This blog is a collaborative effort between the Foundation for Student Science and Technology (formerly the Canadian Young Scientist Journal) and Science.gc.ca. Our aim is to offer an interactive platform where Canadian students can talk about their passions, challenges and ideas on how to further pursue scientific interests and education. We welcome new contributors -- if you are interested please contact us at information@science.gc.ca.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Education must meet current realities

Originally Published: October 21, 2013
By Ankita Saxena

With the still relatively shaky economy, it’s become commonplace to mock study of the arts. Often considered a waste of time (“The only thing my parents think is worse than an arts degree is a MRS degree!”) and mocked as a ticket to unemployment, the arts and humanities have taken a beating. At the same time, STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics) has become a major buzz term in the past years. Articles extolling the virtues of STEM, implicitly  (a focus on the high base salaries of engineers) or explicitly (editorials lamenting the dearth of students in the sciences) have become a mainstay.

This is not an issue in of itself. It is difficult to deny that STEM, as a general phenomenon, has played a role in many positive developments, from the minutiae of people’s lives to larger economic booms.

The issue comes about when misinformed students base their perception of an extremely broad group of fields on their experiences in high school science classes. Budding scientists are pushed away by what appears to be a dreary life of rote work, while those who may be better off in other fields stick with it. Given the rather ‘focused’ nature of many university programs in Canada, which provide little room for exploration, such a move can be costly and time consuming.

Students are not at fault here: we tend to generalize and assess on what we know. Instead, the issue lies with the current model of education. School science work is neither interesting nor representative of what happens ‘on the ground’.

Biology, in most classrooms involves the memorization of a litany of facts. Molecular biology has it in abundance: mitosis, meiosis, the dreaded cell respiration, with its 6 and 3 and 2 carbons and of course, photosynthesis. Human systems, the other cornerstone of most classes is worse. Fill in the blank diagrams reign supreme and there are numerous anatomical features and processes to cram. Add in a few easily ‘repeatable’ labs and you have the typical introductory high school biology class.
What similarity does this pile of busywork bear with actual scientific research, or even work at a pharmaceutical company or hospital? That’s not to say we should entirely ignore this important essential information – a doctor who doesn’t know anatomy is not much of a physician, but what is stopping us from adding more inquiry or application based labs and activities? Achieving success on a timed test, often multiple choice, is typically the final focus of many classes. What is often overlooked is that said test is truly a ‘false obstacle’. It is primarily imposed during secondary and early university education or general artificial learning environments, not in the workplace. Evaluations are standard, sure, but they assess one’s ability to do a job, or in other words: solve a problem or meet a need.

Thus, instead of having students do a tonne of outlining and subsequent assessment, why not have them do an inquiry based project on a related topic that forces students to look for and examine alternative sources and ultimately write a report? With the internet, there are a variety of free resources available. If one wants to relate biology, to say…computing, one can find a software that traces the evolutionary history of a gene, or attempts to model protein-protein interactions. Not only does this make the class far more interesting, but it also helps students to build skills that are generally useful. It also has the benefit of flexibility: advanced students can use class time to explore further, instead of simply being told “we’re not covering that”.

This would, of course, have to be followed up by commensurate changes in assessment. It is likely impossible to get rid of standardized tests as a whole and indeed, they can play a beneficial role in combating inflation. However, standardized tests can be made more ‘competencies’ or ‘skills’ based – the emphasis will be on applying knowledge and being able to think critically over pure content. Though it may sound difficult, the Collegeboard, a United States based organization responsible for administering the Advanced Placement (high school courses for university credit) exams recently reformed their Advanced Placement Biology curriculum so it better reflected the skills needed for studying biology.

Changes were made after consulting with university professors and the required content (which used to be most of a thousand page textbook) was cut and more written questions added. Though students did noticeably worse, with the percentage of “Extremely well qualified scores” dropping significantly, there was almost universal agreement by experts that the new exam was a superior assessment. And while this post happens to focus primarily on biology, a similar approach can be and indeed, has successfully been incorporated in other fields as well.

Furthermore, opportunities for students to experiment and explore industries by  interning or working in a structured program should also be promoted. Even if the job doesn’t turn out to be a good fit, an individual will still have a better idea about what fits for them and what does not. While such programs do exist (Heritage Youth Research Summer Program from Alberta Innovates, the McMaster 6 week research summer program) they are rare and mostly centered around academic institutions. Exposure to the realities of the workplace may also prove to be influential in changing attitudes to other non science courses- after a week onsite, it will be difficult for a future engineer to call English ‘useless’

Ultimately, if Canada is going to produce the crucial STEM workers and better situated citizens as whole (a population which includes arts graduates!) attitudes towards science education and perhaps teaching as a whole, will have to change. Content can be picked up when the time calls for it, but essential skills are harder to teach.

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