“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
The ultimate objective of higher education is to provide students with the ability to make original contributions to their discipline’s knowledge. If this were not so, progress would stop and new ideas, or inventions would cease. How do we reach this pinnacle, this final objective? Applying problem solving skills and deciding which questions to address is the highest form of education where the student becomes a peer, a critic, and a colleague of the teacher. Reaching this plateau of proposing new avenues for inquiry and providing solutions is difficult to attain. The best environment for achieving this pinnacle is not a student-teacher ratio of twenty-to-one, or twelveto- one, but one-to-one. Pupil and teacher must be together in a situation where difficulties abound and easy solutions are rare. For the scientist, student-faculty research amply provides such an opportunity. The close interaction allows the student to participate with, and learn from the professor as they think through a dilemma to a resolution. And when questions arise, the mentor must resist the temptation to quickly provide the answer. This is a teaching-learning environment and the mentor must involve the student as the mentor helps the student develop her/his unique problem solving methodologies.
So, how do I teach in the traditional classroom? I now teach very differently than I did when I began lecturing in 1975. I taught as I was taught, spending hours developing organized and, I hoped, interesting lecture notes that I would deliver as rapidly as possible to the class. I was the “Sage on the Stage”. My laboratory experiments were designed to verify the concepts presented in the lectures. I taught this way until I watched Professor Kingsfield, star of the 1979 TV show Paper Chase, call on and “grill” students on the class assignments. This experience led me to change my lecture style to a “Socratic Method” where I try to call on each student at least once per week. I still attempt to organize the topics into a logical flow, but now students are called upon to work the problems or give insights into a concept. The class is interactive with questions from the students as well as from me. While at NSF I learned of the importance of group learning and I, once more, modified by teaching pedagogy. In CHEM 132 students are now organized into teams who solve problems on worksheets that are turned in and graded.
As my philosophy of education matured I realized that learning the “process of science” was vastly more important then learning the “facts of science”. If my objective was to engage students in the process of science, then I needed to teach in a manner that prepared students to fully benefit from the research experience. Laboratories should be opportunities for students to practice and develop their problem solving skills. Even as freshman, students should be actively engaged in the process of science. Laboratory experiments should require group work, there should be multi-week, discovery-based projects where students develop, within guidelines, the hypothesis to be investigated. Students should be organized into teams that conduct “mini-research projects” that prepare them for their mentor-guided research experience. Science educators have found that these learning strategies are especially suitable for women and minorities and for economically disadvantaged students.
Finally, I am a challenging teacher, always pushing students to their limit by presenting difficult problems that challenge their current level of understanding. A delicate balance is needed because students will quit if they are constantly frustrated by problems that are too difficult for them to solve. In effect, I push students to the edge of the cliff of their knowledge but try to avoid pushing them into the abyss beyond. Students will build upon that success and each time they venture to the cliff they will find it takes a few more steps to reach the edge. The repeated journey to the edge of their knowledge is the essence of learning.