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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

December 16, 2013 at 5:00 AM

What a geologist can teach us about better science education


WWU geology professor Scott Linneman, left, with former students Joe Butorac and Adam Shier. Photo courtesy Matty Photography

Here’s a novel idea that could flip high-school science education on its head:

Instead of teaching biology as the first course for high-school freshmen, start instead with physics.

That’s one of the many ideas burbling from the mind of Scott Linneman, a geology professor at Western Washington University.

Earlier this year, Linneman was chosen as the state Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

In addition to his geology work, Linneman plays an important role in helping to teach K-12 student-teachers how to teach science in an engaging way. We chatted with Linneman recently about teaching geology, preparing new teachers for the field and the best ways to improve science education:

Q: Why did you become a geology professor?

A: I became a geologist probably because it was something I knew almost nothing about, growing up in central Illinois — I’d never had an earth science class, ever, so when I was first exposed to it at Carleton College it was an entirely new world to me, and I loved the problem solving, the historical aspect of it…Halfway through grad school, I realized I loved TA’ing (working as a teaching assistant), and I could see ways to improve student learning…

I got my first real teaching experience at one of these crazy schools, Colorado College, where students only take one class at a time for 3 weeks. It’s a place where you can think about teaching in a pretty deep way, where it’s not just all about a 50-minute lecture…(Later) I had a Fulbright fellowship to go to Africa for a year…that also gave me a chance to think deeply about what really matters in teaching and how to focus on student learning in the sense of, here was an audience that was so foreign to me in terms of what was important in their lives at the time. I needed to think about how they thought of these conceptual topics I was bringing to them.

Q: How do you make geology come alive for your students?

A: It seems really easy in Washington, because we have geology that’s in your face all the time. Western students tend to be outdoorsy, they’ve been out hiking, their families have been to the coasts, they’ve been to the mountains. So it’s considerably easier here to make it engaging and personal…I do a lot of open-ended assignments where students have a choice to follow their interests. I give them lots of daily links to interesting stuff and they have to respond to one of them. This is a generation that follows their interests by clicking, so they follow and click.

Q: You do a lot of field trips with your students. Why do you think that’s important?

A: The best teachers, in my opinion, in geology, take their students into the field frequently because the kind of conversations that happen while standing in a beach, or next to a rock outcrop, or looking at a glacier on Mount Baker, are different from conversations you have in a classroom setting. When they’re in the field, they become engaged in a different way.

Q: You’re a member of Western’s Science, Math and Technology Education program, assisting in the training of future science teachers. What advice do you give future teachers?

A: There are a couple different populations — There are the ones who are going to be high school science teachers. Those folks are usually science majors at the university, so I would have them in geology classes…The other, bigger part of my teaching load is future elementary teachers who don’t self-identify as science people. For them we’ve developed a set of content classes about physics and geology and biology that are taught in a way that we would like to see them teach. It’s what we call structured inquiry, where students puzzle through very strategically-asked questions and then do a set of experiments to try to answer those questions. They develop their understanding of these concepts on their own. Then they compare their ideas to the scientists’ ideas, rather than starting the other way around. There’s just an overwhelming amount of research literature now that shows…if they generate the understanding on their own and also spend a lot of time thinking about how their ideas have changed…it sticks, and it sticks in a deeper way…One of my colleagues now has a large NSF grant and she’s tracking these students to see if the impact we believe these classes have actually shows up when these student are teaching. And it turns out it does, and in a statistically strong way.

Q: If you could change one thing about the way we teach science, what would it be?

A: I think the best thing we can do is what Washington has done. We’ve made the first step, we’ve adopted the next generation science standards…I was on a working group that helped develop the framework…There’s a lot more recognition of big cross-cutting ideas being important in science…One of things we do in our classes with these pre-service elementary teachers is we teach physics first. I think that’s one of best things that could happen in the high schools — (teach) a really conceptually-oriented physics class (to freshmen). I could get crucified for this, because for 109 years we’ve had biology-chemistry-physics plan, which doesn’t make sense for a whole lot of reasons. If you flip it over, biology is a much more complex integrated thing that requires chemistry, that requires physics understanding. Earth science is the same way. The idea that they don’t take physics until they’re seniors heading off to college is silly. I think they should start there, and end up with biology or geology…In the state of Washington now we don’t assess anything but biology…the high schools make sure everyone takes biology. Well, there’s a lot of really big issues with energy, global warming, the oceans, that we’re faced with and the typical Washington kid isn’t getting any exposure to.

Q: Many experts are concerned that not enough U.S. students are majoring in science, technology, engineering and math. Why do you think more students aren’t studying STEM fields, and what could be done to change this?

A: It’s a very complicated question that a lot of people are spending time and money on… in our fields of earth science, our enrollments are just busting out the door these days, we have more majors we can deal with. Biology is the same way at Western, even chemistry. At Western we’ve had this major expansion in our STEM majors and that’s all student-driven. There are certain fields — computer science for example — that have had enrollments dropped (nationally). I think their biggest problem is a perceived cultural bias against anybody who’s not male and white…I think that’s also true in a lot of the engineering fields. There’s been quite a lot of getting girls to think about engineering. That’s one of new things about new science standards — it includes engineering as well. By introducing engineering in elementary and middle school, and having options in the high school…And also programming classes – when I travel abroad and I say my son is taking his first programming class as a college freshman – the rest of the world looks at you and says, “What? Our kids take it in middle school.”

Q: When you say there’s a perceived bias against anyone who’s not male and white, how does that play out — does that mean students who are not male and white are self-selecting out of these programs?

A: Yes, I believe that’s what happens. If you read about Silicon Valley culture at all, it’s got this big power scene of men. I don’t think they’re all white men, but it’s very male-dominated, and if that’s how people picture the environment they’d need to work in, they’ll say, no thank you. If you are a young woman and you enter a computer science class and there’s two of you among 40, how do you perceive that? That’s not very welcoming. It’s a very hard thing to change in a fast way. There was a grant here to change women’s representation on campus in some of the fields and I think it’s having an impact…there are ways it is going to improve, but it’s a cultural perception right now. And engineering and computer science are by far the farthest behind.

Comments | More in Math and science, News | Topics: engineering, geology, math


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