Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 1999 > Article Detail


Discovery-Based Discourse

Byron Waksman

Reaping Rewards

Our experiment is in the middle of its third year. Objective evaluation of its effectiveness will be difficult but important. At this point the experiment has the earmarks of success. Active thinking, discussion and presentation by the pupils themselves dominate class time. They are essentially given the opportunity to function as scientists. The format challenges the students at a conceptual level and provides an unparalleled opportunity to develop their presentation skills. (Famous scientists, one has a chance to point out, are also good speakers who look their listeners in the eye and don't wave the pointer about.) Robert J. Walker, my first graduate assistant, is now teaching science at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen School, a junior high school in New York's Chinatown. And the students at the Salk school, which in just three years has become enormously popular as a choice of parents, were singled out in recent weeks for having, as a group, scored 35.9 percent higher on citywide reading and writing tests than students of similar backgrounds from other schools.

But I describe the experience not to advocate the method, simply to show how scientists might contribute directly and effectively to education of the next generation of scientists. Senior scientists no longer "at the bench" constitute a largely untapped resource whose energies can and should be channeled into active school-teaching when the opportunity presents itself. Retirement, by freeing us of the traditional demands of academic life, provides the time needed for developing effective interactive teaching modules and the needed illustrative material, as well as for the actual teaching. Graduate students (and occasionally postdoctoral fellows) must accommodate their teaching activities to the demands of their coursework, reading and research. Their activity as teaching assistants can be regarded as equivalent to coursework or, more aptly, an apprenticeship designed to prepare them for their teaching careers. (At NYU plans are nearly complete for the creation this September of a combined track leading to a Ph.D. in biomolecular sciences and an M.A. in science teaching.)

The setting for our small experiment was favorable: The Salk School of Science is a magnet school with a supportive administration and faculty and students likely to become scientists. We had the use of classrooms at the NYU Medical Center to remove the pupils from the distractions of their customary environment and invest each monthly exercise with a sense of its uniqueness and its potential significance for the practice of medicine and conquest of disease. Not all such exercises will have so much going for them. But for an able and energetic senior scientist who likes children and is capable of expressing the firmness, loving acceptance and warmth needed for dealing with them, a carefully designed partnership with a local school offers an effective way of passing along a valuable lifetime of knowledge.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist