Jayshree Seth: Only 15% of the people we surveyed said they knew “a lot” about science. How can we spark more interest in science for children and adults? We’re going back to school on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
The poet William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail; it is the lighting of a fire.” Every adult who went through elementary school science can tell you, for example, that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, as well as countless other factoids. Their pails are full. But scientists and educators alike can do a better job at lighting the fire of curiosity that leads to a career in science.
My guest this episode is committed to sharing her love of science with the public, both inside and outside the classroom. Joanne Manaster is a cell biologist and a faculty lecturer at the University of Illinois. She is also well-known on Twitter as the Science Goddess. Joanne, thank you so much for joining me today.
Joanne: Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.
JS: Last season, we talked about how you discovered you liked teaching more than research. What was it about teaching that caught your interest? What keeps you from just running back to the lab?
Joanne: Right. So for almost 20 years, I taught upper-level laboratory classes, so I haven't really left the lab. But I do not do my own independent research. And I definitely love working with my hands in the lab. But basically, I wasn't interested in the academia grind of writing grants and publishing just to keep my job or to be promoted. I preferred to pass on laboratory skills to future generation of scientists. And the reward in teaching, especially laboratory classes, to see the spark of joy students would have when they were successful or when they finally accomplished a feat that maybe they thought they couldn't, they're mastering vocabulary, and everything else. So I feel like that was something that drew me in that I discovered I was actually good at helping students understand hands-on science.
JS: So it’s a combination of following your passion and then discovering your natural aptitude for teaching?
Joanne: Right. Exactly. Yeah, I have the aptitude to be able to explain it to people to help move them along. And also their own self-discovery, like I don't just sit there and say, "Now do this. Now do that." I give them enough help to get them started, but then they discover on their own.
JS: I know you’ve focused more on online teaching recently. Do you find that there are advantages and disadvantages to online versus an in-classroom format?
Joanne: Right. So one thing I do miss about the face-to-face format, especially in the lab, is that I don't receive immediate feedback from the students on how they're doing and they're also not getting immediate feedback from me. Because of the primarily asynchronous nature of online teaching, we're missing that part. However, for students who are shy or maybe English is their second language, in our case anyway, it seems that this gives time for students to think about their answers and to create thoughtful replies for their classmates or to the teacher. There's also the obvious flexibility in time. So even though I set some hard deadlines that this assignment will always be due on Thursday, they can work on it whenever during that week, for instance. So I think there's a lot to do. I teach a course in genomics, and there are so many online resources for helping to analyze a genomic sequence that are free. Because a lot of research is funded by the government, that information is sort of required to be put online for free. We pay our taxes, we get information. So I help students understand how to analyze genomic sequences using all these free online databases. So in a way, there is so much we could do online already, even if you don't have a lab. Maybe I can't get them to extract DNA and run protein gels and things like that, but there's a lot of flexibility in what you can do online.
JS: Do you think kids are learning differently now? That we have to use these tools to teach just to get them to process the information? Or do you think it's just that we have better tools, so why not use them?
Joanne: That's a good question because, of course, I think immediately of great short YouTube videos that can introduce the topic to students and there are lab simulations online and things like that. So are they necessarily learning differently? Are we changing the way we learn things by having these short videos? Or are we just capitalizing on these new things that are online? So, in a way, I'd say it's a mixture of all of those things. It's great, especially online, to sort of give some of the task of learning directly to the students. We can give them resources and say, "You know, you might want to watch this before class and read this before class." And then when they come to class, they can take part in some active learning activities instead of just listening to a teacher tell them. So with the tools that are on the internet that are easy to transmit via email or a website, you know, students can actively start participating in their own gathering of information. And then when they come to class, they can be ready to really relate to other students about what they have found and solve some problems based on what they've already engaged before they came to class.
JS: So the videos and other online tools are part of the equation, but how do you, as a teacher, take a science-based topic that some of the kids might not be interested in and spark that interest without dumbing it down?
Joanne: Oh, I think, first of all, the teacher makes a big difference. If the teacher is curious and excited and passionate, I think there's something that rubs off on the students a little bit. I've noticed that a lot. Also, from my perspective, I like to know, exactly who is my audience? What do they know when they get to my classroom? And then how can I...you know, I can think of a reasonable goal. Where would I like them to be by the end of this class period or the end of this entire course, right? Or the entire school year? And it is on me to come up with some step-wise ways to get them to where I want them to be. Where are they now? Where do I want them to be? And come up with ideas of how to get them there with a mixture of sort of some fun things, which might be videos, which are very visual and can appeal to some students, and then also some of the more stringent learning ideas, but in a way to turn it around so the students take more responsibility for what they're doing and then be the guide to say, "Are you understanding? How's it going? Can you tell me what you're learning now?" things like that. So it's really putting more responsibility on the student with a lot of guidance, depending if they need it, if they need guidance.
JS: So how do we get more kids interested in pursuing science as a career? If you could design a funnel, maybe, that would get people into science career paths, what would it look like?
Joanne: Yeah. Well, I think starting as early as possible and especially in elementary school would be fantastic. A lot of elementary school teachers maybe have chosen that path because they aren't interested in science. So if there is a way we can, like, spark the interest in our elementary school teachers who might say, "Oh, yeah. But science, I don't have enough time to teach that or to prepare hands-on stuff for the students." So we need some more support at that level so that then they're more excited and more comfortable and they can help the students. And if the students see that, then when they go to middle school and high school, you know, they're more comfortable already and maybe would be more likely to choose more science classes as electives and look towards a future. The impact of a great science teacher can't be minimized. I have four children, who are now all older. And the physics teacher at their high school has inspired so many students, in general, to go into physics or engineering. And three of my children have chosen these types of fields. Even though they have a mom who's excited about science and is a biologist, they still chose physics because this teacher was amazing. And the child who is not in physics still took his physics class and AP physics...
JS: Was there a particular science teacher who inspired you?
Joanne: Actually, no. It's sort of what everyone assumes, but I think I was just naturally curious. My parents didn't interfere with anything I wanted to do. So whatever I wanted to explore, I explored. And, unfortunately, I didn't really have a mentor until the end of my undergraduate career and then into graduate school. You know, I didn't even really know what a scientist was when I was young. I knew from a book there are such things as scientists, but I had never met one. The closest to a scientist I knew was a physician. And so that's what I was going to be when I initially went to college because I loved science so much. "Well, how can I use science? Oh, if I'm a doctor I could be a...I could do science." And then it wasn't until university that I started to understand more fully what a scientist does. So there's something to exposure to the careers and also exposure to some passion that I think can be very, very helpful for, again, a person to decide.
JS: That makes sense. We need role models, and we need people to just understand what a career in science can mean. But let’s leave the next generation aside for a minute: If you could teach on cell biology class to adults, what would it be?
Joanne: I would love to be able to teach the genomics course I teach to my graduate students and my undergraduate students to the general public because I think there's a need for the clarity of, what can we really do with this information from the human genome and why haven't we cured all diseases that are genomically related yet, which was the promise of the Human Genome Project, right? So what are the limitations of our knowledge?
JS: Oh, that's good. I think people do have kind of “news headline” level of understanding of genetics.
Joanne: Also, what don't you really know? You've been reading articles but you don't really know what genomics can do for us, might do for us, and will never do for us, right? Right. And they think a lot could be done. Or, you know, with the gene editing controversies, then, maybe, you know, it'd be better to get a deeper understanding so when they read the headlines they will know if, "Okay. Is this really something that's plausible or practical at this point?" Like, do I have to worry about dinosaurs being recreated from fossils? Or are there now going to be babies with super intelligence because of CRISPR editing?
JS: That’s the ultimate goal of all scientific research, isn’t it? Genius babies riding velociraptors?
Joanne: That would be pretty funny.
JS: Okay, okay. To bring us back to Earth now, what is the last exciting discovery you heard about in your field?
Joanne: I think CRISPR is pretty cool because I never got to use it in the lab. By the time I left the lab, it had been sort of something you knew about, but I'd never gotten to use it. So I thought, "Oh, look at this. It's fairly simple. It's fairly inexpensive." You know, it beats a lot of other editing techniques. So I think it is pretty cool. And I'm only sad because I've never had a chance to use it practically in the lab.
JS: CRISPR is certainly amazing, and we’re just starting to explore its potential. What else has you excited for the future?
Joanne: I think as a cell biologist, I continually lean towards the hope for potential cures that we can come up with for humans, right? There are people who are excited about black holes and fossil discoveries and things like that, but as a cell biologist, ultimately, it is about us and the functioning of our bodies. And so I'm always hopeful that as we make discoveries that they can be applied to...you know, work on Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or cancer or the diseases that plague us. And I think we have some good leads, but things take a lot longer than we think. We're always bombarded with headlines. I'm like, "This could possibly do this and this and might help us.” But we’re not there yet.
JS: It’s amazing to think how much progress we’ve made already, though. I think there’s genuine reason to be optimistic. Joanne, thanks for joining me.
Joanne: Thank you for having me. I'm really happy to share with your audience.
JS: Most kids--most adults, too--have a healthy background of scientific knowledge. Their pails are full. The challenge is to light the fire, to spark curiosity, that need to know more that drives scientific advancement. From the farthest reaches of the universe to the structure of DNA, curiosity and wonder are irreplaceable parts of the scientific mindset.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at three em (that’s number 3 letter m) dot com, slash scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.