The Problem With Science Teaching

Not long ago, I attended a lecture about cancer biology. On the very same day, a major story about a potential cancer treatment was published in several national newspapers. But this wasn’t mentioned once in my cancer biology lecture, on a course supposedly at “the forefront” of scientific developments.

In fact, the only time I can distinctly remember a lecturer applying scientific concepts to the “real world” was in a separate class about cancer stem cells, just a few days ago. It’s weird because I can very vividly remember leaving my lecture feeling kind of amazed at how much I’d learned and how applicable it was.

This lecturer made constant references to the bigger story – in this case being that each cancer statistic is a person, not a number – and as a result, it is one of the few lectures I can really remember facts from.

Which, when you think about it, shouldn’t be the case: I should be leaving every lecture feeling inspired and informed about something other than a bunch of numbers and names of proteins.

But back to the previously mentioned lecture – the one on the same day as the national news story.

For some reason, the latest news about cancer treatments just didn’t seem to fit in with our lecture –  it wasn’t even mentioned, not even in criticism. It was simply ignored. Soon-to-be cancer biologists were sitting in a lecture about cancer, with no idea of what was going on right now in the world of cancer biology, or how it related to the science they were learning.

This, I realised, as I found myself absent-mindedly looking at the snow falling out of the window and losing concentration (the lecturer was talking about something how something called smac inhibits IAPs so you can’t really blame me), is the problem with science teaching.

Particularly at degree level, we spend so much time focusing on the nitty-gritty details of pathways and the complex crystal structures of various compounds, that we forget about the big stuff. We forget about the fact that an absolutely huge news story about one of medicine’s biggest challenges was just published.

We forget, that at the end of the day, while what we’re physically doing is analysing data and adjusting pipette volumes, what we’re actually working towards is a far bigger, far more inspiring picture than a few dots on a petri-dish. We forget about the people we’re trying to save.

In this entire module on cancer biology, rarely have I seen a single case study. Rarely have I seen what these microscopic changes result in, and rarely have I seen their impacts on our world. Despite the fact that cancer biology must be one of the most human topics in science, we’ve forgotten about humans.

Of course, the intricate level of detail is fine if you want to be a scientist, because it’s the details you need to know if you’re going to solve problems like cancer, or genetic diseases. But the lack of continuity between the science being taught and the science we see and read about in the everyday world is why people are losing interest in science.

There’s a certain level of snobbery in the sciences that says the word “applied” makes a subject less intellectual. Applied science courses often have lower grade boundaries and aren’t considered as high-calibre. But there’s a lot we could learn from these “applied” courses.

Comic by xkcd

The applications of science are where the real magic happens. We aren’t inspired by stories about proteins; we’re inspired by stories about people. We don’t want to read the scientific paper with the confusing title that’s an amalgamation of letters and numbers that don’t quite form words; we want to read the newspaper article that says:

“Cancer tumour genetics reveal possible treatment revolution”

In no way am I saying that we should scrap the level of detail in a science degree. But the best lecturers are the ones who can relate the details to the real world. We lose too many potentially great minds to thoughts like “but when am I ever going to need to know this?” “why is this relevant?” simply because no-one is putting into words exactly how much science can intersect with our everyday lives.

The most creative scientists can see biology every time we move, can see chemistry when we cook, and physics when we look up at the night sky or turn on the computer.

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