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Gravitas Publications’ teaching materials put a great deal of emphasis on relating scientific facts and concepts to students’ everyday life and to other courses of study. A December 2009 article on the Website of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) presented in detail how one professor successfully brought that teaching model into her college classroom.

Even though HHMI professor Catherine Drennan teaches introductory chemistry to roughly 200 students at MIT, she had been a student who did not enjoy chemistry at all in high school. The article describes how she is changing the perception of chemistry for her students:

Drennan discovered that many of the MIT freshmen she encountered harbored similar reservations about chemistry. “I talk quite openly about it in class,” she says. “I tell my students, you may not have discovered your love for chemistry yet, but I’m going to show you how it is applicable.”

She hopes that by showing her students how chemistry is related to other disciplines she can help them become better doctors or engineers or maybe even chemists.

While scientific research increasingly takes place at the interface of disciplines, most undergraduate classes are still taught within the confines of traditional science fields: physics, chemistry, biology. As a result, students often view disciplines as separate and unrelated.

So Drennan and her co-instructor developed examples and problem sets that “link specific chemistry lecture topics to biology. One example is electron exchange of oxidation/reduction reactions, a common introductory chemistry topic, and its link to the activation of vitamin B12 in the body. Hamilos’ favorite example relates to the wave-particle duality of light and matter, which Drennan and Taylor explained through quantum dot nanoparticles, small semiconductors that emit light when excited by UV radiation. They then showed how quantum dots can be used to help create images of tumors.”

Education researchers at MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory found that there was a statistically significant increase in student satisfaction with the course after the introduction of the cross-disciplinary examples in the lectures.

The Website article quotes researcher Rudy Mitchell on another impressive result:

“Even more interesting was the student attendance in the course,” Mitchell says. “Large lecture classes often suffer from poor attendance. But 85 percent of students reported attending 90 percent or more of the lectures. That’s unheard of in a lecture with 200 students, and it speaks to how enthusiastic the students are about the course.”

At Gravitas, this sort of cross-connection is made not only in student texts and laboratory workbooks, but it is also the basis for the Kogs-4-KidsTM series that relates chemistry topics to language, arts, technology, history,  critical thinking and philosophy.

The decline of serious science coverage in primary news media – and what that trend means for our future – was thoughtfully covered in an August 17 article in The Nation magazine entitled “Unpopular Science” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. (see:

Good science coverage should report on immediate topics such as the spread of flu and medical discoveries for better health. It should also cover solid science news about climate change, technology advancement, and energy developments, because the public must understand facts about subjects like these in order to shape national policy and make informed judgments. To avoid accepting news straight off of a press release, we need reporters with the experience and specialized knowledge to separate important facts from “fluff.”

Mooney and Kirshenbaum point out that the decline in the number and size of newspapers has triggered cuts in knowledgeable science reporting. And in television, the proliferation of cable news channels has meant that the major broadcast networks have less of a captive audience and fewer financial resources to cover serious science topic in depth.

They write:

From 1989 to 2005, the number of US papers featuring weekly science-related sections shrank from ninety-five to thirty-four. Many of the remaining sections shifted to softer health, fitness and “news you can use” coverage, reflecting the apparent judgment that more thorough science or science policy coverage just doesn’t support itself economically. And the problem isn’t confined to newspapers. Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science and technology, or one-third of 1 percent. Late last year CNN cut its entire science, space and technology unit.”

The overall result is that, although there is a great deal of science information available online, we must search for it and use our own critical thinking abilities to discern what is important to know and what is today’s fad. Learning basic science concepts and how they apply to our daily life is an important step toward making sense of science “news’ in the future. Learning critical thinking skills and the discipline of the scientific method for determining facts will serve non-scientists as well as scientists throughout life.