Tag Archives: education

Science, humanities, and education

On this day before Thanksgiving, my brain simmers as I think about the importance of a well-rounded education for human society, creative innovation, and even curious individuals.

In the last few days, David Kroll has cross-posted on his blogs about this move and one prominent response. I’ve already commented briefly on his blog, but the topic is still nagging at me.

Here’s the background. Nearly two months ago, the George Philip, the president of SUNY Albany announced that he was eliminating several humanities programs from that campus. No more French, Russian and Italian. Bye-bye, classics and theater.

Enter Greg Petsko, a Brandeis professor who has written a scathing (and spot-on) critique of the move. Kroll’s post lauds him as “a cool dude.”

As a science writer, it’s probably no surprise that my brain is perched somewhere between the science and humanities most of the time. But that’s not something that happened after being solely immersed in science for years. I think I surprised myself, my family, and even some of my friends when I became a chemist. I read, I wrote, I loved history and travel, and I learned to speak a foreign language. In college, I double-majored in chemistry and German. But German could have just as easily been English or history. Those interests balanced my “how things work” push that led me to science. Though I’ve always had a bit of the engineer’s desire to deconstruct, those details were meaningless to me outside the context of what they mean to society. I’m not objective in valuing a well-rounded education.

Clearly this passion is personal for Petsko, too. He writes:

Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

Philip’s justification for the cuts at Albany are all about money. Yes, money is tight everywhere. At the same time, this issue touches deeper societal questions. What is a university education? And should it be a prerequisite for getting a good job?

The problem is that an education isn’t job training. It’s an immersion of ideas, critical thinking and creativity. Classes in French, Russian or classics belong at a university. Those classes probably aren’t going to lead directly to a job, but that isn’t their purpose. Not everyone will want to take them, and– for many people– that’s okay. But an educational institution should support and nurture scholarship and give students the benefits of a broad education.

Job training, well, that’s a whole separate issue. An education is only one piece of that puzzle, and I’d like to see more opportunities that allow individuals be able to choose programs that fit their interests and needs: vocational programs that will prepare them for a specific job or a degree with broader educational goals. My point is that institutions need to be honest in what they call themselves. If you’re in the business of education, you need to live up to that promise.


Building with my own two hands

I’m looking forward to Maker Faire NY this weekend. I’m not  directly involved, but I love this concept: people coming up with new ideas, building things, sharing what they’ve learned with other people.

Mark Frauenfelder, Editor-in-Chief of Make magazine (the sponsor), describes the educational value in do-it-yourself in the most recent issue of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, says Gray, our schools don’t teach kids how to make things, but instead train them to become scholars, “in the narrowest sense of the word, meaning someone who spends their time reading and writing. Of course, most people are not scholars. We survive by doing things.”

Even though I earned scholarly academic credentials, one of the satisfying parts of doing chemistry was synthesis, setting up reactions and producing a product. Granted, those products weren’t necessarily exciting or beautiful– on a good day, they were white powders, on messier days, clear sticky oils. (Yes, those are the trials of working with sugary molecules). They weren’t even directly useful, but I’d have to devise the experimental conditions, order the right chemicals, find or borrow equipment, and even draw glass structures that a glassblower would then produce for me. Design and even improvisation provided both a challenge and a reward.

a vase made with my own two hands
a webbofscience original: a vase I made myself

I love to learn, but I love to be able to hold a final product in my hands. As a writer, my work sometimes feels a little too ethereal– I’ve become more of a scholar than I was in the laboratory. I volley with ideas all day, and my written product is often as ethereal as a web page. Ultimately I think that’s one of the reasons that most writers feel like they should write a book at some point. I don’t often get to hold a hard copy of my work and know that my labors produced something tangible. But feeling pages in my hands, printed and bound, that I helped to produce help me feel like I contributed something physical to the world.

People need to build with their own two hands (in the video feature). I’m glad I don’t have to make all my own clothes or furniture. But crocheting a scarf or an afghan makes me feel human. I’ve revisited ceramics in the past year. I’m still learning, but I love the feeling of clay spinning under my hands, a form emerging from the push of my palms, the flex of my fingers.


Science, Journalism and Inform-vs-Educate

Almost 6 years ago, I attended a conference of scientists and communicators about issues of communicating global warming to the general public.  At that point I was still wearing my graduate student hat and was still learning the ropes of science writing. The issues related to global warming and the public were different– this was before An Inconvenient Truth, and folks were genuinely worried that no one was believing the growing body of science showing that the Earth’s climate was indeed changing, and probably not for the better.

Though I learned a lot that week, the discussion that sticks most vividly in my mind doesn’t specifically relate to climate, but the role that journalists play in that process. When it came down to the question of whose job it was to educate the public about climate change, many of the experienced journalists in the room had a violent, seemingly knee-jerk reaction: “My job isn’t to educate. My job is to inform.”

My scientist-turning-journalist brain did a 180. Huh? I hadn’t come across this cultural tidbit before. I listened for a while and even chimed in at a couple of points. At the time– even though I disagreed– I thought maybe I was just naive and, perhaps, I might come to the same conclusion as these veterans once I had been a working science journalist for a while. But, no, I still disagree, but my understanding of the issues is now more nuanced.

In part, I think the problem is boiling it down to the words inform and educate. In many cases, part of the friction that can sometimes come when a scientist-educator talks to a journalist-informer. A couple of years ago, A Blog Around the Clock described that divide:

The scientists want to educate.

The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance. As long as both parties are aware of the existence of two disparate goals, there is a possibility of conversation that can lead to an article that satisfies both goals, thus both participants.

That defines the divide. Journalists have to find relevance and a connection that convinces their audience to read what they’ve written. Scientists sometimes want us to write about information that, while important to their grand vision, may not be relevant to the individual story that we’re trying to tell.

But the problem is that science journalists rarely ever have the opportunity to simply inform, even if that is their stated goal. Even if we have an easy news hook of extending human life, possible life on Mars, or the newest iPhone-type gadget strapped to your thumb, we constantly have to define, explain and educate the public about the nuts and bolts of what we’re writing about. Does a sports reporter have to explain a free throw, a home run, or an ace? Do political reporters have to give a two sentence description of how the Supreme Court works every time we have a new nominee? Generally not– but I can’t write a general news story and use the word protein, DNA or cell without somehow explaining what those words mean and why they’re important.

So, I’ve always considered that part of my role is to educate. Part of that is  my scientific training. Part of that is that I worked in a hands-on science museum and watched kids explore the joy of science. The reason that I do what I do is to make science fun, interesting, useful and relevant to broader society. But to do that, I provide context and connections, the education within the relevant plot points that justify “why now?”

So, I will always embrace education in my work. But I also recognize that I’ve often done my job best when the educator is wearing an invisibility cloak.