Teaching science to non-scientists
Parker MacCready & Joy Crosby
In Spring term 2001, I had a really great teaching experience. The class design, and the students, were a bit unusual, but some of the ideas I used may be useful for your class too. Joy was a student in the class. **Her comments are highlighted in this color.**
The Class Topic
The class was called "Sewage, Science, and Society in Puget Sound," and was offered as Honors Arts & Science 222a. It was for undergraduates, about two-thirds of them were freshmen, and was meant to fulfill a science requirement for non-scientists. There were 18 students (20 was my limit) and it was 5 credits. It met MWF for an hour and twenty minutes each day. What I really wanted students to learn was about how scientists think, and about how society uses science to help make decisions. These are over-broad ideas, of course, so we focused on how these issues played out in a single case study: the regulation and science of treated sewage discharge into Budd Inlet, near Olympia, in southern Puget Sound. The topic was a blend of my interests in estuarine circulation, and my belief that coastal and estuarine scientists have to understand the practical applications of their work. The class was about one-third estuarine circulation and biochemistry, one-third sewage treatment, and one-third government regulation.
**We started off the quarter by reading a small article from the Seattle PI about the effect of acid rain damage in the Northeast. Parker challenged us to decide whether or not we trusted the information in the article. We discovered we had all sorts of questions about the environmental research group, the scientific methods, whether or not the results were peer-reviewed, etc. This set an investigative tone for a quarter's worth of questions about the relationship between science and society.**
**Focusing on one large case study from a water body close to home made science seem much less abstract. This allowed us to see how science impacts the intimate details of our real lives -- like what we do with our sewage. Focusing on one study also helped mediate our sense of confusion as we acquired new vocabulary, learned about estuarine circulation and tackled the BISS (Budd Inlet Scientific Study) charts and graphs. Some students felt thrown off by the idea of sewage as an academic topic and these individuals reported enjoying the class less.**
The class was offered through the UW Honors Program, which means that only students in this program can take it. Honors is like a small, high quality, college operating within the University. Students have to apply to get in, and about 10% of the 1500 who do so each year are admitted. What they get in the program is smaller classes, and a better peer group. What teachers get, I found, is students who participate actively in class, write excellent essays, and love to think about ideas. They do not come with much in the way of science skills, although most had taken AP science classes in high school. I did not expect them to do much math. Nonetheless, they were able to read and understand scientific material if provided some background. These students are the government leaders of the future, and we scientists should pay attention to how we can communicate with them!
**And (hopefully) the future novelists, artists, musicians, administrators and business leaders who will shape our culture and help make policy decisions in a variety of ways. Because science, politics, economics and the arts together shape the future, scientists, artists, politicians and business leaders must communicate, and know how to communicate, with each other.**
**The content and issues raised by this course made me wish I had a science background because the application of science is so interesting. We struggled most with interpreting the graphs and charts from BISS.**
The class had a web site for organization, which you can see through my home page.
**The links to other related case studies, regulatory agencies and articles were especially helpful**
For class meetings, we had a structure which repeated every week:
**This repeating structure made for a safe, predictable and well-paced learning environment. Information, questions and ideas built on each other week by week in a very cohesive way as a result.**
• Monday: I or the TA would give a lecture, usually providing background and context for the topic of the week. This was also a time for the students to get a lot of their questions answered.
**These lectures were vital, especially at the beginning of the quarter when we were struggling to understand the relationship between water circulation, phytoplankton blooms and nitrogen levels. BISS would have remained out of reach without the basic concepts provided by these lectures. At times Monday lectures tended to morph into group discussions, and this frustrated some students because we wanted our questions answered so badly. We loved Parker's cartoon drawings and maps. The lectures always had a great balance between visual and conceptual material, which was very important for understanding the three dimensional movement of water.**
• Wednesday: The class had a "Conceptual Workshop," like a lab experiment. For example, we met in my lab in OSB, and we had four tables set up with tanks and dyes for experimenting with stratified water. The students broke up into groups of 4-5, and then we gave them a few pages of written instructions. They had to write down their predictions, observations, and interpretations, as a group. These workshops were more open-ended than typical high-school physics labs. They allowed they students to get the feel for some of the basic ideas.
**Wednesday labs were excellent, one of the best aspects of the class. These labs helped us begin to conceptualize and ask informed questions about environmental systems. They gave us a chance to work together to figure stuff out for ourselves. And maybe most importantly, labs gave students the chance to get to know their classmates. Without the positive relationships built on Wednesdays, the openness of Friday discussions would have been less possible.**
• Wednesday (alternate): On some Wednesdays we had guest experts instead, such as people from the WA Dept. of Ecology. For these the students would do some appropriate reading, and then email a question to the guest the day before they came to class. Their questions formed the basis of the discussion. On one Wednesday we had a field trip to tour the sewage treatment plant in Olympia.
**When I saw these guest speakers on the syllabus at the beginning of the quarter I was not too excited, because so often guest speakers feel more like a diversion than a real asset to the class material. But because we emailed our questions before hand, these guest speakers were very helpful and pertinent. Because by the middle of the quarter when we started having guest lecturers the class had already nurtured a strong sense of suspicion toward BISS -- maybe even an emerging sense of conspiracy theory -- these guest lecturers significantly impacted our perception of LOTT (the sewage treatment authority sponsoring the BISS study) and BISS. Suddenly, scientist and regulators were real people doing their best to solve complicated problems under limiting circumstances. Our final conclusions about the relationship between science and society would not have been the same without these speakers or the field trip to LOTT.**
• Friday: Reading Discussion. The students were assigned readings, mainly from the scientific study sponsored by the sewage treatment plant. The students had to write a paragraph or two, asking a thoughtful question based on the reading, and hand it in at class. Discussions were led by two different students each week, one to moderate and one to take notes. The students were free to organize the discussion as they saw fit, and many different styles emerged. What was really great was to see the students seriously asking each other questions and figuring out answers themselves. The TA and I stayed in the background, and said almost nothing.
**I felt Friday discussions were unique and outstanding. Because different students led the discussion each week, Fridays were always interesting and different. At first it felt strange that Parker and Jennie sat on the sidelines, but as a result the students grappled with our own pointed and difficult questions and arrived at satisfying and sometimes varied conclusions. We covered a great deal of intellectual territory on Fridays, and also did some excellent close reading of the scientific texts we were working with. By the end of the quarter we felt very safe expressing our ideas and opinions and had begun to develop real friendships with each other. It was exciting and fun. I do think, however, that we never figured out how to use the note taker to his or her full potential. The note taker often ended up muted, and we had a hard time figuring out how to pace the group discussion so that the note taker could keep up. It might have been nice to try transparencies or something and make them available to photocopy later.**
"Hey, wait!," you are thinking. It looks like the teacher only opened his mouth on Mondays, and let the students do all the work the rest of the week. That's true, although the class organization was at least as much work as preparing lectures. I based the class design on ideas I took directly from an outstanding book: "Teaching with Your Mouth Shut," by Donald Finkel. He was a professor at the Evergreen State College. The book is thin, inexpensive, and I recommend it highly. I followed his advice, and tried to allow the student to think during class, both individually and as a group, instead of just lecturing to them.
The students handed in four essays during the course of the term, 3-7 pages each, and this accounted for 60% of their grade. I suggested topics, based on the reading. I responded to each with an individual letter, for example:
Very good essay. I appreciate your use of specific data from the text to support your points. I believed your argument that LOTT effluent likely has little effect on wintertime productivity. As you point out, light limitation is too strong then to allow much growth. I wonder what your opinion of the summer months is? Do you think that, at the existing rate, LOTT effluent causes increased productivity in the Inner Inlet? Would it have done so prior to tertiary treatment? While I am glad that you have found out how to import graphics files into your documents, you might want to be more selective. It is much more powerful to give instead a simple summary of results, as you do on page 2: "all the graphs[s] portray that nutrients reach a spike during the winter months." When you do use figures, write captions for them and then refer to them specifically in the text as "Fig. 1" and so on. Make a specific point with each one. If you are importing graphs, it is also useful to put your own annotations on them, such as arrows pointing to features you wish to highlight.
I was somewhat confused as to what you considered your main line of argument to be. Was it that the regulations were too vague, or that compliance was impossible to prove? Or was your main point the, very reasonable, fact that little biological production happens in the winter so that LOTT's input is irrelevant? I did like the sense of balance in your arguments. For example on page 3 where you discuss the uncertainty of the flushing time and its poorly explained relation to water quality. I was thoroughly unconvinced by your statement on page 5 that the nutrients supplied by Capitol Lake "far surpass" those of LOTT. A factor of two does not merit this description, and by spring in your diagram on that page the two are the same size. Also I was a bit confused by your use of the term "nutrient base." Maybe you could have defined it better.
A final note: look up "affect" and "effect" and memorize their proper usage.
Each letter has a word in the first sentence which is the "grade" (excellent, very good, good, fair, poor). The students seemed to appreciate the letter comments. Most of the time the essays had very high quality writing and thinking in them, and were often very creative.
**These letters were a highlight of the class. I had never received a grade this way before, and it made the merit system feel much less harsh and fearsome and more relational. The specific feedback about our papers let us know that Parker and Jennie spent a great deal of time reading and thinking about what we wrote. In addition to the letter, each paper had comments all throughout the margins. This class let us know, in every possible way, that our input and participation mattered.**
The other 40% of the grade was based on "participation," which had to do with how students contributed to the Friday discussions through both their written reading questions and what they said.
There was no final exam. During the last week of class we had no further scientific readings. Instead I had them read each others' final essays, and then we had class discussions based on them. This allowed them to digest the material of the term, and to learn from several of the truly excellent writers in the class. The students said they liked this assignment coming at the end of the term, after a degree of trust had been built up in the group.
**This reading project was a great way to end the quarter. Very rarely do students get the chance to read each other's writing, which makes student writing a very lonely process. These final papers required us to learn about another water body, and the comparison element gave us new questions. We could have benefited from this comparative element a week or two earlier, because we were beginning to exhaust our questions about LOTT and BISS.**
I would say that this class "worked" in the sense that the students learned something about how science is done, and how it does and doesn't fit in with the needs of society. They learned that they can question the results of science. But, more importantly, I would say that it worked in fostering a community of learning. Students, professor, and TA all came to class excited to discuss the topics at hand, and to hear what each other had to say.
**This class worked, I would say, because it achieved at a huge university the quality of personal engagement and friendly environment that one would expect from a small, private school, with the advantage of the resources of a research institution and students from varied discipline backgrounds. We were a community of learning in the very best sense.**