Changing ways of learning science …

Science. Information.  Educational Technology. Online Tools.  Smartphones. Tablets.

The speed at which we are gathering information and developing tools to work with it is becoming overwhelming … for scientists, instructors, students, and anyone interesting in keeping up with what’s happening in the world.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to get my head around what these changes mean for science, how science is “done” and how it is taught.  I teach college-level courses in biology and environmental science and I’m realizing that we need to grab on to the opportunities that these changes are bringing to us, which means changing the ways we teach.

Here’s a short story of an event that convinced me to really start doing things differently….

At the beginning of a class I teach to college biology majors, I asked students to write down what they already know about the basics of photosynthesis … what is needed, what is produced, and anything else they remember.  This is an approach I commonly take when teaching — I ask a question and give students some time to think about what they already know.  It gives me a chance to get some input from them and see where we are all starting from.  (I don’t like to assume that we’re starting from the same place, since that’s almost never the case!)

Most of the students started right to it, writing and scribbling things down on paper, and I walked around the room to see what they were thinking and who was struggling.  But something caught my eye: two different students independently took out their smartphones and were looking for answers.  Hmmm.  What should I do?  My first reaction was to say: “OK, try to figure this out on your own without help from the Internet.”

But really … why not look up basic facts and information if it’s available?  It’s quick.  We have the capability.  It’s potentially useful.  Why not?

Well, in this particular case I come down on the side of expecting some basic information about photosynthesis to be available from the brain of a biologist.  Biology majors should have this kind of knowledge “at the ready” so they don’t have to spend time looking up everything before moving on to more complex ideas.

But where do you draw the line?  What information should be easily retrievable from our brains when so much is easily retrievable online?

There’s a strong case to be made that what’s happening today will make learning facts less important.  If so, this has important implications for learning science, which has had a tradition of rewarding students for their memorization of facts.  Perhaps what the accessibility of information allows us to do is to focus more on the development of the important skills needed to interact with information … skills that are especially important to scientists (and emerging scientists) … skills that allow us to connect ideas together, solve problems, evaluate data, and ultimately create new understandings about the world.

We know this already, though.  We know that developing these higher-order skills is critical, but we all struggle with how to do it well.  What I see is the possibility of using these emerging technologies to help us learn these skills and at the same time learn about science more effectively.

These changes are already happening in the world of science.  New technologies are speeding up the ways we gather new information and collaborate with each other, and amazing discoveries are happening by pulling together the vast amount of information that we already have and developing ways to evaluate it.

And so here I am.  Online.  Taking one more step to learn how to communicate more effectively in the ocean of information that’s available.