I watch the clock while eating a banana in the Student Center. It’s my first semester in college, and 1pm is approaching way too fast. I swallow a last bite, pack my stuff, and join the mass migration of college students heading to afternoon classes. My stop is 2144. Biology lab.
Today we’re investigating the fat content of different foods. We have brown paper towels and selected bits of edibles—cauliflower, yogurt, cheese, banana. My stomach grumbles, having not finished lunch, but I don’t dare eat anything in the lab. We watch as the professor shows us how to smear food across the paper and look for the resulting translucency that signifies fat content. My team goes to work smearing food and recording our findings. Unfortunately, our records don’t match the “correct” results on the professor’s answer key. We lose points for reporting deviant observations. Hastily we scribble out our findings, and instead write down the textbook answers our instructor provides. Our grades restored, we hand in the report.
This is an extreme example of a pattern I’ve noticed in all my introductory natural science classes, which are structured in a way that encourages students to memorize facts and vocabulary but discourages actual exploration. In other words, students are taught what has been discovered through science rather than the process of science itself. In biology lab, my team was punished for our unexpected yet honest results, and then rewarded for our textbook answers. Contrary to the spirit of science, we were taught conformity rather than curiosity.
I understand that an education in established scientific knowledge is important. Without it, how would students know where to push the boundaries? But this sole focus on known facts can destroy the natural appeal of learning for me.
Students should be allowed to explore. Even when rediscovering the most basic of facts, at least students will gain a sense of accomplishment and experience to associate with the new knowledge. In non-science classes, I’ve had professors provide suggestions about the “right” way to do things (about the scope of a project, about tricky yet labor-saving software), but they allowed me to go about exploring on my own. Sooner or later, I came around to seeing things their way, but it happened in a natural process that made me feel as if I was discovering the knowledge on my own. I worked through the problems, devoted more brainpower to the task, and retain this hard-won knowledge better than I would a sterile, impersonal fact.
Science is about pushing the boundaries, questioning the status quo, and systematically exploring the unknown. Science classes—especially introductory ones—should reflect that.