Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

dumbledores_armyI’m back. Did you miss me?

Honestly, although I had been giving good advice to people one-on-one, I couldn’t put idea to computer for a few months there. You know what helped me? Teaching. The idea that I was now about to teach and, yes, influence young minds. I am excited because I am teaching a cool course that I invented that has a lot of hands-on work, tinkering, and active learning.

I was also assigned an extra course: Freshman seminar. You might have one of these courses in your department. It is the class where the faculty are paraded through to give undergraduate level talks about their research. The goal is to get the students acquainted with the department and oriented somewhat. Honestly, it was always a good opportunity for students to take a nap. Being the sort of person who can never leave well-enough alone and wants to destroy terrible and boring, I am revamping the ENTIRE CLASS. I will NOT have a parade of faculty lulling the students to sleep. Instead, I decided to actually orient and prepare these students for the next 3 years of college, science in general, research, careers, and ADVOCACY. Think of it as Dumbledore’s Army for science (I have been re-reading the Harry Potter series – seriously important reading for these dark times). I want these kids to understand how the scientific process works – including failure, uncertainty, and funding – so they can be voices for change when they go back home.

Will this land me on the Professor Watchlist? God, I hope so! Let’s fill up that list with scientists and engineers.

OK, let’s talk about the class. This is what I am planning (list of topics). I have 12 more weeks. I would love your ideas and suggestions on this list.

  1. What is science? It is a method to find the truth. It is not a bunch of facts we make you memorize.
  2. Who are scientists and how do they think? Why diversity of opinions and ideas is important in science. Scientists are not smart because they *know* a lot of stuff – they are smart because they know *how to find out* a lot of stuff.
  3. Why are scientists never 100% certain? Measurement certainty and precision. How well *can* we measure something? What does that mean about truth and facts?
  4. What is an expert? What is the difference between and “expert’s opinion” and a regular person’s opinion?
  5. The importance of failure in science. Why we try to *disprove* models and theories – not *prove* them. Ethics of reporting true results – even if they are “null” results.
  6. Careers for Scientists outside of the academy. Why a science training is the best training for ANY career.
  7. Where does the money come from for science? Federal funding agencies, Congressional discretionary spending, corporations, foundations. How we write proposals.
  8. Dissemination of scientific results. Why do we need to tell people our results? Different forms of dissemination.
  9. Peer review for journal articles. The mechanics of peer review. Peer review of grant proposals. What does it mean to have expert reviews?
  10. How to discover the truth behind something you read or hear online. Reading a science article. Reading a political article.
  11. How to describe something complicated to someone who doesn’t do science. Dissemination of results to the public. Why does the public need to know about science?
  12. Advocacy and being a spokesperson for science. Talking to everyone about science, what it is good for, and why they should care about it.

So, this is getting me through the day (and night, since I am spending so much time working these days!). How do you feel about this? For me, this is grassroots action. They gave me the perfect class to do this. The course is pass/fail and filled with freshmen. I can’t pass up the opportunity to shape these young minds. I love being a professor sometimes.

What do you think? Comment or write a post yourself. I would love to hear from you! To get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button and sign-up.

PS. In case you didn’t see it anywhere else:

Comments on: "Science Advocacy Through Teaching" (8)

  1. Susan Roberts said:

    Amazing idea!

  2. One thing to think about is how the general public consumes information. They seem to want hard, irrefutable facts. Even the slightest amount of doubt gets amplified over the internet, and somehow that opinion has replaced fact. Take for example the vaccination issue, where despite the lack of evidence suggesting a significant link between autism and vaccines – doubt was all that was needed to derail the public’s perception of the importance of vaccines and discredit ~300 years worth of science.

    Also, check out Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It’s available as a podcast, but it reflects on the books and the life lessons to be learnt from there.

  3. 1-5 in one way or the other touch on a subject that philosophers call “epistemology”. One might think about philosophers many things, but epistemology is a good thing, and some philosophers have made key contributions every scientist should know. Falsifiability for instance is Karl Popper’s thing. So here’s my question: does your Philosophy Department have somebody who could give a one hour lecture on the basics and the history of this field? All the way starting from empiricism (and why it’s wrong) over scientific positivism (and why it’s bullshit) to Popper? Skipping Kuhn, if possible? If not, then buy the (truly awe-inspiring!) book “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch, read the very first chapter, and have the greatest fun in the world turning into a one hour lecture. No time for that? Invite me to do it instead, because I’ve done it already 🙂

  4. Great list! Maybe add something about the importance of consistency in scientific truth? If something applies in one case but not in another we need to have a good reason why…and logic & math are excellent tools for forcing our thinking to be consistent.

  5. Minor detail, importance of statistical versus practical significance and how people can use statistics to mislead or lie. Might also include the different types of biases

  6. Great topics – I know this is going to be a very good course!

  7. Wonderful idea! I talked recently to a group of physics grad students about the idea of capturing the essence of how something works — how this is what we do as physicists (probably as scientists in general) — and how this relates to your point #11. I could play a note on a piano and present a table of numbers, sound intensity as a function of time. Or I could more concisely just say “f = 440 Hz”. It may be true to say “f = 440.0003 Hz” but nobody cares. Or maybe I could list the harmonic frequencies and their amplitudes as well. Different audiences and different goals require different levels of description, different amounts of precision. Even different amounts of caveats, qualifications, etc. — as SA points out, this matters when talking with other scientists or talking with the general public. Anyway this is something I’d talk about when talking about what scientists do.

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