Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Science for the people

One of my students in the online genetics class I’m teaching commented to me that it was a little sad that we were marketing the class as “not too difficult.” Science is only as hard as you make it, she said. It shouldn’t be something scary.

It shouldn’t be, but for a lot of people it is. As a freshman in college I figured I should take college level biology as an elective so that I had a solid groundwork in how life works. (I was a medieval studies major.) But talking to my pre-med friends convinced me otherwise. Science classes were for people who were all in: they were only for scientists, not dabblers. They were hard work. Lots of hard work.

When I decided to go back to school to become a veterinarian, I took that introductory biology course, and a lot of other science courses. I learned a lot of information I’d never use again (and have since forgotten), particularly in chemistry and physics. I wasn’t eligible to learn the things I wanted to learn until I’d jumped through these hoops.

I hope that these days, with online classes, the tide is starting to turn. I don’t think people should have to take a year of basic biology in order to learn a little about genetics. I don’t think people should have to learn about photosynthesis and the difference between monocots and dicots (those are groups of plants, by the way) in order to learn neurobiology. It is perfectly possible to design science courses for people who are not pre-med or pre-vet undergraduates. But sometimes, when I’m telling people about this great new genetics course I'm teaching and they look slightly alarmed, I'm saddened by the history of how we've traditionally taught science courses.

More than thirty people signed up for the genetics course. I hope I’ve designed something that’s worth their while.

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