It’s Hard to Teach Science

There are many challenges and problems with the current education system, including its sometimes robotic nature. Often times, the manner in which curriculum is presented only seems to benefit students who excel at memorizing large amounts of information, leaving the rest of the students behind. This is obviously unfair. I see this as a problem particularly relevant in STEM-based courses, and it can be quite daunting in a fast-paced quarter system such as UC San Diego. Personally, I’ve fallen into a comparison trap more times than I can count. I see some people able to juggle several commitments and master the course material while I struggle to comprehend the material alone. It’s a struggle that many students face even if they don’t want to admit it. Not everyone learns in the same way, and that is something that people already know; however, I don’t see any significant changes being made to the education system. Nonetheless, it’s unreasonable of me to assume that change may not be happening, so I sought to educate myself.

The current education system began during the Industrial Revolution when innovation skyrocketed. This exponential growth led to a need for competent workers, and a proper school system was necessary to obtain them. If you haven’t noticed yet, schools are structured almost like factories in terms of scheduling, with a series of class periods and lunch breaks in between. This is what schools are like until college for most individuals in the United States. When students start college, things seem to change in that there is an illusion of flexibility, but college still reflects the rapid and goal-oriented standards that characterize factories.

UC San Diego’s quarter system puts an expectation on students to master subjects like metabolic biochemistry in a mere 10 weeks, which is arguably an insurmountable task. Meanwhile, students attending schools that use the semester system have more time to master similar subjects. Cramming doesn’t really help with retaining information in the long term, especially for me; things that I learn one quarter become difficult to recall as time goes on. However, time isn’t the only factor when it comes to the inability to retain content. A lot of classes at UC San Diego seem to be designed as standalone units instead of building off of one another. For example, chemistry classes are required for all biology majors, but these chemistry classes are not well-integrated with the rest of the classes required for biology majors. This sometimes leads to students forgetting much of what they learned in chemistry courses by the time they graduate. Consistent practice and revisiting concepts make students better at applying what they’ve learned to real-life situations.

Additionally, there aren’t enough practical skills development classes that could give biology majors access to more job opportunities and help them be successful in those jobs. It’s difficult for biology majors with a bachelor’s degree to get financially stable job offers after graduation. This is especially true for students who were not able to participate in lab work or pursue internships outside of their classes. Some people have to work multiple jobs to support their families while going to school, and this can be difficult to manage while trying to succeed in coursework. Furthermore, some students are not able to get the jobs that they need due to a lack of practical skills. If more practical skills relevant to jobs available to undergraduates were incorporated in the curriculum, it would assist a lot of people in such situations.

I’ve seen these issues and many others from my perspective as a student, but considering I don’t know what goes on in the background, I sought out the perspective of a professor in the biology department. There are many professors at UC San Diego who do research on education and on how to improve teaching strategies. Dr. Coleman, a biochemistry professor, has done much research on education and has brought in many changes to the system through student surveys, implementing different teaching methods in classes, actively developing curriculum, and going the extra mile by providing supplemental materials and support for his students.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Coleman to discuss what he thinks about teaching science at UC San Diego. Dr. Coleman does research on “how students learn scientific reasoning skills in the context of taking a laboratory biology class”, especially for the biochemical lab techniques class that he teaches. His goal is to determine how students are able to interpret research articles, figures, and results, and to evaluate how these skills develop over time. From his experience as a professor, Dr. Coleman has seen that diagramming concepts on the board when teaching helps tremendously, but he believes that time management and study skills are essential to student success. Personally, I find this convincing as I comprehend and master the material when I make a well structured schedule and adhere to it. As many say, it is easier said than done; the perfect schedule isn’t possible every quarter because classes become more challenging and responsibilities may increase.

Often times in biology classes, the assessments often emphasize memorization rather than application. Dr. Coleman believes that some memorization is required to help connect different concepts and later apply them in an analytical setting. Sometimes the difficulty in connecting and remembering concepts comes from the issue that the student lacks the prerequisite knowledge for a solid foundation, but in a big university like UC San Diego, it can be difficult to coordinate the information learned by students from course to course. Essentially, after talking to Dr. Coleman, it seems that most issues with science education at UC San Diego are due to the class sizes, high enrollment, and limited instruction space and instructors in comparison to the student population, which makes it difficult for each individual student to receive the best possible learning experience. Despite this, one thing that UC San Diego does a great job of is connecting students to various opportunities within the campus that they wouldn’t find at a different university. UC San Diego has many research labs and is surrounded by several biotech companies, making it easier for students to gain research experience at UC San Diego compared to other, smaller universities. Hearing a professor’s perspective was very motivating and eye-opening because it allowed me to see how much someone cared about my education and made me realize that there are people hard at work trying to improve education at UC San Diego. Professors aren’t out to get you as many students are tempted to think; they really want you to get the best education possible despite how difficult it may be, and they put themselves in your shoes to make learning a more enjoyable experience.

Of course, the biggest question that dwells in the minds of many students is “do grades matter?” Dr. Coleman says they really don’t, even though in a practical sense they do, especially regarding grad school. He recommends that students see grades as a checkpoint to help them learn the material better, because in the end, learning the material thoroughly matters more than just doing enough to get the ‘A’. Despite hearing this, I know that many students, including myself, find it difficult to avoid defining our self worth by grades. Lauren Brumage, a fourth-year microbiology and biological anthropology student at UC San Diego, expressed similar and diverse opinions about the science curriculum and teaching. One of the concerns Lauren stated was that the large class size makes it “really challenging to get to know professors. When there are so many people in a class, it can be easy to feel like a number.” This idea of feeling like a number, another statistic, and another box checked is completely understandable and causes discontent and/or difficulty for many students. For example, learning by doing isn’t easily implemented at UC San Diego because the lack of classroom space makes it difficult to have accompanying labs for each lecture or even practical skill based classes based on different courses. I asked Lauren what she would do if given the chance to improve the system by becoming a professor, and she proposed the use of written exams instead of multiple choice exams in order to help develop writing, communication, and analytical skills. She would work to integrate more scientific literature into the curriculum to make students better-equipped to tackle these papers with more ease. This is important, as the skill of being able to read and understand scientific literature is critical for research and medical professions. One thing I really appreciated from her perspective was that she wanted to make the education system more forgiving of mistakes so that students would be willing to take more intellectual risks. I know that I would have pushed myself to ask more ‘stupid’ questions or even take more challenging classes if taking educational risks was encouraged. When grades are such a big concern in the development of your educational and professional career, taking risks may not seem worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the education system is complicated and requires some rehabilitation in order to help students achieve their maximum potential. As a society, we’ve become addicted to a certain method of teaching and evaluating student performance. Changing that will take time, but it is possible. It can happen because we see here that two people who come from different sides of the educational experience share similar opinions and want change to happen. Although we cannot always see it as students, change is taking place, and as students who have dealt with these issues, we can be proponents of solutions that will help make it easier for the next generation.

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