[EAS] Lessons in Life (Engineering)

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Wed Jun 11 23:44:46 EDT 2008

Dear Colleagues -

My friend and colleague Alfred Ganz pointed me to 
this column in the current Newsweek, observing 
that problems with student attention don't just 
happen in engineering.

He's so right about engineering. In the intro-EE 
course I taught last fall I tried to make 
frequent connections, but got hammered in the 
course critique for being too anecdotal. It's a 
thin line -- in fact I doubt that there is even 
still a line at all for a typical class 
distribution of student attitudes.

I'm put in mind of Woody Allen's cheerful quote  
"We stand at an important cross-road. To the left 
is certain destruction. To the right is utter 
despair. Let us pray that we choose wisely."


Lessons in Life (Science)

Trying to get my students excited about biology 
is no easy task. Putting things in perspective 
Updated: 2:00 PM ET Jun 7, 2008

If you're majoring in architecture or philosophy, 
you probably don't think you need to take a 
semester of college biology. But you do. For me, 
teaching this required class has been an 
education. The first year, I tried to humanize 
biological research by inviting colleagues in, to 
describe their projects. This went well until a 
visiting geneticist's presentation was drowned 
out by students shouting about how "disgusting" 
and "vile" research was. Uh-oh. We've got 
trouble, right here in the nonmajors' classroom. 
Trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with B 
and that stands for Bad Public Relations.

Leaping to the defense of history's researchers, 
I pointed out that no one in the room had polio, 
thanks to the treatment developed by our 
college's own alumnus Jonas Salk. The angriest 
student looked at me blankly as I cited the 
thousands of chick embryos sacrificed in 
experiments that led to the vaccine. Like 
virtually all therapies for humans, the polio 
vaccine was tested in animals first. She stopped 

I've tried to look at biology as an outsider, as 
someone who experiences my field only on TV, 
where female scientists apparently spend a lot of 
time blow-drying their hair and shopping for 
push-up bras between blood-sample-scraping 
expeditions. I wanted to get things in 
perspective: If law students had to spend five or 
six years in school, think up a novel law and get 
it passed, then their training would resemble 
that of a biology Ph.D. If a med student had to 
invent and test a new treatment for patients-and 
prove it successful-before being awarded an M.D., 
ditto. If my students remember nothing else, I'd 
be happy if they leave with the idea that, just 
like art or music, science is a creative process.

Research is unpredictable. Put five biologists 
around a table in any bar, and a weird synergy 
takes over. Unexpected ideas emerge as new 
experiments are hastily diagrammed on cocktail 
napkins. Science isn't old information pressed 
like crumbling fall leaves between the pages of 
forgotten books. It's alive-growing and shifting 
and blossoming. Funding basic research means that 
scientists can pursue ideas and chase down the 
unexpected zigs and zags that lead to important 
findings. If you fund us, they will come. I need 
these students-voters-to get this.

Each class has its own personality, and my third 
group acted like a chronically irritated 
14-year-old. Every classroom activity was 
accompanied by eye rolls and sighs of 
exasperation. I'm old enough now to realize that 
I can't really teach anyone anything; I can just 
try to create conditions that foster learning. 
When students meet me halfway, it sometimes 
works. Still, I felt personally affronted by the 
slacker attitude, because real science is an art. 
I tried a video of hydras-tiny tentacle-draped 
pond animals-to reveal how a creature with no 
legs or arms moves around, captures prey and 
reproduces. A film on sea horses, a species whose 
males handle pregnancy, drew laughter at the 
birth scenes.

With a week left in the semester, the students 
wanted to know about the final. One asked if she 
had to know the structure of a cell. I said yes, 
cells are fundamental. She retorted, "Why the 
hell do we need to know about a phospholipid 

I sighed. "Here's why you need to know about the 
phospholipid bilayer. Some day you are going to 
be in the intensive-care unit with someone you 
love hooked up to a lot of tubes. You are going 
to be asking for a new treatment or a new drug or 
demanding to know why they aren't getting better. 
If you remember anything about how research 
works, you'll be saying, 'I want this patient 
enrolled in a clinical trial! Now!' "

I had everyone's rapt attention. Like Bible 
salesmen in foxholes, pro-research lobbyists 
would do a brisk business in an ICU. I continued, 
"In the event that the doctor has two minutes to 
discuss the situation and to describe the biology 
underlying the disease so that you can look up 
clinical trials, you are going to need to know 
what a cell is and how disease can impact it."

It was a pretty good rant, aside from my use of 
"impact" as a verb. They got it, noting "cell 
structure" on their to-do lists. I showed the 
last of the sea-horse film. It wasn't going to be 
on the final, but I wanted to end the semester 
with something unique, something they didn't 
already know. Something we're aware of only 
because some passionate scientist spends 12 hours 
a day underwater filming it. Something beautiful 
and amazing. Biology.

Hoskins lives in New York City.

URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/140466
©  2008

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