This is a guest post by Naima Montacer, who just finished her first semester as an Adjunct Biology Professor at Mountain View College in Dallas, Texas. To learn more about her wildlife and environmental adventures, visit her website at EnviroAdventures.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sex, evolution, embryonic stem cells, Ebola, sexually transmitted diseases, genetically modified organisms, and gene therapy. What do all of these controversial issues have in common? Biology 101. For the last four months I’ve navigated these rough waters in my first semester as a college professor and emerged with my eyes wide open.
After one semester, three major things became apparent:
- Every single adult needs a biology refresher.
- The single most difficult, yet important, thing we teach our students in biology is discerning between accurate scientific information and crap.
- Students resist studying hard, improving their study techniques to get a better grade, and giving it their all.
I have been in the professional science field as an educator for about eight years but haven’t been close to all things biology during that time. Returning to the material, I realized just how quickly science changes. It was a rush to find new and upcoming material to present my students that took our learning to the present. I was enlightened by the material I was teaching. It forced me to brush up on my base knowledge to properly understand the new discoveries and how they affect us today. I started bringing this material up to friends and realized just how vital a basic understanding of science is to comprehend, question, and discern the news.
Teaching this semester, I realized change and progress aren’t easy to understand. Science changes, we do the best we can with the current knowledge we have, and when we learn new material, we change our actions.
I often use the metaphor that teachers are dragon slayers. We bring our knives and swords (teaching tools) into the classroom and deliver quick creative maneuvers to slay the dragons (previous understanding). The dragons are big, powerful misunderstandings of the world that seem to be cemented in minds. Students come with previous knowledge that requires a breakdown of the source to build up new knowledge. And that’s not easy. You are not just teaching new material; you are breaking down to build back up.
This semester a special opportunity presented itself when the first Ebola victim in the United States landed just 20 minutes from our campus. The news was in a frenzy, causing the general public and students to be extremely fearful. The misinformation was disheartening but students had not been taught to decipher, investigate, and think about the material presented in the media and from their peers. If they can’t learn this in biology class, when will they learn it? For weeks I engaged in all things Ebola, breaking down why radio and television sensationalize material and how our human culture pushes the perpetuation of fear. Ebola is a serious virus capable of killing quickly, but knowing the science is important.
And then it got even more complicated: pharmaceutical companies, drug development, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and more questions. I diligently researched their questions and returned with answers. But my research from credible sources was hard for students to value over the opinion leaders in the news. I was trying to slay dragons.
General biology for nonmajors: This is quite possibly the only opportunity students have to gather a basic grasp of what science is, how it works, and how it affects their lives and impacts their future decisions and votes. I realize this is far stretching, but is it? Some of my students were home schooled and were never taught evolution; many asked deeply personal questions during our sexual reproduction section. One of my students, with three of her own children, said she learned more about pregnancy and birth in class than in her three labors. Yet, they still were not motivated to study long hours, quiz themselves, memorize terms, and complete mind maps. I know these students because I was this student. In my early college career, I was going through the motions. A tutor wasn’t going to help me, because I did not sit down and study. I know where their minds are at, but I want them to be better than I was. In the end, I came back to science to learn the material I passed over. They are going on to careers in the arts, public justice, and will not have the basic understanding.
I thought about this during the semester constantly after many failed attempts to motivate them. (Side note: if you are having a rough day, Google “biology memes” – borderline inappropriate but hilarious memes about students and biology that will get you through a rough time). I realized that if I can’t get them to study the material, their grade will reflect that. I am going to focus on the underlying foundation of science. Curiosity. The first step in the scientific method is observation. As kids, we are curious about everything. My nephew constantly inundates me with “why is this tree green?” and “why does it have blue berries on it?” I consistently try to answer and question his own questions to continue his thought process.
Ding Ding! I should treat my students that same way. I want them to think like scientists from here on out, no matter what field they go into. How do the cells in my body work, why should I know this, how can one person have two different eye colors, how is Ebola spread? I relished their questions, displayed sources of where to get accurate information, and this perpetuated questions. I want you to be curious. I want you to question the material we are learning and the information you gather from your news sources as well. Do some digging, become confident in researching and understanding science.
In the end I didn’t slay the study dragon, breaking down bad study habits and replacing them with hard-working, motivated students. I did see more questions and curiosity as the semester progressed. I hope students carry on their curiosity into the real world and question their own understanding of science and how it relates to what they hear and process everyday.
Fellow science teachers, keep slaying dragons! The world is a better place for it.