05 April 2006

On Science Education (or: I Want To Be PZ Myers)

I have a confession to make. (Yes, another one.) I want to be PZ Myers when I grow up and finish my PhD. Well, a sort of watered down version of him anyway. I'm not so sure about the whole agressively godless thing. And I can almost certainly do without the cephalopod fetish.

Ok. So I don't really want to be PZ. I just want his job. Or one a lot like it. I like doing research. I enjoy new problems, and I love finding solutions. But I also like to teach - I really enjoy it - and professors at research universities just don't do enough of it for me. Most of the professors in my department spend a quarter or less of their time in the classroom. I want more time working with undergraduates than that.

That's the big advantage that I see in teaching at a liberal arts college instead of a research university. The smaller schools exist to teach. In the research universities I've seen, the undergraduates may be the excuse for having a department, but the departments exist to do original research. Teaching seems to come in second as often as not.

Here's the thing, though. To get to the point where I'm reasonably qualified for a position teaching in the science department at a liberal arts college, I need to complete a PhD in the sciences. The PhD program I'm in is, like most others, entirely research focused. This means that the expectation is that the grad students will put most of their time into their research, take only classes related to their research, and do as little teaching as possible. We're required, at least in theory, to have one year of teaching experience before graduation. It is uncommon for students to TA for more than a year unless they can't find any other source of funding. Many advisors actively discourage their students from taking classes that are interesting but unrelated to that student's specific research area.

My department is not atypical in this regard. In fact, the majority of the faculty have been very supportive of my desire to get more teaching experience. Several of them have helped me with questions I've had about teaching, and in improving my skills. Ultimately, however, I am a student in a program that's designed to produce researchers. It is definitely not designed to produce educators.

So how does this tie in with science education?

As Janet pointed out in a post on her blog earlier today, the folks who teach science at the K-12 grade levels are not usually people who majored in science. They are people who took some science classes in college, but most majored in education. Of the fraction that completed an undergraduate science major, few have done any graduate-level work in science - which means that few have had substantial exposure to the practice of science.

Once a student reaches college, they get to take science classes taught by a real, live scientist. That's someone who has finished a PhD in their field, conducted original research, and knows how the scientific community functions. Their graduate program was almost certainly like the one that I'm in - focused on producing the next generation of researcher.

To put it another way, the people who teach students science before college have lots of training in education and little in science, while those who teach student science in college have lots and lots of training in science, but little to no formal training in education.

I'd like to go out on a limb here, and suggest that this situation is absolutely insane. It's bloody stupid. Look, and education degree is fantastic. If I've learned one thing from TAing the last two semesters, it's that teaching is a hell of a lot more difficult than it looks. Being able to effectively teach a subject requires much more than knowledge of the subject. To teach well, you have to be able to structure the course appropriately, present the material at a reasonable rate, present the material in a way that can engage at least a few of the students, write exams that actually test what you teach, explain why an answer is wrong instead of just saying that it is - and that's just a partial list. But you do need to understand the material.

The current system is set up to produce people who are skilled in either teaching or science. It isn't set up to produce people who are trained in and good at both. That needs to change. If we are going to have any hope in fixing science education in this country, we will need lots of people who can do both.
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