[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
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.
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