Friday, December 27, 2013

How to teach intuition

Reading the book "Farewell to Reality" by Jim Baggott one finds the following quote by Einstein about the development of natural laws: "There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on symphathetic understanding of experience, can reach them".
So when we teach science there are really two elements that have to be addressed, on the one hand one has to teach ideas and their historical development; but on the other hand can we teach "intuition"? Many science teachers will say that what we do is teach "problem solving skills" which sounds very logical and sensible and in many cases happens to be the kind of skill that anybody will need in their professional activities. But also again and again history has shown how new concepts and innovations have been developed by not following procedures stated and regulated by a set of skills learned.
So my question is how do we teach students "intuition"?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The need to know

Teaching chemistry to non-majors is challenging mainly because students don't feel the need to know. Why should a student that is thinking about pursuing careers in biology, pharmacy, medicine, physical therapy, or any other field in the health sciences needs to know about the periodic table, bond energies, or Gibbs free energy? The simpler answer is of course: because....
When framed within today's perception that knowledge should be utilitarian in the sense of direct practicability is difficult to answer the question, but looking from a wider perspective and knowing that learning topics based on immediate use is shortsighted we could try to answer the question by saying: It is not about the topic but about the process that leads to the knowledge of that topic. What I mean by this is that even though learning about the quantum model of electronic behavior around the atom may not have immediate use, comprehending how the model is developed and used in the understanding of the chemical behavior of elements in nature is the basis of a deeper level of thinking what one could call "complex-higher level" analysis.
The advantages of this higher level of thinking will undoubtedly be advantageous for students later in their career, when they will have to face challenges requiring this sort of analysis. It will be outside the realm of chemistry but the fundamental structure of the situation requiring solution will be similar to the structure of the problem analyzed in chemistry.
Further arguments are based on the perception that one can be a good user of ideas even if one lacks deep understanding of their history and evolution, but one will never be able to improve the use of these ideas or to innovate these ideas or to create different ideas in this field without that deepness on understanding. A pharmacist will be able to administer medicines prescribed by a doctor just by following the instructions on a prescription without understanding the bio-chemical functionality of the chemicals. But the pharmacist will not be able to know and therefore recommend a proper use of these medications when other medicines have been administered to the patient. This is extremely important as we now know that any medicine will have some secondary effects on the patient and it could be dangerous -in fact, in some cases with extreme consequences. It seems that is taken for granted that if the pharmacist is working in industry related to the development of medications, hir knowledge of bio-chemistry is fundamental.
The same could be mentioned about biology. One could argue that in order for a biologist to perform in hir field, say by studying plants, the only thing s/he needs is either a good memory (to remember all classification of species) or most likely today good access to the information but not how the cells in the organism is being fed. Of course that is false! As we know today in order to understand how an organism functions we must understand each individual organ works. In turn that means going all the way deeper into understanding how each organ is made of cells and these made of bio-chemicals, and these made of atoms.
This is where I get my chance to play, it is my turn when someone is asking questions about the how and why of a process in the natural world. So my roll as a chemistry professor is to facilitate a connection between everyday in my students life with every concept developed in class. This is why at the end of each semester I ask my students to write a short paper where they describe one or two concepts learned in class that relate to something they consider important or relevant in their lives.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The chemistry of nature

As we look at whole picture we find an intrinsic interconnectedness between the material (science) and the non material super-natural world. I am not thinking of superstition or about a"magical" world. I am thinking about the "things" that we can't measure, at least until now. Things like "love", "empathy", "respect", "depression", etc. In her book Molecules of Emotions Dr. Pert explains how there is an intimate relationship between the biochemistry of the human being and the emotional status of that person. Along the same lines Dr. Hoffmann (1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) writes in his book "The Same and Not the Same" about the interconnectedness of discovery and human needs, with curiosity as the medium through which one is motivated. Thus asking questions becomes the driving engine.  

Friday, April 19, 2013

e Learning

The only thing I want to register here today is an e book I just got from Amazon about teaching. The book is a compilation of articles published at The Teaching Professor. Teaching Strategies for the College Classroom:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It's About Expectations

Two books that are helping me with the way I teach are Mind Over Mind by Chris Berdick and and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt In these books the main topic is that we are not really rational humans but instead we use rationality to justify our  feelings and desires. So pedagogically what would be the implications of these thoughts? More so as we teach science that is supposed to be the epitome of objectivity an rationality. True one thing is the object of study, the content in a science class and another how do we approach pedagogically the students both individuality and as a group. Based on what Haidt said we are dealing with emotional beings that will only go where their emotions lead them, so the pedagogical question then becomes how can the teacher influence the student's emotions? Or as Berdick postulates it is all about "expectations"! So, can the teacher establish or modify the student's expectations?  One has to say "yes" to the last question if one is on the mission of education; and for the first question one has to say that "art" the art of teaching that includes compassion and empathy.

This art of teaching that is based on empathy is not new but has evolved in recent years as students come to class with a strong sense of entitlement, more so in the United States where parents have done everything in their power to be complacent, they will say supportive of their inheritors. The teacher in this situation must continue with support without diminishing the need that students have for affirmation but with the knowledge that the educator is not only a gate keeper for later studies but a guarantor, certifier of studies and degrees.

How can the educator provide the safe context for the student's emotions? How can the educator establish the frame of reference for the expectations for the course?  One must acknowledge that these have to be done since before the class, one has to start with the design of the course i.e the syllabus.

The critics of long syllabi may state that students don't read the syllabus, therefore is dangerous to write a long one that discourages reading. One can argue that a long syllabus aka syllabook is a document that can be read in sections and can be read during the course of the class. The other avenue for the syllabook to be a living document is to have it online in the course management system where students have access and will be using practically every day during the course of the term.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mid Term

Mid term is subjectively the point at which one can evaluate and prognosticate how students are doing and will do at the end of the course. This evaluation has many elements, several of these are related to information coming from precious courses more so when students in the present course are known to the professor from previous courses. One of this elements is the stage or level of knowledge the student had previous to this course another (and most important) is the change in attitude that the student has had during previous courses and now can be compared to the changes in attitude during the present course.
There are other external factors to consider that are more difficult to change, going from cultural values in the education previously obtained by the student to the variety of skills necessary for that particular discipline, such as mathematics in the case of science. One aspect one is finding hard to deal with is the disconnect between the rational interpretation necessary of problem solving and the emotional connection with the rationality of the individual. It is a roadblock when the professor asks the student: can you see this? can you feel if it? does it makes sense? and the students with the problem and answer in front of her/him is unable to feel the rightness of wrongness of the answer.
It is not that the student is not engaged, of course is even worse when is not engaged and not much can be done except to help the student get engaged.
As the student doesn't "feel" the connection between answer and problem when developing skills s/he moves away from being engaged, then keeping attention to the class becomes impossible and if the teacher doesn't stop and makes a personal appeal to the student to continue being engaged that student will be lost for the rest of the class and maybe the rest of the course. Teacher have to develop techniques (eye contact, moving around in the room, etc) so s/he can keep an individual connection with each student in the class. Of course this one-on-one participation will at the end be determined by the student! So the question is: Can students be forced to engage? and if so: How?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fun Theory

A very important drive in science education is the interest that generates having some kind of fun. So now I have the problem of defining what is fun and how can be achieved in the learning of scientific principles and concepts. This video shows clearly the strong motivating force that having fun has in the attitude of a wide variety of people.