This month's My Science Story is brought to you by Josh Tycko, a graduate student in the Genetics department here at Stanford. Here, Josh describes why bored students should take their curiosity outside the classroom.
“Josh, why don’t you tell us the value of the gravitational constant G?”
“... Sorry… what was the question…?”
Somehow, I had dozed off in fourth period physics again. This was a common occurrence in 12th grade. How is it that I could stay up all night reading Stephen Hawking’s physics classic, A Briefer History of Time , but then couldn’t stay awake in an actual physics classroom?
I stumbled across two things this week that got me thinking about how we’re taught science.
The first was an ad for a brand called ~~THEORY~~ that takes itself very seriously, but says something laughable:
“Ideas become theories, theories become reality.”
The second was a viral tweet that says something both hilarious, and seriously important:
A kid in a safe environment is curious about the world. They will make observations, they will learn new things by trial & error . We’re born scientists. A poll of 500,000 students found 80% of elementary students were “engaged” in the classroom. However, by high school, only 40% were still “engaged” [3, 4].
A lot of this is due to active and systemic dissuasion from the sciences that’s especially directed towards women and minoritized groups . Amber and Susanna talk about how they handled these roadblocks in their blog posts. Another reason is that science in the classroom can sometimes be...boring.
I think the ad and the tweet can show us what’s gone wrong and how we fix it. Scientific theories do not “become reality," they’re not something to be swallowed whole and then regurgitated onto standardized tests. (Or at least, they shouldn’t be.) But asking “how we know they’re right?” is exactly what a scientist does. What’s the evidence? What techniques were used? Did they introduce bias? Does the data support their argument? Can we ever really be 100% sure they’re “objectively” right? What does objective mean?
This skepticism, creativity, and curiosity, is what makes science exciting.
What can you do as a student who loves science* but is getting bored in class? In my experience, and according to studies  (science!), the best kind of learning is hands-on and personalized. I found that personalized education in college when I asked a professor, Dr. Jim Wilson, if I could work in his gene therapy laboratory. I loved the hands-on learning so much more than the classroom learning that I took a semester off to do experiments in the lab full-time. I had an awesome project inventing a new type of vaccine, so I was motivated to study the relevant fields. That self-motivated learning made me more excited about learning in the classroom when I went back to school.
Too often in science, we’re told to master all the foundational basics before trying to go do scientific research ourselves. One education expert, David Perkins, says that instead we should “play the whole game, just at a junior level” - the same way we learn soccer [8, 9]. I got that chance when I joined a student-run genetic engineering competition called iGEM, standing for the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. We were paired with an advisor, Dr. Brian Chow, who helped us not only do supervised research, but rather to ask our own questions and design our own experiments. Most failed, but a few worked! We went on to win the North American grand prize. We went outside the lab, working with doctors, designers, and bioethicists to understand and publicly communicate the societal impacts of our chosen area, epigenetic engineering. I was hooked. Fast forward five years and I do hands-on epigenetic engineering every day as a PhD student at Stanford.
Josh and his iGEM teammate reading up on molecular biology in 2013.
Why were these hands-on, outside-the-classroom, science problems so much more exciting to me as a student? One of the early researchers of creativity, Jacob Getzels, identified three types of problems that a student can work on :
Presented problems - the student is given a problem that has a known solution
Discovered problems - the student finds an existing problem that may already have a solution
Created problems - the problem did not exist until the student asked their question
Solving a “created problem” is not just personally meaningful - it can permanently change the world around you. This is why science is really, really, really not boring.
If you don’t want to memorize “what”, without understanding “why” -
If you want to solve problems that don’t have answers instead of the ones that already do -
If you want to know who invented math, and you want to know if they’re right -
If you’re bored in science class -
maybe you should be a scientist. You might already be.