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Teaching Science to Nonscience Majors

Clips of James Bond movies are unlikely to find their way into science lecture halls, unless the teacher is Edgar Moctezuma and he's teaching about medicinal plants. To convey the concept of drug dosage, Moctezuma shows his 200 undergraduate students the scene in Casino Royale in which Bond almost dies after being poisoned by a high dose of Digitalis purpurea, a plant extract used to treat heart disease.

"Really, for this class the sky is the limit, and you can be as creative and as innovative as you want." --Edgar Moctezuma

For people like Moctezuma, whose focus is on teaching biology courses to nonmajors, there is no well-trod career path, but most people with a focus on such teaching share a desire to promote scientific literacy. Conveying the importance of science, the excitement of science, and some real scientific knowledge to students with no vocational interest in science requires a blend of particular skills and wide-ranging interests, and often creativity in establishing a career. "My main goal is for [the students] to have an appreciation and better understanding of plants and of biology in general," says Moctezuma, who joined the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2003 as an instructor.

A challenging audience

More About Science Education

Read more about science education this week in Science magazine's special feature, "Science, Language, and Literacy".

Nonmajor classes draw students from the humanities, arts, social sciences, journalism, law, and every other discipline. Students may be enrolled because they're deeply interested in the subject or because general education requirements force them to attend. They may have extensive, relevant training or none at all, because such courses rarely have prerequisites. Teachers of such courses must surmount all of these challenges.

At Vassar College, a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, physics professor Cindy Schwarz realizes that she can't take student interest for granted. So in her Physics in Motion course, she sends students out to make videos of moving objects. Back in the classroom, students study the videos, think about concepts in classical mechanics, and calculate quantities such as velocity and acceleration. The course, Schwarz says, "is based on things that are around them: How fast does a Frisbee fly, or how does a bicycle slow down when it's going down the road?" instead of "things out of a book that don't appeal to their lives."

The use of video (and other technologies) is common in such courses; indeed, the cinematic experience of Moctezuma's nonmajor students isn't limited to James Bond films. Moctezuma routinely shows his students science documentaries such as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and the time-lapsed photography movies produced by plant biologist Roger Hangarter, "so they can watch a film and discuss or write how the film relates to the different concepts they would learn in class," Moctezuma says. Moctezuma also takes his students to botanical gardens, where "a lot of the exhibits are set up very similar to the ... lectures that I teach," illustrating topics such as the crops of the world, or different biomes and ecosystems.

Nonmajors are likely to be interested in the intersection of science and society, Moctezuma says, so he often uses case studies and organizes debates on topics such as using medicinal plants and trying to protect the forests they're extracted from. He throws in the occasional joke and uses models and props to help students understand and remember scientific concepts.

(Courtesy, Edgar Moctezuma)
Edgar Moctezuma

Professor emeritus Timothy Goldsmith of Yale University's Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology says that in order for such courses to succeed, teachers need to discover what "students are bringing to the class both in terms of prior knowledge and individual interest." The objective is to relate the science to their knowledge and interests, says Goldsmith, who taught a nonmajor course on the biological roots of human nature for more than a decade, assigning essays in which students considered, for example, what a gene is and what it does. In one of those courses, an English literature major wrote an essay in iambic pentameter. "We loved it because she had used language knowledge from her own major to describe something in science," Goldsmith says.

Those examples illustrate a near-universal theme: Nonmajor students need to be offered hooks to hang their new knowledge on. Yet, rigor is at least as important as providing hooks. It is "very, very challenging to try to explain concepts like mass-energy equivalence ... to students who are not physics students," says Schwarz, who also teaches elementary particle physics to Vassar nonmajors. In her course A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo, she rips the subject free of most of its mathematical moorings, using plain language. "When you can't fall back on the equations, ... you really sort of force yourself to look at things through a different eye," she says. Schwarz won an American Library Association award for a book based on the course.

Teaching nonmajors has much in common with the work of science communicators. You have to learn something about a range of disciplines and social issues and stay current on "what's on the news," Moctezuma says. "I love science, but I'm also interested in other fields, and this allows me to explore some things beyond science and also how science influences and affects many different fields of study," he adds. Also important is not to fall into the trap of thinking it's easier than teaching majors. "There are probably some people who think ... if you can teach classical mechanics to physics students, you should be able to teach motion at a lower level," Schwarz says. "It's actually harder."

A rewarding experience

One great source of satisfaction is the opportunity to stretch out and teach creatively. "There is no single way to do this and no single curricular form that this can take, both in terms of techniques or material," Goldsmith says. Moctezuma adds: "It doesn't really matter what you use as long as they understand particular subjects or concepts, so that's a great thing. ... Really, for this class the sky is the limit, and you can be as creative and as innovative as you want."

Another source of satisfaction is that you can start fresh, Schwarz says. "Because their minds haven't had a lot of the physics formulas drilled into them in high school physics, where everybody is concerned with the students just doing well on the test, they have a better, fresher perspective."

Getting started

(Courtesy, Cindy Schwarz)
Cindy Schwarz

Courses for nonmajors have become more common as scientists have recognized "that science literacy is a professional responsibility of scientists," Goldsmith says. Yet it's hardly a well-trod career path.

Schwarz took an interest in teaching science to nonmajors after arriving at Vassar some 25 years ago, directly after earning a Ph.D. at Yale. "I was at a place that had no science requirement at all, and I wanted to develop a course [for] students who would otherwise not take a single science course," she says. Her goal: When they read about the Large Hadron Collider, she wants them to know what it is.

Posttenure, Schwarz's focus has been on science education -- but she earned tenure on the strength of publications, many of them as last author, in top physics publications including Physical Review Letters. This is important because most colleges -- including many teaching-focused colleges -- require in-discipline research for tenure. Since tenure, Schwarz has published several articles, book chapters, and books related to science education. Today, she teaches five courses, two of them for nonmajors.

Goldsmith started teaching nonmajors at Yale when he was a senior scientist in need of a new career direction. "The department I had been in was split in two," he says, and "I felt like I was standing with one foot on a dock and the other foot in a canoe." The new direction was convenient, "but also I decided it was the right thing to do for the students in the college."

(Courtesy, Timothy Goldsmith0
Timothy Goldsmith

Moctezuma knew the instructor position "was ideal for me" as soon as he saw the ad during his postdoc at the United States Department of Agriculture's Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland. "I preferred to be very good at one thing," he says, instead of being split between teaching and research as in traditional faculty positions. Such positions are not that rare: Currently, five out of the 30 or so faculty positions in his department are teaching-only positions, Moctezuma says. Similar institutions often have comparable numbers of teaching-focused faculty. His instructor position doesn't come with tenure; instead, his 1-year contract is renewed each year.

If you want to do this kind of work, you need to take teaching seriously and learn how to do it well, sources say. Theory can be learned from seminars and workshops such as the U.S. National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology, conferences such as Lilly Conferences on College and University Teaching, and books, Moctezuma says. To gain classroom experience, try "getting in touch maybe with a local high school and offering to give a talk on your research area ... geared for the general public," Schwarz says. Graduate students with a strong interest in teaching can usually find opportunities to lecture, often with guidance from an experienced professor. In his courses, Goldsmith routinely invited teaching assistants to lead discussion sections.

If you enjoy this kind of work and can find the right path, expect a rewarding career. Nonmajors "will eventually become ... part of the workforce, and they become citizens of our society, and so I want them to be better informed and more science-savvy," Moctezuma says. There's evidence that it's working in reviews of his courses: "They eat an apple and they see the flower remnants of the petals," Moctezuma says. "That's exactly what I want them to do, to see science not as a subject that they have to take for graduation but as ... a way of life, as a way of seeing the world."

Photo (top): velkr0

Author identification: Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.

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