Do you need to name the scientists in intro biology?

IMG_7081Meghan Duffy on the terrific blog Dynamic Ecology asks whether we can’t just teach the concepts and not worry about the researchers. After all, there are so many things we have figured out in biology that really don’t need to include history lessons to make them real. Won’t it just be confusing to always have to talk about how things were discovered? Don’t we want students to know what is what first? Krebs cycle, photosynthesis, niche theory, kin selection, phylogenetics, can’t we teach these without the names?

Text books often get around this conundrum by having boxes scattered throughout the book with little life stories in them. These fun reads are more about the men and women and how they became scientists with only a tangential connection to the work. Here are the famous people. Look on and wonder!

I think Meghan is probably right if what you want to do is teach the concepts. The ideas form a wonderful web, connecting one thing to another as science progresses in many different laboratories. The web of ideas is only somewhat related to the web of people. And teaching is all about choices. It is about leaving out things that you absolutely know a student should understand because there is so much out there.

It is this point exactly that leads me to why I think it is good to include the names. We can’t teach all the ideas, or all the concepts. We can’t even teach all the really important ones. We are unlikely to even get across the 5 most important ideas if they are big ones. In many respects we are big fat failures. Our only hope is to inspire the students to learn on their own. Our only hope is to so inspire students that they read outside of class, they puzzle, they make their own diagrams connecting ideas. They puzzle when something doesn’t fit. They want to understand and struggle until they do.

How do we do this? Only by making science seem porous, a human endeavor full of conjecture, of testing, of rejecting ideas when new ones come along. It should not be a polished and impenetrable jewel. It should not be the way it so often looks in beginning textbooks.

Some of the tricks to teaching this way are very well known. Have students do projects. Cover less material in more depth. Show not just what we know but how we know it. Teach what we once thought and why we rejected it. Let students follow one person and see their trajectory of thinking. I know this is how I got inspired as an undergraduate at Meghan’s own wonderful university, Michigan. It is also how I found a thesis topic.

So leave out the names if you want to teach the concepts. Put them in if you want to lead the students to confident curiosity about science. Or that is what works for me. Maybe others are different.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Teaching, The joy of teaching, Undergraduates and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Do you need to name the scientists in intro biology?

  1. Nancy Dudek says:

    Part of science is attribution. In art, students learn about the artist, not just the work of art. Attribution is important!

  2. Meghan Duffy says:

    I definitely give the names of the scientists who did the work, and if I know of an interesting story behind the study, I give that, too. But I don’t test students on the names or the stories, just the concepts. I agree that the scientists and stories can be a great way of engaging students (for example, I show a whole video on Maydianne Andrade in part because I think it will engage students). But, on quizzes and exams, I don’t expect students to know names.

  3. Hmm, I’m not really big on quizzes and exams either. I agree frequent quizzes keep students reading the chapters and doing the study questions, but the real work is their own independent study presented on Wikipedia. In my classes quizzes count very little and there are no tests or exams after the first 3 weeks. But then I also don’t believe in lecturing in our out of class. I do like story telling, but testing on it would spoil it.

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