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Experiencing the World Around: Still the best way to learn science

By Sally Jongsma

People across the United States are concerned about science education today. Some worry that not enough students are choosing to specialize in the sciences. Many focus on the fact that U.S. science students continue to lag behind those from other countries.

Science teachers at Dordt College have their own take on the situation that focuses less on United States superiority in the sciences and more on responsibly exploring and developing God’s good creation, but they share some concerns.

In his Avian Biology and Conservation class, Dr. Robb De Haan has his students explore the musculature and skeletal structure of cooked birds. The preserved specimens that can be ordered from suppliers come complete with unpleasant chemical preservatives, whereas working with cooked birds is very pleasant—even tasty, says De Haan

In his Avian Biology and Conservation class, Dr. Robb De Haan has his students explore the musculature and skeletal structure of cooked birds. The preserved specimens that can be ordered from suppliers come complete with unpleasant chemical preservatives, whereas working with cooked birds is very pleasant—even tasty, says De Haan

“Kids don’t seem to be getting excited about science,” says Dr. Charles Adams, dean of the natural science division at Dordt College. While it pains him to say it, he says he thinks (public) television, even with what he describes as its secular bias, does a better job of presenting science in an engaging manner than do some school curricula.

Adams believes that students need opportunities to explore God’s world and relate what they are learning to life. Providing hands-on exploration of creation is crucial. In addition, telling stories about scientists, the problems they’ve explored and the solutions they’ve found, may give curious students a more interesting context for learning, he suggests.

Interest in science has always been at its best when connected to experience, as Dordt’s science professors will attest. Agriculture Professor Ron Vos says that curiosity and good experiences when he was a child are what attracted him to his current career. Dr. Doug Allen from the physics department says he was always curious about how things worked, and Engineering Professor Ethan Brue enjoyed problem solving and found an outlet for it in engineering. Physics Professor John Zwart enjoyed “messing around on the workbench with old appliances.”

“I believe that students are drawn to science by the same type of curiosity about the creation that is so common in younger children (Daddy, why is the sky blue?),” says Zwart. This interest is nurtured by teachers or by family interests as the child grows up. “Interaction with creation is what makes good science education,” Zwart says.

“We live in a culture that often has a narrow view of science and yet is concerned that more students are not being drawn to science programs,” says Adams. He believes there is a relationship: if curricula treat science only as a technical field, only “science types” will be attracted to science.

Adams and his colleagues’ ideas parallel those of a growing number of people today and reflect how science education is changing. Educators continue to learn more about what makes effective teaching and learning. And while national concerns about science education today apply to elementary and high schools, they also apply to colleges.

Most colleges and universities, including Dordt, Adams believes, have strong science curricula for talented students who are already interested in science—who need and want the kind of specialization currently offered. The curricula haven’t always been as effective for non-science majors. Dordt’s commitment to training students as whole people rather than specialists means that it needs to be as concerned about how to offer science education for non-majors as well for majors. Non-majors will be the future teachers and parents who help children develop a curiosity and love for God’s creation.

For Allen, good science education needs to be fun. “Boring science is an oxymoron,” he says. “There are so many neat experiments, demos, and problems in each field that can motivate interest.” Active learning happens through labs, reports, and field trips as well as class presentations.

Brue believes good science education needs to expose the mysteries of the natural world all around us, developing in students a passion and desire to unfold the world’s complexities. At the same time, it needs to help students understand the limits of scientific knowing.

Dr. Del Vander Zee and Jessica De Boer

Dr. Del Vander Zee and Jessica De Boer

Partly in response to these issues, partly in response to Dordt College’s last accreditation process, and partly because it’s their job to stay current and be relevant in their programs, members of Dordt’s natural science division are continually asking what it takes to offer quality science education.

“On average I probably spend a few hours per week reading physics pedagogy literature,” says Zwart.

Each academic department at Dordt College asks the question anew when it goes through a curricular assessment every seven years. Faculty look at what has changed in their field, explore what colleagues at other institutions are doing, engage an outside evaluator to critique their program, and consider how students are responding to the program.

Accreditation processes are also good spurs for such questions. They do much more than give a “license” to offer accredited degrees for the next ten years because they require all parts of the institution to take an in-depth look at their programs. They also offer a professional evaluation by other experts.

The last North Central accreditation process confirmed some things that Dordt College science professors already knew: meeting the needs of non-science majors and keeping up with scientific and technological developments for majors will mean making periodic changes—tweaking curricula, adding new emphases, purchasing more equipment, continuing to change some of the ways we teach. Those, in turn, will put new demands on facilities.

“This realization pushes us to discuss how our view of science teaching can be enhanced by or expressed in the facilities we have,” says Adams.

Fictorie, who graduated from Dordt’s chemistry department in 1990, describes the kinds of changes that have occurred between his student and professor years.

“Classes were lectures accompanied by working problems, and labs were ‘cookbook labs,’” The term “cookbook labs” has come to refer to labs that are very structured and have a specific result. Students who follow the procedures correctly get it right. Fictorie isn’t running down his chemistry education, and, in fact, believes there is a place for these labs alongside a broader, more experiential style of learning. But teaching has changed. Today, he uses many demonstrations that used to be left to labs, melding the line between classroom and laboratory and creating different demands on his classroom space. Chemicals and equipment that were previously only used in the lab now need to be transported to a classroom that was built primarily as a lecture space. Labs that were built for individualized structured learning, now need to be used for more group work and learning.

Fictorie emphasizes the value of interaction and collaboration between students. He likes to use a method of peer instruction he learned from physics educators. He puts a multiple choice question on an overhead. Students work out their individual answers, and then once they find out they had different answers, try to convince each other of their answer’s validity.

“If it’s a good question not all students will have the same answer, and they will have to explain why they arrived at the answer they did,” he says. Teaching or telling others always helps imprint an idea more firmly in students’ minds, he believes. Working in groups in class is more difficult in spaces with permanent lab tables set up for individual work.

Fictorie and his colleagues’ labs are also more collaborative today and more open-ended as they attempt to more closely model actual experiments and research. Instead of being asked to follow a procedure to figure out the percentage of an unknown compound in a liquid, Fictorie may ask his students, for example, to confirm that the bottle of three percent hydrogen peroxide he gave them actually has three percent hydrogen peroxide. Students need to both devise a procedure and do the experiment. These kinds of activities, Fictorie believes, are valuable because they use the kind of empirical, inductive reasoning scientists need to use in research. They work best in open, multi-use classroom/laboratory spaces.

Other changes and expectations in today’s culture affect learning, too, say science professors. Experts and instructors are realizing that humanizing lab and study spaces leads to better working and learning. Adams is not surprised by this trend and believes it makes sense because of the way God created people to be whole beings, even when they engage in specialized study.

Biology Professor Delmar Vander Zee says that students are always going to have to make the real connections between the various parts of their education, but curriculum and facilities contribute to that process.

“‘Talking and doing’ is the most effective way to teach,” says Vander Zee. And more and more institutions are finding that providing spaces for students to work together on lab projects to study together with ready access to research data, computers, and resources, and to meet easily with faculty and fellow students encourages students to use the space and creates a better learning environment.

Dordt’s science professors will continue to improve and challenge one another, in their efforts to give their students what they believe is the best science education they can offer. They also continue to dream about new ways they can help students understand how the good creation God made can be better understood and cared for.