April 12, 2013

Accepting our stupidity, and having fun in the process

By Carl Gustafson

I have a vivid memory of one day from my anatomy + physiology class in undergrad, which makes that class fairly worthwhile compared to a few others I took. Our professor asked the class of 300+ students if anyone knew what a ketone was and the class fell eerily silent... I knew the answer, but the looming silence maintained. So why didn’t I speak up?

Every student has been here. We have all known the solution, to some question, at some point, and failed to respond. Instead of shouting it out with confidence we hide in the back, clutching a shred of doubt - afraid to attempt a response for fear of being incorrect. In this case, the answer was a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom (represented as “c=o”). Mentally cowering in the back of my class, I realized that I didn’t think it was acceptable for me to be wrong, and I certainly didn’t think that the risk of perceived failure was worth the reward of being right. I am convinced that these situations are evidence of a poor learning environment that our culture of academic science has developed.

I recently have heard two interesting opinions on a couple issues relating to science learning. One was from Martin A. Schwartz, a professor at the University of Virginia. His essay in the Journal of Cell Science emphasized the importance of stupidity in science, pointing out that many students entering Ph.D. programs aren’t used to feeling stupid, but “productive stupidity” is simply the nature of science research. The second opinion was from Tyler DeWitt, a graduate student at MIT who gave a TED talk about science education. He highlighted the crusty dry and loathsomely boring nature of many science-related texts and encouraged science teachers to “make it fun!” I believe that both Schwartz and DeWitt are right; that accepting our inherent stupidity when it comes to science makes research much less intimidating, and learning much more engaging.

During my high school and undergraduate education, I had never been taught to be stupid. No one was rewarded for the wrong answer. Right answers pass, wrong answers fail. Ph.D. students, as Schwartz deftly explains, are used to being right. We were all the A+, aced-the-class-without-trying kids. We dreamed of being faced with the (final) frontiers of science, on our five year mission to boldly go where no scientist has gone before... but I digress. In a Ph.D. program, we all feel stupid. Our time of acing tests and knowing the solutions to problems has gone the way of Zubaz and bowl cuts...okay, Zubaz are still cool, but you get the point. And that is the nature of science. Research is simply testing our best guesses, with the understanding that we can only guess, probably fail, learn from the failure and try again. We must accept our stupidity and relish in the impossibility of immediately knowing the answers to all questions that our research project might throw at us. This is a quality that I was never taught, in fact, it is a quality that I avoided. I was afraid of looking stupid.

Why weren’t a dozen hands raised when my professor asked his question? I don’t know, but fitting with the context of this post, I am going to guess. There must have been several other people who knew the right answer, and several more who thought they did. If other students thought like I did, our professor was a guy who knew all the right answers, not someone who was willing to make a wise guess when he really didn’t know. In reality, he probably would have been more satisfied with us if we had ventured twenty incorrect guesses instead of one correct solution. I had yet to understand how much was not known about science and how acceptable it was to simply attempt a solution based on what I already knew. Being wrong, to me, was an absolute failure. What I did not fully grasp was that my professor was a research scientist. He had certainly come up with more wrong answers than right ones in his career. Unfortunately, that’s not how I understood learning.

Most of the science learning that I had been immersed in up until that point was drilling explicit knowledge into my head (know these parts of a cell, know the names of these chemicals, etc...). This is rigorous, straight-forward, boring learning. Tyler DeWitt, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and also a former high school science teacher, made some interesting suggestions to science teachers. He encouraged them to focus less on the serious, precise nature of science, particularly when speaking to non-experts. Science learning can be made more relevant by teaching it so that students have a point of reference to attach the new information to “real” things that they already understand. His example: telling horror stories about secret agent viruses sneaking into bacteria, or comparing viral hijacking of bacterial replication machinery to swapping the blueprints at a car manufacturer so the plant suddenly churns out killer robots. In those contexts, unnecessary details are lost, and concepts are made to be memorable and engaging. The seriousness of the raw science should be left behind, and students can be freed to simply mess around with the ideas. This kind of learning encourages creativity and questions, while making the information more “sticky.”

In the first lecture of my graduate level Regenerative Medicine class, our professor referred to M1 and M2 macrophages as “The Dark Side” and “The Jedi Order” in reference to the famous conflict of Star Wars legend. Guess which part of the lecture I remembered in detail and will never forget? That information suddenly became sticky. It was fun; the seriousness of macrophage roles in inflammation was gone and the excitement of the inflammatory response came blasting through like Luke Skywalker flying an X-Wing. Somehow, talking about macrophages like they were characters from Star Wars made inflammation less daunting. In that context, if I looked stupid for not knowing something, it seemed more acceptable. The facade that made me think I needed to know everything was dissolved along with the aura of seriousness surrounding the science. Which was great, because I knew next to nothing about inflammation. In the land of Jedi macrophages, it was okay for me to be stupid.

Whether it takes secret agents or the balance of the force, science should be fun. It’s really exciting stuff, but too often we communicate it in a very intimidating way. We shroud it’s wonder in a false pretense of ultimate knowledge and unflinching sobriety, causing many students to never grasp the thrill of discovery. Instead, they fear being stupid. It’s true, there is a place for specific, exact scientific communication, but, as DeWitt clarifies, this should be “between experts.” We should not be afraid of a research question making us feel dumb. As humbling as it may be, those moments are when we realize that we are really testing the boundaries of our knowledge and are venturing “where no man has gone before.”


Take some time to read the article by Schwartz (http://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771.full) and watch the TED talk by DeWitt! (http://www.ted.com/talks/tyler_dewitt_hey_science_teachers_make_it_fun.html)

- Carl

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