Think like an expert: teaching kids to see the big picture, Part 1

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently enrolled in a(n awesome) physics class.  On the first day, our professor showed us this photograph:

Take a look… what do you see?

At first, it looks like a sea of random dots.  However, when you look at it more closely, in the center of the frame is the outline of a dalmatian, surrounded by leaves along a road.

This, our professor said, is seeing like an expert – taking in a whole system of dots, like equations, theorems, specific experiments, and seeing the larger pattern that unites them all.  This image can never be unseen – it becomes an internalized part of your way of seeing the world.

Students, on the other hand, come to our specific disciplines and typically try to memorize as many dots as possible.  They create mnemonics to make certain clusters of dots more recognizable, practice finding dots quickly over and over before an exam, and crate long study guides covered in every possible iteration of dots to prepare for any kind of question we might throw at them.

Ultimately, our goal as teachers is to help our students see science like an expert.  Instead of partitioning body systems into concrete boxes, we hope students will understand them intuitively as interacting in a larger system aimed at homeostasis.  Instead of thinking of Newtonian physics with a series of equations, we encourage students to develop intuition about particular phenomena, based in science rather than their naive conceptions.  When approaching a calculation, we hope students will think first of what magnitude they expect their answer to be before applying an equation into the mix.

I have been blown away by how clearly this has been taught in my physics course, which uses the Physics by Inquiry curriculum developed by Lillian McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington.  Our two-week intensive has covered the topics of basic electrical circuits and the phases of the Moon – both topics that I have taught in the past – and breaks down those topics into student-led, direct inquiry lessons that build models from the ground up.

Instead of starting with equations, the curriculum encourages students to create an intuition about phenomena that rises out of observed patterns in their data.  Starting with something as simple as creating a complete circuit with a battery, a single wire, and a light bulb (Guess what? There’s 4 different ways to do it!), the curriculum builds an intuitive, qualitative model of electrical current and voltage.  Only after the groundwork is laid and set – a good 30+ hours of instructional time into the unit – does anything like Ohm’s law enter into play.  By then, it’s almost a given!

I cannot recommend this curriculum enough.  Even going through one of the units yourself is an eye-opening experience for any science teacher.

After completing this course, with its many “aha” moments in both teaching and physics, I have been energized to dig into the literature and see what other curriculum planning tools and constructed curricula exist for teaching science effectively.  Specifically, as someone teaching human biology for the first time, I wonder how these same research tools could be applied to teaching that much less mathematical and systematic discipline.  More on what I’ve dug up from the MSU library in future posts!


On spatial reasoning & the gender gap in STEM

I’m taking a physics course right now that is reminding me, repeatedly, that I have strong spatial reasoning skills compared with many other people.  Now, I’m not writing this to brag – I’m writing it because it has made this physics class much easier for me than many other students, despite having less formal training in physics than many other students, all of whom are science teachers.  I feel included in the community of the class by virtue of my ability to move shapes in my head, and quickly assign scientific meaning to visual structures both in my head and on paper.

When I was growing up as a female child, my mother knew how much a lack of spatial reasoning set her back in science and math.  She asked my grandmother, one of my primary caretakers as a kid and a retired math teacher, to train me to do spatial reasoning and logic.  We practiced different kinds of puzzles, games, and geometry problems that required my developing brain to manipulate shapes and determine how things worked together spatially.  Though it’s impossible to say for sure, I believe this early training had a huge influence on my spatial abilities as an adult.

Fast forward to today, and research is supporting that practicing spatial reasoning tasks can improve spatial reasoning skills – one of the persistent gaps between men and women in STEM training programs.  I first came across this finding at the Women in STEM Knowledge Center, whose Engineering Inclusive Teaching program provides resources to engineering faculty about creating more inclusive STEM classrooms.  One of their webinars focused on a group of undergraduate engineering students at University of Colorado, Boulder that took a 1-credit spatial reasoning course in their first year in the program.  Before taking the class, 88% of men and 68% of women passed a spatial reasoning pre-test.  After the workshop, that gap closed to 99% of men and 96% of women.  Similar results were seen for international students vs. domestic students: before the class, only 61% of international students passed while 85% of domestic students did.  Afterwards, this closed to 92% vs. 99%.

Turns out this is not an isolated finding.  Many peer-reviewed articles have uncovered similar results: that spatial reasoning is an essential skill in engineering that has a persistent gender gap, but that it is highly teachable.  I love this quote from a KQED piece on the topic:

“Spatial skills are an early indicator of later achievement in mathematics, they “strongly predict” who will pursue STEM careers, and they are more predictive of future creativity and innovation than math scores. In fact, a review of 50 years of research shows that spatial skills have a “robust influence” on STEM domains.

However, women generally score lower than men on tests of spatial reasoning — particularly measures of spatial visualization and mental rotation. Some researchers point to evolution as the culprit, while others have tied the discrepancies to hormone levels or brain structure.  As one researcher put it, “Sex differences in spatial ability are well documented, but poorly understood.”

Sheryl Sorby said she’s not interested in arguing about why the gap exists because training and practice can close it.”

As a trans person and a person assigned female at birth, I too am tired of science trying to put meaning onto a difference between groups as a result of hormones, chromosomes, or evolution when results turn out to be changeable.  Let’s do something about this gap rather than trying to justify it!

I brought this finding up to my physics professor, who was putting himself down for putting a very challenging spatial reasoning question on our mid-term exam.  I suggested that with more practice, more students would have been able to succeed.  Unsurprisingly, his response was initially one of disbelief.  His mindset was based in the idea that spatial reasoning skills are fixed – that “art,” “drawing,” and “visualization” are either talents you are born with, or are doomed to never have.

However, just like in athletics, training has shown to improve students’ spatial reasoning abilities overall. Not all students will become star visualizers, in the same way that not all students will become track stars if they start running every day.  However, we can all become more “fit” in our spatial reasoning through concerted effort and practice.

With these findings in mind, I am trying to collect good websites that have spatial reasoning practice for my students.  At times, I plan to make it required – as Dr. Cheryan pointed out, this is the only way to guarantee equitable impact – but I also plan to have it as an option for kids who are finished with their work to do something that is productive, challenging, and fun.  Have one to add?  Leave it in the comments!

  • 3D logic cube. Match the same-color squares to complete each level.
  • Interlocked – one of my personal favorites.  Rotate pieces, which are partially visible, to unlock the connections between them.  Lots of spatial reasoning here!
  • Tetrical – a 3D tetris game.  Challenging but fun! An easier, untimed version: Puzz3D
  • Blueprint – rotate a blueprint until you find the correct picture.
  • Shape fold – an easy tangrams-like game that involves rotating 2D shapes
  • Shape inlay – ultimate tangrams.  I could play this for hours
  • Fit it quick – mini-tetris
  • Magnets – a game I have already played for hours, and single-handedly helped me decide I shouldn’t be in research, because I found it too tempting by comparison. (Be forewarned, this is more an indication of how much I disliked research than how good the game is… and it’s impossible to get past level 5, as far as I can tell 🙂 )

Teaching human biology with case studies

It’s been an exciting summer, filled with lots of professional and personal development opportunities.  I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks summarizing some of the exciting new tools I’ve gathered in my time in the Master’s of Science in Science Education (MSSE) program at Montana State University during our summer semester.

One class that I was particularly excited about was “Teaching Anatomy & Physiology using Case Studies.”  The course focused on case studies as a form of minds-on learning that fits particularly well in an A&P setting.  As I shift from a primarily physical science focus to human biology, the inquiry format that I have used in past years no longer applies in the same way.  (Handing four kids a gerbil and saying, “Figure out how it works!” is hardly an reasonable – or ethical – task!)

Case studies provide students with a similar guided-inquiry environment where they are piecing together information into a meaningful story about a particular body system or phenomenon.  By using topics that are super-relevant to students, like caffeine consumption, athletic doping, or the Paleo diet, cases create engagement and relevance to human biology.  Cases also make it easy to integrate human society into everyday topics, including class, race, and identity – in ways that make teaching more powerful and effective without removing content.  I consider case studies a key tool in social justice science education.

Part of the class was participating in online case studies with our classmates.  In the process, I learned a great deal about human body systems, but I learned even more from observing our professor ask really strong, probing questions in discussion.  Her questions were well-timed, and pushed our understanding to the next level without getting off-topic.  Asking good questions is something I am always honing in my teaching craft, so I was grateful to be a part of that process.

As the final project, I wrote my own case study, which I wanted to share publicly so that others can use it.  It focuses on the allergic response as a lens to how the immune system works.  If you do use it, please let me know how it goes and what you changed!  Please forgive a handful of late-night typos 🙂

Do you teach using case studies?  What would you want to create a case study about?  What other ways exist for inquiry processes to fit into a human biology curriculum?  Share your ideas in the comments!

BONUS: In searching for content related to science teaching using case studies, I found a collection of case studies focused on diversity and inclusion to use in faculty & staff trainings, and a collection of cases where teachers are improving their science teaching.  Enjoy!