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First-hand report: Natalie Kuldell

Natalie Kuldell
Natalie Kuldell
 
BIOLOGY
Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Instructor: Natalie Kuldell

A teachable moment
I have incorporated content and images from Understanding Science 101 directly into my lectures. I found the site very useful for relating aspects of scientific conduct — for example, what responsibilities scientists have to the community as they analyze their data. It's worth noting that I teach some unusual classes at MIT that are as much about professional competencies as they are about content. One particular story stands out: I had a student notice that the standards (a.k.a. "ladders") she ran on an agarose gel didn't appear exactly the same at one end of her gel versus the other. Her email to me was:

The standard next to (my sample) seems to have run differently, giving different sizes that we would not expect … if it's just a difference of how the DNA ran b/c some of the lanes were loaded before others, could I just cut out the standards in the 14th lane in my report?

She was basically asking if she could trim the complicating data off the picture of her data. So I reminded her of the image I showed on the first day of class from the Understanding Science site, the cartoon where a scientist is sitting at the bench casually tossing one Petri dish in the trash, and reminded her how that's not allowed. So I suggested she email the teaching assistant to find out if there was anything odd about the materials that were photographed. Here's the teaching assistant's reply:

Good for you to notice that the ladders didn't match. I didn't realize that you had ladder in the middle of your gel. I added ladder to lane 14 about 2 minutes after starting the run. I wanted to make sure that you had something to compare bands to. Two minutes doesn't seem like a lot, but it is enough to change the run distance of that lane of DNA. I hope this helps!

This turned a common issue I face (i.e., data not quite as expected) into a nice teaching moment.

Why include the process of science in your curriculum?
Most instructors I know feel like a semester just doesn't have enough time to cover even the most critical content in our disciplines, much less the juicy stories and analysis inside a lot of the findings. But I think most folks also appreciate that what we cover is, for the most part, forgotten by our students at a depressingly high speed and that many of the basic facts are reliably findable on the internet. For those leery of incorporating the nature and process of science into an already full curriculum, I'd suggest an experiment. For one or two of your favorite content lectures, try leaving out a few complementary facts in favor of adding a few process of science moments — maybe dealing with publishing the work, the inspiration for the work, or dead-end paths that didn't (or did!) end up clarifying the subject. At the end of the term, query the students about those embellishments just as you would query them about the factoids, and see if there was value for the time spent exploring. In my own experience, there is.


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