Joy in science

An educator's take on teaching science in the 21st Century


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So far in 2017, scientists for the first time edited genes in human embryos to remove a disease-causing mutation, located seven planets 235 trillion miles from Earth that could potentially support life, and discovered 300,000 year-old fossils in Morocco that alter our understanding of the origins of Homo sapiens. For science educators, this era of rapid discovery across so many fields presents challenges about how to keep up with and make sense of the latest developments. But it also offers new opportunities to foster excitement in students.

Paula Cuello, a science teacher in New York, often draws reports from science publications to help convey the real world relevance of classroom concepts. “If it's too abstract, then it's meaningless,” she says. When students can explain what's going in in the world around them using what they've learned in school, she says, “That's when joy can come in.”

Bringing joy into the classroom is among Cuello's chief objectives as an educator — she says that it's too often missing in schools, particularly when it comes to science. Being joyful means sometimes being willing to do some silly things in the service of learning — after all, she says, “they'll remember that stuff because it's fun” — and never taking herself too seriously. “If we lose joy and humility, we lose what makes us good scientists,” says Cuello, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology and became a teacher after a career as a research scientist.

Cuello has found that humility is a trait often shared by good scientists and good teachers. Despite her expertise and experience, Cuello says it's not uncommon for students to ask insightful questions that she simply doesn't know the answers to. Rather than dreading these moments, she embraces them as opportunities. “Saying 'I don't know' is very powerful,” she says, explaining that when teachers acknowledge the limits of their own understanding and then work together with students to discover answers, it creates a collegial atmosphere, building what she refers to as a “partnership in learning” between teacher and students.

Cuello believes that the skills students learn in the science classroom — learning how to read graphs and interpret data, distinguishing between sound research and questionable studies — are essential tools they'll need to become active, informed citizens, whether they go on to careers in science or not.

“Before, teachers were the font of knowledge, but now knowledge is everywhere and we need to teach students how to sift through it,” Cuello says, adding, “You need to be able to tell the difference between good and bad science.” Cuello, who teaches students at various levels, from fifth graders to high school seniors, says that she'll often spend time in class looking up and addressing common misconceptions about a topic as she introduces it, explaining to students, “These are the mistakes that some people make, but we're not going to make those same mistakes.”

Cuello, who comes from a family of scientists and educators, stresses that memorizing facts is less important than developing thinking skills and curiosity. Too much memorization, she says, “makes people think that being a scientist isn't creative,” when, in fact, scientists need the originality to think of approaches and ideas that others haven't.

In practice, this approach includes letting students design their own experiments rather than simply following along with predesigned lab instructions from a book. “You can do an experiment really mindlessly and not get much out of it if you don't have to struggle through it,” Cuello says. This iterative, experimental process is time consuming, but key in reinforcing concepts and the importance of a scientific mindset.

“It takes more time to let kids think,” she says. “They come out with fewer facts, but they have the skills to teach themselves and evaluate sources.” There are tradeoffs to this approach — students studying for the fact-intensive SAT subject tests have to put in extra work on their own, for example — but Cuello feels that the thinking skills students develop are more valuable in the long run.

“At the end of the day, what we're teaching in schools may change completely down the line,” she says. “They need to have the skills and curiosity to teach themselves. It's on us as educators to make it joyful, interesting and relevant.”



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