February 03, 2004

More on science pedagogy

Matt writes about the difficulties of physics pedagogy, in particular the lack of focus on new research. As I have no experience with upper-level physics courses, I can't judge whether his claim that biology departments are better than physics departments at teaching students about current physics is correct (though I suspect it is). I should point out, however, that not all undergraduate biology courses are equal in their emphasis on current research; while there exist courses that focus heavily on critical reading of current research, there are far more that contain almost no critical reading whatsoever, to their great detriment. To downplay critical reading in undergraduate science curricula is to shortchange future scientists, and it's not just because of the lack of exposure to new research.

In biology, there are two extremely important reasons for including current research in the curriculum (in addition to the obvious reason that it's good to know what's being discovered): reading current research papers is the best way to learn about research techniques, and it is essential for young scientists to be able to critically evaluate research data.

By saying that paper-reading is the best way to learn about research techniques, I'm not trying to say that reading a random Nature article is going to teach you how to do a Western blot (it won't). Rather, I mean that, in reading current research, a student can learn the values and limitations of each technique--what it can confirm, what it can't confirm, how to modify it to look at an unusual system, and so on. These are the problem-solving tools of science; students who begin a research project without this knowledge will be sorely disadvantaged.

To get back to Matt's post, he asked how classes involving current literature generally work. Here's the biology standpoint. There seem to be two major approaches--either a discussion class associated with a topical course or a class that resembles a journal club. In the former, the topical course (molecular biology, cell biology, etc.) is supposed to give one sufficient background to understand the paper. Discussions are usually led by a small group of students who present background information and direct discussion of the research results. Journal-club-style classes are less formal; one person gives a short talk on the background of the paper, and the other participants present the figures. It's not unusual in these classes to assign a "flawed" paper (usually one that still has some real and interesting results, however) to facilitate critical discussion of the paper's problems.

I think that both of these formats (particularly the latter) are underutilized in undergradaute curricula. I would definitely like to see a required journal club/seminar/"topics in [field]" class as part of all undergraduate curricula. Unfortunately, that'll be a while, but at least undergraduates who go out of their way to hone their critical reading skills will be rewarded by being better prepared for (and more likely to get into) graduate school.

Posted by Susan at February 3, 2004 02:28 PM

I think the fact that biology departments do anything at all to teach students about current research shows that they are doing better than physics departments. (I am making the assumption, possibly invalid, that Chicago is representative in this respect.) In terms of courses, at least, the physics department offers no such classes. Colloquia and the "Friday lecture" series just aren't enough -- hearing a professor give an informal talk on their work is not a substitute for working through the papers. Undergraduate labs, also, bear little to no relation to actual experimental work. I particularly like the idea of looking at "flawed" papers. Physics is generally presented as a body of known facts, which has the terrible disadvantage that most of the science is lost. Most undergraduate physics majors do a fair amount of work in labs, so that they learn how research works in a sort of apprenticeship setting. I'm happy with that, but I don't think it's enough. It leads to people graduating with experience in one particular area, but little broad sense of what is going on in physics. Whether biology produces students with a good overall understanding of the field, I don't know, but I do think the physics department could learn from some of the courses you mention.

Do any of these bio courses have web sites? It would be good to have some information to point people in the physics department to. (They want the fourth-year students to fill out a survey on the curriculum; my response will probably be more than they want to read, but I hope it will do some good.)

Posted by: Matt at February 3, 2004 03:12 PM

You're right that the journal club format is underutilized. I'm currently at a school without a graduate program, and I missed the weekly rip-'em-up sessions enough that I've been forcing my students in my upper-level classes to do it. I've also been trying to combine combing through the literature for current papers with weblogging, with mixed (but promising!) results so far -- examples can be seen in the pages for my development (http://development.pharyngula.org) and neurobiology (http://neurobiology.pharyngula.org) courses.

And yeah, flawed papers are great. Students learn quickly that the way to present an entertaining seminar and to get a reputation for perceptivity is to find holes in a paper. That inspires a great deal of detailed scrutiny of every paper, which is exactly what we want.

Posted by: PZ Myers at February 4, 2004 11:32 AM
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