauty of biology—we teach facts and content.” Or, as one of my students, Ana, puts it: “It is not until very recently that I have begun to appreciate the beauty and knowledge found in nature and our reality. . . . There is a difference between understanding and appreciating. While it is possible to teach students both of these through science education, the appreciation is often lost in the academics.”
Comments like these inspire me to intentionally point to the beauty of what we are examining in the course. I bring related poems, songs, or works of art to class. I assign articles and ask students to reflect on what they find beautiful about the topic at hand and why.
Recognizing that integrative learning-informed pedagogies are centered on and influenced by the learner, we must ask what our students expect from their college education. Are students satisfied with the way educational institutions are shifting from idyllic sanctuaries where inquisitive young minds can go to learn about themselves and the world to factory-like institutions exclusively focused on workforce development and job placement?
While multitudes of studies have been conducted to explore factors that affect student retention, success, and employability, student input is missing from the discussion about how colleges and universities can and should be adapting to the changing economic, social, and political landscape. The lack of student involvement in curricular content and development is especially notable when it comes to community college students, who higher education leaders sometimes assume are primarily focused on becoming workforce competitive and are therefore less interested in transformative experiences resulting from their education.
Rather than make assumptions, I decided to empirically investigate what my science students seek from their education. I employed a phenomenological approach that used both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Because I had already collected enough qualitative information in the form of journal entries, interviews, and other student materials, I focused on gathering quantitative data. My intention was not to gather data to run sophisticated statistical analysis or derive mathematical models to solve student persistence and retention problems. I wanted to more fully understand the science students at Pima Community College in order to enhance my teaching to better meet their needs. I developed a thirty-item survey for first- and second-year students enrolled in general biology courses. Students’ journal entries and responses to previous qualitative data informed the survey statements, which students were asked to consider on a four-point Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 4 = Strongly Agree). The survey included statements that examined students’ relationships with their peers, professors, community, and “knowledge.” That final category addressed students’ perceptions and expectations of their science education, specifically as it connects to a liberal education.
A total of 117 participants took the survey. This is what the survey found:
- Engagement and empathy: Students were asked to rate how much they agreed that “in my science courses, I often feel that the materials we’re studying are dry.” Out of those who participated, 41.9 percent either agreed or strongly agreed, while 39.1 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that, “the current state of college science education lacks empathy.”
- Stories and purpose: Students were asked to rate how much they agreed that “in class, having a clear sense of purpose helps me learn.” Out of those who participated, 99.1 percent either agreed or strongly agreed, while 72.9 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that “using storytelling to teach science would help me learn better.”
- Arts and beauty: Students were asked to rate how much they agreed that “I wish my science professors intentionally highlighted the beauty within science.” Out of those who participated, 76.7 percent either agreed or strongly agreed, while 56.4 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that “science classes should incorporate arts into the curriculum.”
- Logic and ethics: Students were asked to rate how much they agreed that “science classes should incorporate logic and critical reasoning skill into the curriculum.” Out of those who participated, 90.6 percent either agreed or strongly agreed, while 84.6 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that “science classes should incorporate ethical reasoning skills into the curriculum.”
These survey responses suggest that educators’ assumptions about what factors motivate students, especially those attending community colleges, are inaccurate and damaging, resulting in misguided attempts to inform science education. The current focus on job placement and workforce development, especially in STEM, may not be well aligned with what our students actually desire to get out of their learning experiences. Yes, students want an education that will help them attain a good job after they graduate, but they also want more.
This inquiry has led me to the following realizations:
- Educators should not assume that we know what our students want from their education. Instead, we should work with our students to make informed curricular decisions that engage and retain them in science fields. Instead of viewing our students as data points or as customers, we should partner with them. Our students hold the answers to some of the more difficult questions in higher education; they are insightful, brilliant, and ready to work with us.
- Community colleges serve more than 40 percent of undergraduate students in the US, and it is critical that any higher education initiatives include the voice of community college educators and students.
- To deliver science content that is meaningful to our students, we must recognize that STEM students want a well-rounded education.
Fortified with these findings, I have begun to re-examine the reasons for the persistent gender and underrepresented minority gaps in STEM. How much of the persistence in the achievement gap is, in part, due to the lack of a holistic, interdisciplinary, and culturally responsive approach to STEM education? What if our most vulnerable and marginalized students are leaving STEM because they are finding it difficult to connect and relate? We need a paradigm shift to a holistic approach guided by a student-centered, culturally responsive, liberal (and liberating) STEM education.
With humanities programs being pared down in the pursuit of STEM curricula, I fear that our students will miss one of the greatest opportunities to develop the means to think critically and creatively—that is, applying their new-found technical skills to real-world obstacles. Equally poignant, however, will be their concomitant loss of opportunity to explore the world’s different perspectives through a variety of lenses—both technical and artistic. Reversing this trend can be both rewarding and cost-effective, leading to graduates who leave college with more personal fulfillment and allowing employers to gain new-hires capable of dynamic problem solving.
While studying for a neuroanatomy exam in graduate school, one of my classmates commented on the beauty of the mechanism of brain development we were studying. His comment encouraged me to reflect on the unifying nature of science. Those accidental moments when science reveals beauty are what prevented me from dropping out of graduate school and helped me remain committed to science. I learned to recognize and appreciate the power of knowing and of discovery, and I saw beyond numbers, equations, and job placement. I began to look for humanity and real-world connections in the subjects I was studying. While preparing for my dissertation defense, I tried describing a neuronal cell to my mother (who is not a scientist) and how each cell contains a world of its own that reflects my own beauty and that of the world around me. Perplexed, my mom said, “It’s like you’re in love.” Ten years later, I was grading an essay on the neurophysiology of the eye written by one of my students, Bryan. I could not stop smiling because of sheer joy. It was like I was reading poetry or a beautiful story. Bryan was in love.
I want my students to experience a pedagogy of wholeness and interconnectedness that allows us to uncover deeper truths about our inner self, our fellow human beings, and our world. Serendipitous discovery is at once the force for inspired teaching and the alluring epiphany behind self-sustained learning. I seek to empower my STEM students to learn to recognize and appreciate that through our interconnectedness, we can glimpse our connection to the eternal and discover meaning in patterns, order in chaos, direction in ambiguity, and enduring beauty in the face of uncertainty.
Download this article with full citations as it appears in the spring 2019 issue of Liberal Education.
Lead photo: Beta-amyloid protein clumps (seen in brown) and abnormal collections of the tau protein (seen in blue) in a brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease.