Reforms in Science Education Long Overdue, Says Handelsman

When Jo Handelsman was 16 years old, she read a book by the late Yale plant physiologist Arthur Galston and became convinced her ambition to help feed the world was not misplaced.

When Jo Handelsman was 16 years old, she read a book by the late Yale plant physiologist Arthur Galston and became convinced her ambition to help feed the world was not misplaced.

More than three decades later, she occupies the late Galston’s former office on the ninth floor of Kline Biology Tower, and talks about ways to teach and inspire a new generation of American scientists.

“We are churning out tens of thousands of Ph.D.s who do not know how to teach,” says Handelsman. “Many will not end up in labs. But whether they become university professors, policy analysts or are employed by a corporation they will need to be able to explain scientific ideas clearly and understand how people learn.”

Handelsman — a microbiologist and expert in microbial communication, whose genetic analysis of bacteria found in soil has led to the identification of new antibiotics — had no idea that she would occupy her hero’s old office at Yale when she was hired last year as a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. But like Galston, who died in 2008, she is a forceful and tireless advocate for reforms in science.

As a professor at the University of Wisconsin, she was a nationally known advocate of increasing representation of women on science faculties. She is equally passionate about science education, and is a member of an education subcommittee of the President’s Council on Science and Technology. Her innovative ideas on education led to her appointment as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor, a title that has carried more than $2 million in grants since 2001.

She argues scientists should bring as much rigor to teaching and mentoring as they do to their lab work. And existing data on science education point to the overarching importance of a single goal — getting students actively involved in the learning process.

“The data on this are absolutely clear,” she says. “Participation is the key to learning.”

A prime example is a study conducted at the University of Colorado, where researchers first exposed students to a science lecture and then asked individuals to solve a problem. The students then broke up into small groups to work on the problem together. Researchers found that even in groups in which every individual initially answered a problem incorrectly, the group was likely to solve the problem simply by discussing it among themselves.

Handelsman, author of textbooks on science education, has created a model that encourages student participation at a summer institute she helped form at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One example is an eight-session seminar that gives 10 to 15 graduate students and postdocs experience in how to mentor young students. There are no lectures, but the fellows are expected to develop their own teaching strategies and styles. The same active participation model is followed in the HHMI/National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology. Each summer, about 40 university faculty develop instructional materials for an introductory biology course during a five-day workshop.

To date, some 250 faculty have completed the course and used the principles they learned at the institute to teach, collectively, 100,000 students annually.

“But things are moving much too slowly,” she says.

She is now busy trying to spur creation of similar institutes in areas all over the country, and hopes to introduce the concept at Yale this fall. Handelsman plans to teach a course next year in which graduate students and postdocs create their own biology class. And next spring, she plans to help them teach a biology course for non-majors.

The model of a professor standing in front of a classroom and asking students to remember huge amounts of facts in a short period of time simply does not work well, she says.

“Studies show that biology students only retain 10% to 20% of what they are taught in traditional lectures. We cannot afford to be that inefficient when we have data showing that other methods are more effective,” she says.

But she also understands that it will take a lot of teaching of the teachers before these shortcomings are recognized.

“We all have a tendency to think that we teach well, and we use shoddy data to support that belief. If we have three out of 100 students who get a question right we say, ‘See, I must have communicated clearly because three of the students understood.’ Well, those three probably we would have answered the question correctly if a dog had taught them the material.”

— By Bill Hathaway

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