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Discovery-Based Discourse

Byron Waksman

In the current wave of teaching reform in the nation's schools, scientists are in position to play a crucial role. Simply put, we are models of what everyone agrees pupils should say and do. We investigate, we think critically, we imagine, we use intuition, we are playful, and we think on our feet and with our hands. "Hands-on," "discovery-based" activity is what we do for a living.

The connection between doing science and teaching science to youngsters ought, therefore, to be an easy one to make. Clearly scientists can contribute directly to the design of new teaching models—and have. There has been much development of science-teaching programs over the past 20 years, with activity ranging from systemic curriculum reform to enrichment programs that train teachers in the use of new hands-on methods.

Some of us, however, are still watching from a distance. I have been fortunate to have been pulled from the sidelines—in my mid-70s, retired from active research in microbiology—directly into the classroom. My interaction with 12-year-olds since 1996 has provided an outlet for my energies, a use for my accumulated knowledge and experience and immense personal satisfaction. I hope that telling the story of this experience will encourage other senior scientists to venture into the classroom as well, to be "live" models engaged in conscious interaction with the scientists of the future.

A few years ago New York University Medical Center forged an agreement with the Salk School of Science, a New York City public school, that allowed NYU faculty members to teach science to Salk pupils in a medical setting. The program is patterned after the work of Michael Shayer, who during the 1980s introduced a "discovery-based" teaching method in a number of British middle schools, basing his approach on Piaget's stages of psychological development and Herman Epstein's studies of brain growth. He called it CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education). The use of nontraditional science teaching not only enhanced the measured cognitive and reasoning skills of students in tests over 3–4 subsequent years but also spilled over into nonscientific disciplines such as English.

Epstein, at Brandeis in the late 1960s, had introduced into college and then high school teaching a method in which science students would study individual research papers dealing with a particular line of work, focusing class discussion in each case on the activities of the scientist who wrote the paper. "We continually ask students to put themselves in the place of the experimenter and figure out what to do next and how to do it," Epstein said. "This is the orientation of problem-seers and problem-solvers."

My involvement with the program has been typical. Each school year a graduate assistant and I schedule seven monthly, 75-minute encounters with the 60 children making up the seventh grade at Salk, split into two multiethnic, multicultural groups of 30. The seventh-grade teacher helps us understand the characteristics of 12-year-old children, makes suggestions and critiques successive exercises as they develop. Our encounters consist of a 15-minute illustrated talk by the senior scientist, followed by assignments of small-group tasks. The tasks are completed in 10 minutes, with support from the teacher, junior scientist and senior scientist, and one or two pupils representing each small group then make a presentation to the class. The senior scientist and science teacher wind up by summarizing the important points brought out in the student presentation.

How does this work in real life? Some snippets from our very first session in 1996 will, I hope, allow me to share the flavor of the experience. Subsequent sessions used experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis and multiple sclerosis as models for exploring topics in immunology research. We endeavored during these dicussions to bring out elements of process in the scientific material: data and interpretation, laboratory methods, bioethical concerns and the interaction of science and society. For instance, we discussed how model diseases in animals might shed light on human diseases; we compared cellular and molecular techniques of investigation; we talked about the human and social implications of disease; and we looked at the Food and Drug Administration's role in protecting against bad science and quackery. (Add-ons to this exercise in 1997 and 1998 have been descriptions of the new epidemic disease monkeypox in Central Africa and the use of smallpox as a microbiological weapon by the British during the American Revolution.)

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