Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Ideas in Practice: A Novel, "Cool" Assignment to Engage Science Students

Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Ideas in Practice: A Novel, "Cool" Assignment to Engage Science Students

Article excerpt

I should not have to take this test. You see, I'm an art major and I use the right side of my brain, and this is a science test which favors the left side of the bain. You should design a different test for me.

Developmental education student / eventual art-major

Many students have wished for different kinds of tests in their science courses, but few have actually had the courage to request them. The quoted developmental student has boldly and frequently vocalized his displeasure with the requirements of the science course. He has even gone so far as to say that our grading system promotes conformity and that we reward students who think as we do. ("This is just your opinion of the right answer-in my world there is no wrong or right answer, just different opinions. You just want us to think like you think.")

It was an educational and surprising experience for us to see how a nonscience student responded to the day-to-day curriculum and instruction of a traditional science class. He made us realize that there was indeed little room for freedom and creativity within our course and that we were at least somewhat guilty of prompting students to see the world just like we did, to conform to our ways of thinking.

A few months after the end of the semester, the student's request for a different test again came to mind while we were listening to a radio interview. It was during the peak of the "dot.com boom" when companies were paying top dollar for the best programmers. The interviewer was questioning a computer company's human-resources (HR) person about what it takes to capture and retain top programmers. The HR person explained that the top programmers thought differently and did not tolerate the restrictions of a typical job. The HR person said that official job descriptions of the best computer-programmers simply said "do cool stuff." That was it; that was all that was both needed and wanted. For the top software developers, maximum freedom was both essential and necessary. Give programmers the necessary resources, get the bureaucracy out of the way, and get rich off the programs they develop. After hearing this job description, we started talking about the lack of assignments that require students to be creative and do "cool stuff." When was the last time we looked at a student's responses to a multiple-choice exam and thought "this is unique!"?

In a perfect world, courses would be tailored for each student; even more individualized than "math for musicians" or "rocks for jocks," there would be "chemistry for Cleo" or "physics for Phil." But the realities of working in publicly supported institutions frequently mean large classes and a "one size fits all" approach to most class assignments. In defense of science courses, it is a good thing to have art students learn how to use a microscope, to have English majors know the parts of the heart, and to have future accountants learn about blood. Science is one of the foundations of a liberal arts education: It stimulates students to think about the interconnections between the natural world and all of the human constructs. However, does the vocal art-major have a point? Is there some way for students in a science class to employ their creativity and individuality?

Because research has revealed that developmental education students frequently are not successful in traditional curriculums (Boylan, 2002; Boylan & Saxon, 1998; Stratton, 1998), the "Do Something Cool" assignment is an attempt to make our anatomy and physiology curriculum atypical and better suited for our students. Additionally, studies of brain-based learning, laterality, and learning styles all recommend teaching-methods that accommodate students' strengths (e.g., Sousa, 2001). In the early 1970s, Dr. Roger Sperry showed that the two hemispheres of the brain specialize in different human activities (Trevarthen, 1990). For example, art, music appreciation, and creativity are associated with the right side of the brain, whereas logical thinking, math and science ability, and language skills are associated with the left side of the brain. …

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