Sarah here –
I was recently asked a question during a job interview- which level of students do you most enjoy teaching and why? I thought for a minute and then gave my answer-introductory level students-and the entire panel seemed surprised, which gave me the idea to write this post. Right now, I am a visiting faculty member at a huge university-my entire job is to teach a lot of classes every year. These classes can range from graduate seminars, upper level geology classes, to introductory level classes, where the majority of the students are only there to get their core requirement classes out of the way.
Don’t get me wrong- I love teaching and working with graduate students and geology majors. It’s a blast to work with students who care so much about the material already and who have a thirst to learn more. But what I really love teaching-and the teaching that I find to be the most impactful- is teaching those intro classes.
Nearly 90% of the students in my intro classes will never take another science class again. Most of them, on day one, probably don’t even want to be there-I am told by the students quite often that they’re terrible at science, or that they don’t have any interest in the subject, or even that they have learned some terribly untrue things about science (many of my students come in believing that science and religion are at odds with one another and can’t coexist peacefully-not true at all!). So why do I love teaching them? Quite simply, I am presented with an awesome challenge-to change their minds about science. With every semester, I am given the gift to encourage sometimes hundreds of students to explore the beautiful world of science. I get to show students volcanoes that burn bright blue because of the sulfur in the lava and show them reconstructions of how we think the earliest and weirdest of our ancestors might have lived. I get to help them learn to take a few pieces of evidence and draw conclusions and expose them to a new way of thinking. Geology is an incredibly fun and exciting science and to see intro level students get so engaged and passionate- and to let them see how passionate you are about this subject (seriously, I’ve gotten teaching evaluations that have said “too enthusiastic about science” before)- is a feeling that just can’t be beat.
However, this is also such an incredible responsibility- we have to teach them how science truly works and how to spot bad science, which is increasingly prevalent, in popular culture. We have a responsibility to help them see how their actions, like not recycling, have a direct affect on the people with whom they share the Earth. These classes help students form their opinions on the issues shaping our world today-is GMO food safe? Why do we care if evolution is taught in the classroom? Do we really need to be concerned about climate change? If this is likely the only science class they’ll take, this might be the only time they’ll ever learn how to form their ideas about the scientific issues facing our world-and most importantly, found their opinions based on scientific evidence. If, in a decade or so from now, at least a few of my students think back to their intro geology class with Dr. Sheffield and remember that they should really use those reusable shopping bags or that they might know how to correct someone’s misguidance on climate change or evolution, then I will have helped make a difference. And what could be better?
I wish I had had such an eloquent answer during my interview- but if I could go back, I’d say this: teaching these introductory classes is one of the most important things that we can do as scientists. Don’t take the responsibility you have to inspire a whole generation of enthusiastic and scientifically literate students lightly!