reed magazine logosummer2007

Teaching About the Birds
and the Bees
(and the Flowers
and the Frogs)

The notion that science education needs to be stellar at the start of one’s education is reinforced by the results of a survey published by Science in April (“Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experience,” Vol. 316; subscription required to view article). The survey found that 59 percent of National Science Foundation researchers became interested in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics during childhood. By contrast, interest in social, behavioral, or economic science generally originated during high school or college.

Still, for ambitious graduates, the pressure to perform at the Ph.D. level after Reed is intense, and a career as a schoolteacher can seem to pale by comparison. Math major Rachel Epstein ’04 (who did not teach in the outreach program) went straight from Reed into a graduate program at the University of Chicago. “I think it is definitely a common sentiment in academia that the people who just teach are the ones who couldn’t succeed in the research world,” she says. “It makes more sense to go for the Ph.D, and if you decide you don’t like it, to switch to teaching.”

Shampay admits that faculty members are bound to encourage many of their students to go directly to graduate school. “There’s an affinity here for that academic path, because it’s what we did. It’s what we know,” she says. But Shampay also believes that attitudes at research universities are changing. “There’s a lot of talk about grad schools and how they need to train people better for teaching, not just research. So a candidate who’s been in the teaching trenches might stand out.”

Kaplan, for his part, soundly rejects the notion that he is trying to help redress the shortage of science teachers nationwide, or boost national science achievement, by sending his students into the public school classroom. “Reed is about scholarship, and the love of scholarship in all its forms is all that I would even dream of bringing to the table in a program like [biology outreach],” he says. “We just want kids to like to learn. We want our students to like to teach and learn. Our [nation’s] production of scientists as a national resource to be competitive on a global scale—that’s not what we’re about.”

Diver says that in this day and age, institutions like Reed should focus some of their resources on primary and secondary schooling. “There’s a great deal of talk about how higher education—like it or not—has to compensate to some extent for the deficiencies of K–12 education,” he says. “And it’s part of the reason for the growing interest in promoting socio-economic diversity in the student body at places like this. Not only is it supposedly good for our own students to have a mix of students to interact with, but it’s also in some ways part of our social obligation to help compensate for the inadequacies and inequities of the education system.”

Even at Reed, professors regularly encounter students whose science and math educations failed them. Shampay laments the deficiencies some Reedies exhibit in simple quantitative concepts. “There are a lot of people out there who had really bad eighth-grade math experiences,” she says. As for science, she’s surprised how many Reedies “think biology is about learning terms and not applying the concepts. But that isn’t science.”

Kaplan remembers an oral exam years ago where the student was asked, “What is science?”

“The student was totally flabbergasted,” Kaplan continues. “He couldn’t answer the question. But students who participate in [biology outreach] are able to answer that question because they’ve had to look a little kid in the eye and say what science is.”

For Arnold, it has been a challenge to return to the basics of science day in and day out, after immersing herself in research to earn her biology degree, followed by post-baccalaureate research work in Kaplan’s lab. She continues to find that it’s very difficult to explain simple concepts such as metamorphosis, photosynthesis, and DNA to ten-year-olds, not to mention ten-year-olds with little prior science education and only a rudimentary grasp of the English language.

And in spite of her passion for the work, she hesitates when asked if she plans to go into teaching. “I will,” she says eventually. “I think it’s very important. But I won’t go into it right now. I have other plans. I want my Ph.D. in zoology, I want to do research. Perhaps way down the road, maybe when I’m 50—then I can see myself definitely returning to it with so much experience and knowledge to give back to the kids.”