What’s Out There?

Friday afternoon and I was sitting in an air conditioned auditorium with nearly 100 other undergraduate research students from Augsburg and St. Olaf Colleges. We were all well-caffeinated and waiting. Two renowned scientist brothers were set to speak from the front of this glisteningly high-tech room. The hype about this pair was big, and we had been well-primed.

This event was part of our ongoing meetings and events run by a Collaboration for Undergraduate Research and Inquiry program this summer. From Fridays spent eating free treats and drinking lemonade as we discuss effective conference presentations and research ethics to day-long events with “mixers,” it’s hard to know what you’re going to get. In about one out of three sessions do I come away inspired. I was hoping that Friday would be one of those days. In some ways it was… just not in the ways I expected.

Before the auditorium anticipation, we were all asked to read two lengthy articles. After the obligatory moans and groans from students, (who are already working 8 hours a day and probably returning home to study for the rigors of the GRE and the frighteningly complex preparation for whatever life after graduation might bring…) most of us buckled down and at least skimmed the text. Initially hearing that this symposium would feature two chemists, I was skeptical. I have never loved the ins and outs of equations or muddled algebraic formulas waiting to be untangled. I wondered why the focus of this day was so oriented toward the hard sciences. I felt forgotten as a member of the “joke” social sciences and humanities.

When I did reluctantly print off all 40 pages of the articles and sit down to them (armed with a very large mug of coffee,) I was pleasantly surprised. Dudley Herschbach, author of Teaching Chemistry as a Liberal Art and professor of an endearingly nicknamed “Chem Zen” Chemistry course at Cornell, filled his essay with quotations like; “A liberal education aims above all to instill the habit of self-generated questioning and thinking. This habit is essential for science, but too often it is not fostered in introductory courses”(1). In his work as a professor, he aims to make science into a language–a valuable set of communication tools that allow scientists to “read the answers that Nature is willing to give us” (2). He aims for a paradigm shift in hard science expectations–merging the realms of English and Sociology with Chemistry and Physics. In one of his classes, he asks chemistry students to write poetry about the science they study. Though these “sciency” students balk at the assignment in its early stages, many come to fully appreciate it. Herschbach fosters adventurous thinking and a new sort of science literacy. He does not use the traditional grading scale either– sticking to the principle that everyone can get an A and that at least some homework and quizzes should be team-oriented (as is much of the “real world” work in the scientific field.) I was delighted to read about a groundbreaking professor like this one who challenged the boundaries of education and sought redefinition of the “norm.” Dan Herschberg led by example. To me, he’s a leader for social change.

In the second article, Frank HT Rhodes wrote about the same theme of Science as a Liberal Art. Like Herschberg, Rhodes identified; “Rightly or wrongly, the university’s sternest critics see the university as having become a place of narrow indoctrination, required cultural relativism, and fashionable inclusiveness” (26). He too argued for a paradigm shift– one where learning is the focus and measure of success rather than teaching. He spoke of the importance of storytelling and the damaging effects of assessment that is not meaningful for students. He lamented the fact that recent graduates “appear to lack the basic skills involved in oral and written communication and in simple analytical comparisons” (28). As I read, I found myself saying again and again in my head “yes!” 

Because we were asked to read these articles and think of questions we might ask the speakers after reflecting upon them, I expected that the guests would be presenting their scientific studies through the realm of the liberal arts.

I was wrong. Well, at least half-wrong.

I took many notes, but not on the content of the speech. I wrote about everything that was wrong with what we were watching as our heads began to nod and even the professors in the audience began to twitch.

I sit here, listening to a man with white hair, glasses, and a Harvard PhD babble on about photoelectrons and spectra and chemical state quantitative information with a laser pointer and a monotone speech pattern. He has no idea how to speak to those of us outside his field…He is preaching to a room of sleeping research students at a liberal arts college. We are a resource that could be tapped to cross disciplines and think outside of the box. Instead, he bores us into glossed-over audience submission. What is wrong with this picture?

Is this where education is supposed to get us? Is this guy, droning on about an instrument (that probably has some sort of interesting and relatable application beyond the price of the metal pieces he’s currently obsessed with) supposed to be our role model? What does it say about the expectations of studying science at the University level that this agonizing talk is our guideline? 

The first brother ended his talk with “Interesting work is more fun than the things most people do for fun.” This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t leave me any less agitated. Why didn’t he start with that? Why didn’t he tell us why the machines he spent so long describing mean something to him? It isn’t until he is probed by the questions of a Q&A session that he starts to sound even remotely passionate.

He touches on the fact that academia was too narrow for him (despite the contradiction of the stifling academic language he’s used in the past 20 minutes…) I can’t help but feel that he’s sold himself short.

By the time the other brother reaches the podium, I’m fearing the worst–already contemplating how I can escape the middle of my row for a bathroom break (the inevitable awkwardness of climbing over knees and legs worth the promise of escape.) However, this time I am happy to be hooked early on.

This man is a stringbean of a scientist–talking with his hands and looking us in the eye. He has no notes. His slides are relevant and include subtle touches of action. He appeals to our universal curiosity about what’s “out there.” He begins his talk with personal stories from elementary school, and the journey of how he got from there to here. He asks us to consider how lucky we are to be a part of these higher institutions–of the future.

When he speaks about planets, galaxies, dark matter, and dark energy, he talks in analogies and questions. He references pop culture and shows us how science can be art. He asks us to imagine what the world would look like if our eyes were as big as the eyes of the Hubble telescope, and has us pondering the history of planetary orbit. He shows us just how small we really are–but he does not argue that we are insignificant because of it.  Like the articles that we read, he says that “everyone sees science in different ways.” He has me thinking about sense of place and sustainability and what stretches beyond my lifetime.

During the Q&A, the second brother continued to impress. When asked about the practicality of his field of work (a question many of us were undoubtedly thinking about,) he replied that while he studies things humans will likely never reach, his work is important because it gives us a context to where and how we live. Thanks to this second speaker, I saw an article titled Why the Higgs Boson Matters in the New York Times and was interested enough to read it carefully…

The second brother is the one I would want to become if I were a professor. The first is everything I hate about the stereotypical view of “higher education.” Though they probably didn’t intend to, the leaders of CURI chose two speakers for this symposium that represent the extremes on the spectrum of education.

Though this day of high-minded presentations didn’t necessarily inspire me “scientifically” (I can’t pretend to be excited about the structure of Polyethylene Terephtalate,) it did get me thinking deeply about how to educate effectively and what “quality” education really means.

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