Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Does Learning Science Mean Doing Science?

As an undergrad I majored in both philosophy and physics and I have a confession my former physics profs will surely not like -- everything I know about physics, I learned from my theory classes. You see, science classes come in two flavors. There are theory classes where a prof stands in front of the room and lectures and then there are lab classes where for many hours, students walk in ill-prepared and tried to figure out which one of these things we've never seen before is a potentiometer, fumble their way through procedures that yield results that are not even close to what they were led to expect, and then plug and chug their way through scientific and error calculations that frankly mean little to them. I will freely admit that all my experiences in lab classes were a waste of intellectual time and curricular space that could have much better utilized.

The idea is that science is about explaining the natural world and you can't believe it if you don't see it. You learn the theories, but how do you know they don't really work, if you don't test them? Science has two parts -- observing phenomena and accounting for them, science education ought to cover both and so virtually every class in the sciences is paired with a complementary lab (although given today's lab fees, they are hardly complementary).

One of the problems we face in teaching science is that students take no more than the required number of science classes. Study after study has shown that if the science requirement at a school is two science classes, non-science students will take an average of zero science classes beyond the required two. In a world in which virtually every major problem facing our planet has a scientific component, the fact that our educated population avoids science at all costs is a bad thing. And I believe that labs are partly to blame.

There are several downsides to this theory/lab arrangement. The first being that students have a three to four hour chunk of their weekly schedule carved out in order to take any science class. This will take a day from Monday to Thursday and eliminate the entire afternoon and since half the other classes at the institution are offered in the afternoon (about a quarter MWF and a quarter TTh), by taking a science class, you've just weedwhacked twenty-five percent of the student's possible courses for the next semester for each science class taken.

But the real cost, I believe, comes from the faculty side. Labs require instruments and other equipment for which there is limited funds and space and the use of which is more time intensive in terms of oversight. As such, a single theory class that can be held in a lecture hall will require multiple lab sections. This means that a science instructor will teach the lecture course and a couple sections of the associated lab and have fulfilled ALL of their teaching duties for the semester.

At different institutions, people teach anywhere from two to five courses per semester. I teach three per semester with them always intentionally have a large curricular footprint. I teach one at the intro level, one at the second level (which we reserve for standard courses -- ethical theory, logic, history of philosophy), and one upper level funky interesting topics course. I make sure that those three classes cover a variety of topics from logic to ethics to philosophy of science to philosophy of language to history of philosophy. Since we have a small department, we try to be as broad in our offerings as possible.

Science profs, on the other hand, because of their lab commitments, have incredibly small curricular footprints. They teach their one class, its labs, and that's it. If it's at the upper-level, intro students never see them. They teach their one course and that is all.

If you want to see a science professor get angry, just tell them that they teach all those labs to get out of teaching real courses. You'll see faces get flush, veins pop out of heads and necks, and receive a high decibel screed about not understanding how time intensive it is to prepare labs and grade lab reports. They are incredibly touchy about this issue. Maybe it's because it's true, maybe it isn't; but either way, it does mean that there are fewer science classes taught.

And guess which classes are the first to go...the interesting ones that are not needed by majors. The sort of classes that non-majors would be fascinated by. I love to team-teach classes with scientists. I've taught several that look at the foundations of science or at the history of science and they've always gone wonderfully. But whenever I get an idea and find a science colleague interested, it's always a matter of "I need to figure out a way to get one of my labs covered" or "I can't do it because I need to teach the lab." Labs do cost classes, classes that would be more likely bring in non-majors who would then understand more science.

I am not saying there is no place for lab classes. Those who are being trained to go on in science do need training, they need to learn how to work in labs. But there is a difference between training and teaching and the overabundance of labs put the training aspect before the teaching aspect. Most students don't need training, they simply want to be taught about science -- and for most of them they are right, that is what they need. I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class. I tell the students auto mechanics to quantum mechanics, ask me any question. A stunning amount of questions are about science and these are from students I personally know would rather shove an ice pick in their eye than take a science course. Students want to know about science and need to know about science, but are not learning about science and part of the reason is the idea that learning science means you have to be trained to do science, part of the reason is the faulty assumption that all science classes need labs.