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Scientists Teach Science: Those Who Can, Teach

Published April 25, 2019

Barbara Houtz

Barbara Houtz

Whoever said, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" never ventured into a lab at any American institute of higher education to speak to its graduate students. They’re not only expected to be research superstars, but also teach the next generation of STEM learners. Unfortunately, this second responsibility can be overlooked by their institutions and PIs, who often fail to provide them with teaching support. We recently spoke with Barbara Houtz, a former teacher and current K–20 STEM specialist who runs an online Scientists Teaching Science course, about the challenges facing first-time teachers.

Why should scientists strive to improve their teaching skills?

Our country is losing a large number of people that have the interest and ability to succeed in STEM fields, but they drop out of STEM majors because of poor teaching, and a feeling that they’re unwelcome. This is especially problematic for minority and first generation students, who come to college excited about a STEM major. They have the energy and the interest, but they're faced with professors who sometimes think it's their job to fail half of the class.

They teach in very traditional manners with lectures and very little interactions. ‘Are there any questions?’ is about the only interaction they have with students. This preferentially harms underrepresented minorities and first generation college students. They need a little bit more support, they need more interaction, they need to feel that they belong in the class instead of just, ‘Here's the information, learn it or don't.’

What’s the most common mistake that first-time teachers make?

It’s my experience that when a graduate students get their first teaching position, they harken back to their graduate education and not their undergraduate education. This causes them to have unreasonably high, sometimes irrational, expectations of their students. They forget that they’ll be facing a class with hundreds of undergrads who don't know anything.

They feel that as long as the lecture is interesting, they’re teaching students. They say, ‘If I have an interesting lecture, then that's good enough.’ But it isn’t enough. I tell people that lecturing is not teaching. It can be an element of teaching, but just lecturing is not teaching.

“Your whole life is devoted to finding evidence for different ideas. Finding evidence to solve questions, to answer questions, solve problems. Why don't you use evidence when you're teaching?"

Should the lecture be de-emphasized?

The lecture itself is not based on any kind of research on teaching and learning. Quite the opposite. All the research on teaching shows that lectures are a terrible way to teach. However, we persist at it because it's traditional, even though it harms those students in the demographics that we're trying to get into STEM fields. I always tell scientists, ’Your whole life is devoted to finding evidence for different ideas. Finding evidence to solve questions, to answer questions, solve problems. Why don't you use evidence when you're teaching?’

How do improved teaching skills make better scientists?

It helps them become better communicators. Whenever they're giving a presentation, delivering a seminar, or going to a conference talk, it can help them organize and deliver the takeaways they want to give their audience. Instead of throwing out information hoping it will stick, they can think about every speaking opportunity as a teaching opportunity.

What’s your advice for scientists looking to improve teaching?

Don’t feel pressured to, ‘Make it fun’ or, ’Make it interesting’ because, that's an unnecessary bonus. Learning doesn't have to be fun, and it doesn't have to be interesting as long as you're engaging the mind and you're showing the student the usefulness of this information. Learning is hard work. You can't say you’re always having fun.

Science is very complex, STEM ideas can be extremely complex. It's not a simple thing to learn how everything works. I don't aim to try to teach people how to make learning fun or interesting. I aim to engage students.

Want to improve your teaching? Sign up for the Scientists Teaching Science Online Course!