The Bug Geek

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Wrong for science?

Last night I was up too late (again), nursing a too-busy brain with a good dose of Internet, when the Twitterverse led me to an post by Marie-Claire Shanahan on the blog Boundary Vision, entitled, “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?”

It would appear there are some common themes in terms of (high school) students’ opinions about what makes a good scientist, i.e., they are inquisitive, creative, follow rules, employ critical thinking, and have a certain level of theoretical or technical expertise.

There are also some common misconceptions, which are brilliantly illustrated in a comic that a number of my science-student-buddies were passing around last week:

Public perception of science, and the reality (from

It seems that students often think they’re not “the right type of person” to do science because of the mistaken notion that scientists have such giant, enormous brains that they never struggle, make mistakes, or have to ask questions. For example:

[A] student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

That student could have been me.

When I was in my second last year of high school, I was struggling to keep up in my senior biology class. My mark was dismal. My parents came in to chat with the teacher.  Her helpful advice? “Science isn’t really your thing.  You should try something else.”

If I hadn’t felt stupid already, I sure did now. I figured she was right: I did not, after all, really fit societal expectations of “a good science student”. My struggle turned into apathy. I stopped asking questions in class. I scraped by with a barely-passing grade.

The effects of the teachers’ words lingered. At the time of our conversation, I had been thinking about going to vet school. A year later, I was passionately anti-science, and would tell anyone who would listen that I was an “artsie”.

I applied for university programs in psychology, journalism and technical theatre. I ended up in journalism . It quickly became clear that, although I was doing well, it really wasn’t turning my crank…what on earth was I going to do?

Then, a lucky fluke: in my second semester I took an elective class called “Natural History of Ontario”. It was like a floodlight went off in my brain. HOLY CRAP, THIS STUFF IS AWESOME!  THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO!!! That summer I took 3 senior science and math classes, and started back at my university in the fall as a first-year biology student.

I haven’t looked back since.

Says Shanahan, in the original article on which her blog post was based:

The ability to generate new explanations, see novel connections, and navigate fluidly between representations are among only some of the aspects of scientific intelligence that have been neglected in students’ conceptualizations….In a classroom, however, [an] impoverished view of intelligence is the one that is likely rewarded. Grades are the primary measure of success in school science…

What I discovered as I successfully navigated through two science degrees, and continue to learn as I work on my third, is that many of my “messy” or “not-sciencey” characteristics are what help me learn and do good science. I “reauthored” myself as a science student, with new ideas about acceptable roles and attributes.

I ask a lot of questions – I don’t know everything, after all.

I make a lot of mistakes – but I learn from them.

I work hard to grasp new concepts – it helps me remember them and make meaningful connections to other concepts.

I do things my own way sometimes, not always following set rules – it lets me develop new approaches or ideas.

I permit myself to be distracted – my meandering, random brain often hits on great stuff that way.

As much as I’ve come to recognize the value of these traits, I am still, in some ways, as guilty as ever of believing that maybe I’m doing science all wrong, and that others are better scientists than me because they better adhere to my old notions about “real science” or “real scientists”.

Can we change the culture of science and science education to recognize and value traits other than those pervasive and persistently-held? DOES the culture change beyond high school? I would love to see this study repeated with, say, second-year university students. And again with tenured professors.


Shanahan, M., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: Evidence of social structural norms specific to school science Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (4), 367-395 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406

Note to self: things aren’t always as they seem.

I was reminded today not to make hasty judgements about people, and to have a little more faith in myself.

I taught today (MUCH better, very fun … Stella’s got her groove back).  One student sat at the front-and-centre bench, working alone  and diligently on the assigned tasks.  He asked frequent, detailed questions.  They were thorough, thoughtful questions, but I interpreted his curt and affectless demeanour as dismissive and irritated – with me?  With my replies?   I wasn’t sure which it was, but I became increasingly unnerved with each exchange, and in short order I was convinced he thought I was a complete moron.

Imagine my surprise, then, when he lingered after class to talk to me.  Not about the lab content, but about the fact that he was a brand-new undergrad and was frustrated by his efforts to express himself eloquently in a language that was not his mother tongue.  He wanted to tell me about his academic interests, and find out what opportunities there were for undergrads to do field work: “real” science.  He asked my about my Master’s research.  He wanted to know about the types of employment he might be able to pursue, how to get research funding, and how to develop helpful relationships with professors.   

These are not questions you ask of someone you think is a moron. 

His terse speech was actually a reflection of his struggle to communicate the way he wanted to (not that I had thought for a moment that he was having difficulty, he was very well-spoken). 

Long story short, I allowed my own insecurities to cloud my perception of one of my students; a young man who turned out to be very self-aware, intelligent and keen.  And who most certainly did not think I was a moron.

This was an important lesson.  I’m glad it was taught to me this early in the process.

Learning Curve

I am in the throes of my annual New Year’s cold.   Without fail, after a little R&R at the end of a busy holiday season, my immune system goes “KERSPLAT” and I wind up sick.   So here I sit, with a cup of tea, a phlegmy, throbbing skull and a wastebasket full of wadded-up kleenex.  It the midst of all this, I’m trying to get prepped for my first “real” week of school.  To wit:

  • First teaching lab
  • First class (Forest Entomology)-I’m just sitting in, but still have reading to do
  • First Big Meeting To Nail Down Details Of My Research So I Can Start Preparing For Summer Field Work

The first one is proving to be the biggest challenge so far, in terms of prep.  This first three-hour lab covers 3 exercises and 3 major animal groups: Protozoa, Porifera, Cnidaria.   My phlegmy brain is struggling to dredge up and reconfigure its decade-old knowledge of non-arthropod taxonomy and classification, let alone anatomy. 

Similarly, it’s been so long since I’ve really had to critically read and analyse scientific literature, that I’m finding the review for the Ent class slow-going.   I am taking the time to make sure I really understand the material, though; I have my trusty biology dictionary and google close at hand, and I’m using them.   There are many terms that I know I know, but haven’t been using day-to-day, so my comprehension is a tad rusty.

These first few weeks and months are going to consist of a very steep learning curve (or re-learning in many cases); but it’s certainly not insurmountable and I’m ready for the challenge.   

In the meantime, my four-legged crew is helping to keep me on track.

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