"Light in the Physical and Biological World" is a year-long course aimed
primarily at undergraduate Stanford humanities majors that need to
fulfill their science, mathematics, and engineering (SME) requirement.
The students are typically extremely bright and motivated students who
are, however, less than enthusiastic about science. We take their
attitude as a challenge. SME lab coordinator Kelly Beck perhaps put it
best when she described the course as having the goal of producing
humanities students who would pick up the science section of the New York
Times and read it just because it was there. And not only read it, but
read it critically, knowing how to find out whether or not the article is
valid if they choose.
This goal is often daunting. Some students bring to the course deep
feelings of incompetence about their science abilities, born of prejudices
instilled by years of boring science classes and bad high school science
teachers. Other students are strong in science and come to the course
expecting not to learn anything much, enrolling in SME because as a class
geared toward humanities majors they feel confident that they can ace it
without too much work. Teaching the former to get past their science
roadblocks while at the same time interesting and challenging the latter
is a task that requires vast amounts of time and energy.
Beyond both of these groups is a third: people who are somewhat interested
in science and do not want to have to work too hard but who do
expect to learn actual science. We've had complaints from this group
about not teaching enough "real science," by which we understand students
to mean the equations and abstractions that they learned in high school.
Indeed, we have some more mathematically-inclined students who "like to
play around with equations" and feel discouraged when we do more
qualitative activities that we design in hopes that they will be more
relevant to the students lives. Catering to these three disparate groups
is a deeply complicated job.
How can we teach a group with such disparate backgrounds and motivations?
One thing we do to try to accomplish our goal is to teach material that
the students have not seen before. The philosophy is that in doing this,
we can level the playing field to some degree, since everyone will start
out having little or no familiarity with the subject material at hand.
For example, in a quarter-long unit on "Light as a Carrier of Information," we
discuss the mathematics of digitizing sound and of computerized data
encryption as well as the physics of fiber-optic cables. These topics
were chosen not only because they are extremely relevant to students'
lives (pretty much everyone has submitted credit card information
electronically and has vested interest in understanding how it works, how reliable
it is, etc.), but because they contain some very interesting math and
science concepts that are not treated in high school curricula.
This is one way in which we try to engage students who have mastered
all the usual science and math topics, students with less
prodigious science backgrounds, and the students with a yen for "real
science" at the same time. Sometimes it seems like it's working,
sometimes it doesn't.
The Online Journal Project
We tossed around many additional ideas for keeping our diverse
population engaged in current science. One thing we tried last year
in lab was to have students pick a science article from a magazine,
newspaper, or the web and do some preliminary research into its
validity. The students came up with some extremely interesting
articles and seemed to enjoy sharing their findings with each other.
In our planning meetings for this year, the idea of having the
students keep a science journal came up. We decided that we needed a
mechanism for having students reflect on science and how it was
relevant to their lives and share their reflections with other
students, thereby building a kind of rudimentary scientific community
of inquiry within the class. Kelly Beck, the SME lab coordinator, has
a background in physics education and has taken numerous education
courses here at Stanford. She did prodigious research into
project-based science education and journal-keeping for non-scientists
over the summer, and consequently was able to give me a innumerable
extremely helpful comments and suggestions, as well as a thick stack
of testimonials from a wide vareity of sources detailing various
professors' experiences with such undertakings.
I came to feel that the journal project should happen online.
I believe that the medium of the web lets students personalize their
submissions to give them valuable ownership of them. Additionally,
from a practical perspective, the voice of experience suggests that
students love learning to make web pages. We taught students
how to make web pages last year in the spring and it was by far the
most wildly popular project of the entire course. I wanted to use the
popularity of the internet as a mechanism for added investment of the
students in their journal entries.
I redesigned last year's internet project to eliminate most of what we
had previously taught students about the internet itself (the workings
of routers, isp's, internet protocol, etc.) and replaced that with an
online journal requirement. I do walk students through the process of
setting up web space on the Stanford server and teach them the bare
minimum that they need to know to create files, move them around, and
work with images. However, the internet itself is not the focus. The
main point of the project is to use their web page as a medium for
science reflection and communication with their colleagues in the
I had considered using some existing software for centralizing the process
of reflection and the sharing of student work, but decided not to since I
wanted students to have complete ownership of what they would create. I
didn't want students to have to conform to any of the pre-established
submission formats; it was important to me to let them make all the
decisions from the color of the background to whether or not they would
include scanned in pictures, sketches, and/or links to the way in which their
reflections would be organized.
As I was researching pedagogical studies of and teacher's past
experiences with science journal-keeping, a few other important
aspects of successful journal projects seemed to stand out to me. I
have tried to incorporate all of these into the 1999 SME Fall Internet
Project. Please visit the link to see more specifically how I did
this. My paraphrase of the principles I extracted and brief
descriptions of the ways in which I used them follows.
- Ask leading questions. Mitchell R. Malachowski, a professor
of chemistry at UCSD, has success with some of the following:
- What is your opinion of Scientific Truth?
- What is an issue of scientific ethics that is meaningful to you?
- Basic Research--who should foot the bill?
- What do you think of the use of statistics in scientific arguments?
- Generate an atmosphere in which students can hypothesize without
being afraid of being wrong. One way that I try to do this in the
SME assignment is to write several sample reflections that purposely
contain some scientifically inaccurate conjectures. I clearly describe the
sample reflections as sometimes being wrong but demonstrating good
scientific thinking nonetheless. Interestingly, I noticed that I
myself felt much less inhibited and more creative in writing the
samples when I knew that I was not writing to be correct but to be
thoughtful. I hope the students will have a similar
- Don't force students to summarize articles. Summarizing
articles can stifle unarticulated thoughts students may have about
science. Although I encourage students to use articles for
inspiration when it is lacking from other sources (even referring them
to my own collection of science links), I do not require
articles to be summarized even when their content is reflected
- Create a community of learners. I link all of the students'
webpages to a central page. I have written extensive
instructions for students on how to keep various parts of their page
hidden so that their privacy will not compromised in any way by giving
their classmates access to their science journals.
Furthermore, the central page from which the student web pages will be
linked is the "privacy" part of the SME Internet Project web page,
which I password-protected during the course.
If a student so chooses, only her SME classmates will be
able to see her web page. My hope is that the community of inquiry
within SME will be uninhibited by privacy concerns.
Another way in which I attempt to create such a community is to have the
third and last reflection be a response to someone
- Mirror the journals with in-class discussions. Malachowski
writes of his journal experiment that "Classroom discussion was
greatly enhanced because the students had tangible notes to work
from and seemed to be much less inhibited in sharing their
thoughts . . . They realized that they frequently had meaningful
thoughts about scientific topics and did not have to rely
completely on authority for all their learning. For many of them,
their new-found confidence about chemistry seemed to help them
tackle the more difficult material with an openness not observed
in previous classes." The requirement for journal-inspired
interaction is almost a facet of the creation of a community of
learniers; it is imperative that such a community have a
face-to-face component in addition to its virtual one. I made it
a point to tell
students in the project introduction that their journal entries
may be used as a basis for class discussions.
- Mitchell R. Malachowski. "The Use of Journals To Enhance Chemical
Understanding in a Liberal Arts Chemistry Class," The Journal of
Chemical Education, May 1988.
- Eva M. Ogens. "The Write Stuff," Science Scope,
- Steve Trombulak and Sallie Sheldon. "The Real Value of Writing to
Learning in Biology," JCST,
| "To permit writing is to
permit thinking. Writing can be used as a method
of solving problems. It is a mirror of the mind to writers and a window
to the mind for readers, allowing both to see how well learning is
taking place. As teachers and students, the more we write, receive
responses to our writing, and react to responses, the faster we
accumulate knowledge, skill, and confidence. Writing about a difficult
concept reduces anxiety by keeping thoughts flowing. It is a ways for
students to ask questions that they might otherwise be unable to ask.
It captures elusive, but valuable, ideas. Writing not only develops
existing knowledge, it also creates new knowledge on the part of the
writer. It is a way to make and rectify mistakes, and it helps students
to stop thinking of mistakes as threatening and undignified. It is the
currency by which people acquire ownership of ideas; ideas owned are
ideas remembered, and ideas remembered are ideas learned. It is a way
of bringing students together into a trusting team. It is a method of
slowing the pace of learning to insure comprehension, which makes it
more efficient, eliminating the need for desperate reviewing. It
transforms boredom into curiosity."|
-Eva M. Ogens quotes D. Worsley and R. Mayer in Science Scope,
September 1996, page 15.