Class Notes

Not Einstein

Teaching science to the rest of us

By Paula Marantz Cohen | September 11, 2012


When I entered college as a freshman 40 years ago, I was a premed student. My father, a research chemist, felt that I had no natural aptitude for pure science, so he steered me toward medicine, for him the next best alternative.

I struggled through general chemistry and then succumbed quickly to the rigors of organic chemistry. That was the end of my premed career.

At the time, I was relieved. I was no good at science, I rationalized, and I would have made a lousy doctor. I had found my true calling in the humanities. It was a reassuring explanation, the sort we use when we end a stormy relationship and enter one with a person we can live with. This, we tell ourselves, is how it was meant to be.

The problem is that such thinking works better in some areas of life than in others.

In relationships, I cannot fault it. I like to quote Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, when the narrator makes a comparison between marriage and dance: in both, she writes, “it is [the partners’] duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else.”

But it is not a healthy narrative for education. I am happy in my line of work. I would not change it at this point for anything else. And yet the shift I made from science to the humanities now strikes me as having a dubious foundation, which ought to be examined in the interests of future students.

Is it true that, because I was not naturally good in science, I would have made a lousy doctor or, for that matter, a lousy scientist? Or would I perhaps have been a contributing member of the scientific community had someone figured out how to teach and inspire me? Who knows if I might have brought my ability to think creatively into science and enriched that field accordingly? This sounds immodest, but I say it only to emphasize my new skepticism about the natural aptitude model of scientific vocation.

I am making a distinction between natural aptitude and natural predilection. It may very well be that, having mastered the fundamentals of science, I would still have chosen a career in the humanities. But my predilection for the humanities was premature. I never mastered the fundamentals of science and was therefore never in a position to choose freely.

Looking back, I realize that my science education was lousy. I was taught by people with natural aptitude, teachers who geared their lectures to others with natural aptitude. A natural can be a genius, but he or she can also be someone who marches in lockstep—thinking the way members of the discipline have always thought rather than imagining new ways of doing things.

Science education has not evolved appreciably since I took general and organic chemistry in college. The introductory classes are still mostly large and impersonal. I recently listened to a free open lecture on chemistry from an elite university. The lecturer was on the staff of the university I attended way back when, and the lecture was as hard to comprehend as ever. He was still teaching the same material, badly, 40 years later.

My daughter, a major in American studies, was recruited to teach high school chemistry and physics in rural Arkansas through the Teach for America program. Science teachers were in short supply there, and she had taken the basic sciences in college, though she had not done particularly well. Yet when placed in a position where she had to teach, she figured out how to learn—and, subsequently, how to get her students to learn. I recently watched a tape of her teaching her 10th-grade chemistry class and was struck by her use of metaphor in explaining a complex concept. She moved from one metaphor to another, gauging whether or not her students were grasping the material. Would a science teacher who had majored in chemistry and for whom the material had come more naturally been able to draw on so many metaphors to explain the concept? Would a chemistry major have understood the need to do so, sensing when students were not getting the material when it was explained the first time?

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Is Algebra Necessary?” Andrew Hacker argues that we ought to abandon the teaching of algebra, since it blocks academic success for so many students. But algebra and higher-level math are essential to so much of science that dropping it would mean barring students with no natural aptitude from entering science. Isn’t it better to figure out how to teach algebra to these students who aren’t naturals?

The longer I teach literature, the more I relish teaching students who are not naturally literary—who are business or engineering majors or who did not qualify for our university’s honors program. When spurred to read and think, these students bring a freshness of insight to what they read that I don’t find in those who are more used to reading and thinking about literature. In some ways, the non-naturals are more interesting to teach than the naturals. They can inspire me to see things in a work that I wouldn’t see with a class of English majors; they can spark in me an entirely new line of thought. Why would this not be true in math and science? A student who learns less naturally can motivate a teacher to rethink the process of relaying a concept and, in so doing, inspire new ideas about that concept.

Many schools have been trying to teach science differently, and some of the traditional women’s colleges have made a special effort to do so. Smith College recently opened an engineering school, for example, believing that women can make a contribution to what has traditionally been a male-dominated field, built on high-level math and science.

But gender isn’t the issue here. Although considering gender difference may help educators rethink how science courses are taught, the issue is less about attracting more women to science than about attracting different sorts of people—those who do not have so-called natural aptitude, but who, perhaps, can make important contributions.

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