PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Matthew J. Saderholm
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
I wake up every day thankful I am paid to think about and pursue science. Therefore, I was quite dismayed when in my first year of undergraduate teaching I found that not many of my students shared my inherent excitement about science. Over the past five years, I have matured as an educator and scientist and now have a more realistic vision of a future in which all students achieve scientific literacy. Fortunately, I don’t believe my initial naïve view that everyone should be excited by science has changed much. If anything, I believe I am now even more optimistic because I am beginning to see a path to this bright future. In this statement, I will attempt to describe both my vision of successful integration of STEM learning into undergraduate education and my understanding of the process by which this vision could be achieved. As I am a scientist, my focus will be on science education.
My initial bleak assessment of the overall interest in science both from students and society in general is unfortunately realistic. Most people are intimidated by scientists and convinced that science as it is taught in secondary and college-level courses is too difficult to be worth the effort. However, I am realizing that this need not be case. I believe most people who avoid “science” do so because of two reasons: either they are predisposed to avoid it because of the bad reputation it has received or when they take a science class, they find their personal learning style is not compatible with standard science lectures. To raise the level of scientific literacy in this country and turn more people towards scientific careers, we need to tackle both problems. First, to change the reputation of science, we need to add more positive, fun experiences with science early in children’s education. By convincing young children that science is both fun and worth the work, these kids will be more willing to put the effort into science later. Secondly, science classrooms really do need to change. We as science educators need to find new ways to motivate students to succeed without compromising the goal of building mature and scientifically-competent graduates. We can do this by incorporating the learning model developed during the past fifty years of pedagogical research.
These changes will not come easily. While teachers may be very compassionate and competent in their field, low pay and poor high stress keep most science-oriented people out of K-12 teaching. I can’t change the wages and working conditions of teachers but my colleagues and I can offer children fun and exciting scientific learning opportunities and act as resources for teachers interested in showing kids how enjoyable and relevant science truly is. Science is all around, and by engaging kids with the popular science they see on television, it will become more real and accessible for them. Examples of this would be working with DNA through PCR/DNA sequencing and forensics through advanced mass spectroscopy methods. Secondly, changing the teaching styles of college science professors will not come easily. Most of us gravitated towards science because we found its structure satisfying and because we could succeed in lecture-based learning modalities. To change how science is taught, we must take the time to learn about learning and seriously reflect on how well our teaching styles overlap with student learning styles. We must show students that science is more than just frantically writing down formulas. By using more collaborative projects in which students become researchers, we will engage more students and welcome them into the community of science.
I have attempted in this statement to address some of the big-picture obstacles to the serious integration of science into mainstream education. I believe changes must be made to both encourage young people’s positive attitudes towards science before college and facilitate more effective learning in college. When kids are receptive to science, they will see its integration into society as a whole. They will see the inherent interdisciplinary nature of science. They will recognize the value of research and see new applications for technology. With the right attitude and of course, proper STEM education, everyone can move mountains.