Robin Pals Rylaarsdam, PhD Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences Benedictine University, Lisle, IL
Long years of training, fairly long work hours during the semester, grading, plenty of students who don't take learning seriously, grading, less time for the fun of research, inefficient committee and department meetings, grading, a recent drop in the public's esteem for the profession, grading, modest middle-class pay, grading . . . why would anyone want to teach undergraduate students as their primary work?
"Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world." (Nelson Mandela)
Teaching changes people. An 18-year-old walks into my class on her first day of college, and over the next four years she can be transformed from someone who can learn what she's assigned to memorize into someone who can analyze an argument, a data set, the likelihood of a hypothesis working out once the experiment is done. A nontraditional-aged student begins his journey sitting quietly in the back of the class, unsure about his ability to compete with the teeagers, and develops into the classmate everyone turns to for the hard questions. Even the student who fails can be changed for the better, in finding that failure is not an end, but a nudge toward the vocation that first his unique traits. And the unmotivated student who "figures it out" and becomes the senior student who's eager to learn will always keep me hopeful when facing the student who hasn't yet made that discovery.
My current job is at an institution with a long history of serving immigrants and first-generation Americans. The college degree opens socioeconomic opportunities for my students and their families. Graduation days are absolutely as good as Christmas for me. The families are so proud. Grandmothers are so happy, even if they haven't understood a word of the Commencement speaker. When a student graduates from Benedictine, there is often a whole community of people who benefit.
And honestly, the hours in the classroom are absolutely enjoyable. If I lecture, it's telling a page or two of the grand story of God's world and its workings - which never ceases to delight and amaze me. If I flipped the class and the students have listened to an online lecture before we meet, then I get to come alongside them as they work through how we know the textbook facts, or what the data suggests we could explore next. It is like C.S. Lewis's "Aslan's Country" - ever more wonderful "further up and further in", and far more fun to make the journey with my students.
There are practical things, too. It's not at all true that college professors take the summers off, but it would be accurate to say that there are few days I've been required to go to campus during the all-too-short Chicago summers. For being on a 9-month contract, the pay is reasonable. Tight, if you're the only wage-earner, but doable in most locations. The academic schedule has a lot of flexibility built in. While attending my classes is a non-negotiable requirement, I'm the manager of my time for much of the work week. This flexibility has allowed me to show up quite early and leave in time for elementary school dismissal. I'll return to work at my home desk after my son is in bed, so I get significant time with him every day, and the staggered schedule gives my husband significant time with our son in the mornings. This luxury wouldn't have been possible if I had gone into industry or research-intensive academic positions.
Downsides to college teaching other than grading? It's hard to carve out time and find resources to continue to be active in bench work in cell biology research. I don't have a technician or postdoc, so I wear many hats in the lab, from ordering labeling tape and pipet tips to maintaining our cell lines to writing the papers and grant proposals. Conflicts with colleagues and administrators happen on all jobs, but the unique nature of tenure and the stability of the faculty mean that conflicts can fester for a long time. It's also easy too get in a rut. Science changes "rapidly", but foundational introductory biology concepts are pretty much the same now as they were years ago when I started teaching. Finding creative outlets in my teaching has been essential for avoiding boredom for me - and a bored professor makes for a boring course!
In the end though, teaching changes people. It changed me when I was a student, in many important ways. It's been an honor to walk alongside all my students for nearly two decades as they took their journeys of college science education.
And there are ways to make grading less painful. Lots of them! But that's a topic for another essay.
I was privileged to be part of an exploratory research project this summer that occurred on Panama’s Isla Coiba. This is the largest island in Pacific Central America, containing about 193 square miles. (For comparison, Southern California’s popular Catalina Island covers only 74 square miles.) For eighty-five years, Coiba was a prison island much like Alcatraz. The people who were there did not want to be there, whether they were prisoners or staff, and the sour reputation of the place kept other visitors away. This resulted in Coiba becoming a significant home for wildlife. Although there was some abuse of resources carried on by the people who were present – coerced nest robbing, for example, by prisoners who were forced to climb hundred-foot trees to obtain parrot nestlings for guards to sell for personal gain – the island is large and not easily accessible, permitting wildlife to be mostly overlooked and ignored. Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) no longer exist in mainland Panama, but there are healthy populations on Coiba. These are the birds we were there to learn more about.
After a six hour redeye flight to Panama City and an unexpectedly lengthy stay at the office of STRI, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, to confirm research permits and island visitation authorizations, we boarded a bus for the four hour ride to Santiago. From there it took another couple of hours to reach the trending surf town of Santa Catalina. This was our departure point for Isla Coiba. We would arrive on the island after a ninety-minute voyage aboard a small panga,a modest, open, outboard-powered boat owned by a trustworthy local captain named Feliciano. Joining us on board were Javier, our guide; Melvin, Feliciano’s son and assistant; and Viviana, our cook for the duration of our time on the island. She was also Feliciano’s daughter. The family had a good thing going there.
It was the very start of the rainy season, when the afternoon clouds were uncertain about their daily growth spurt and still occasionally neglected to convene and conspire to drench us. The green of the tropics, so vivid to anyone from parched California, owes its existence to that cloudy conspiracy but remains brilliant whether the rain falls or not. This vibrant green that is present everywhere you look offered the strongest impression to me about the island. When I think back on my time there, I think green. And damp.
When we prepare to visit someplace new we often look up photographs, videos, even movies that feature that place. It seems like a good idea to do our best to understand it as well as we can before we experience it in person. It is indeed a good idea, I suppose, but visual images fall so far short. Maybe they are better than nothing, but perhaps not much. Photographic images offer only one thing – a picture – and apply to only one of our senses – vision. The reality of a place is the sum of its sensual offerings, and that goes far beyond merely what we can see. I once heard a missionary comment that no news camera’s film images can convey the harshness of a riot, because the acrid smell of burning tires cannot be recorded by a camera. In the same way, no photograph of Coiba’s lush green hills can signal the humidity of the air that is present. It fills every pore with moisture and produces that constant trickle of sweat that the visitor or resident alike learns to live with. Amazingly, the visitor who slowly becomes a resident does get acclimated; the humidity does become easier to cope with. My previous experience in the tropics taught me this. The far more brief experience of Isla Coiba that I had early this summer was by no means long enough for that acclimatization to even begin. It was just green, vibrant, full of life, and full of moisture.
Why America's obsession with STEM education is dangerous
The Washington Post
March 26, 2015
If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” asked Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott. “I don’t think so.” America’s last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.
This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.
I teach science to college students who are not very interested in science. This can be challenging - more so than I would like at times. Most of the time, students land in my biology or earth science class so they can meet the general education requirements of our liberal arts Christian university and never have to learn anything about living things or the earth again. While these are not ideal circumstances for teaching science, I do the best I can. Because of His goodness and His love for the world and its creatures, God blesses my efforts. He also rewards me with occasional moments of outrageous laughter.
Toward the end of the last semester, when our visit to the Ocean Institute fell through at the last minute, I assigned students to do some internet sleuthing and find three lengthy videos about various aspects of the ocean. They were to watch each of them and evaluate them according to content and educational value. One student turned in the following paragraph as part of her assignment. I rewrite it here verbatim.
The second critter of the sea is a creature called the “Manta Shrimp”, these shrimp are bright in color and are extremely powerful for their small size. At one point in the video you see a crap run for cover under a glass, for most creatures this would make the crap safe, however not for the Manta Shrimp. This creature has arms or extensions that come out from the base of his body and have the power to hit something at the same strength as a 22 round bullet. That poor crap didn’t have a chance, not only did the Manta Shrimp break the glass it was able to break the crab’s shell with one swing.
In case you were wondering, I do have the student’s permission to use this. I happened to see her after the semester ended and I pointed out this particular paragraph to her. We both had a good laugh over it; she is a good sport. A better sport than writer, perhaps, but it is undeniable that she learned something about ocean life from this assignment. She also improved her understanding of the complexity and wonder of nature, and genuinely speaks differently now than she did at the start of the semester about the natural world. If this is the result of my teaching efforts, I guess I can take a little crap along the way.
There will be more than 50 contributed papers, dynamic fellowship, rousing volleyball games, and much more.
Here is a prayer that CWIS members might pray for the upcoming
Almighty and eternal God, whose will it is that all should come to
you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness as people of science,
that we might make known the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his
We beseech you to be with us as we gather and as we depart. Keep us
safe from all harm.
While we are together grant us grace to serve one another, to
listen to one another, and to encourage one another. May we drink from the
fountain of wisdom, which is your Word and Christ our Lord.
For the women who attend, we ask a special blessing. Grant
opportunities for all to make some good connections and to form new
friendships, and that we will grow together and share a united sense of our
Gracious Lord, you have filled the world with beauty. Open our eyes
to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that we may learn to serve you
and all humanity with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things
were created and are sustained, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I recently visited my daughter to meet my new grandson, Sebastian (shown below). My daughter lives near Princeton, New Jersey, and is a member of an unusual group.
The Geek Mommies of Princeton has about 40 members and the only criteria for membership is that you be a mother and curious about the world. The young mothers get together monthly to inquire, question, explore, and share their thoughts about child care and how to encourage their children in STEM.
Monthly activities include potlucks, children's book exchanges, afternoon tea at the Buck's County Children's Museum, and science experiments. The children have learned about propulsion, making a volcano, and painting with spices and teas.
There is also a weekly play date with about 5 regular participants.
Mothers also read and discuss science fiction, fantasy, biographies and articles on sustainable living.
This group can serve as a model for other similar groups in which children are nurtured in an environment of inquisitive exploration and play.
Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant X-ray crystallographer whose photograph of a fiber of DNA was critical to James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London, England. Her family was well-to-do and both sides were very involved in social and public works. Franklin's father wanted to be a scientist, but World War I cut short his education and he became a college teacher instead. Rosalind Franklin was extremely intelligent and she knew by the age of 15 that she wanted to be a scientist. Her father actively discouraged her interest since it was very difficult for women to have such a career. However, with her excellent education from St. Paul's Girls' School? one of the few institutions at the time that taught physics and chemistry to girls ? Franklin entered Cambridge University in 1938 to study chemistry.
When she graduated, Franklin was awarded a research scholarship to do graduate work. She spent a year in R.G.W. Norrish's lab without great success. Norrish recognized Franklin's potential but he was not very encouraging or supportive toward his female student. When offered the position as an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA), Franklin gave up her fellowship and took the job.
What follows is one of a series of letters to the NYT Editor pertaining to engineering careers for women. Read the other letters here.
"How to Attract Female Engineers,” by Lina Nilsson (Op-Ed, April 27), seems appealing at first glance. But by proposing that women focus on work that is "societally meaningful” and that supports "humanitarian” goals, Ms. Nilsson indulges in two fallacies.
One is the premise that women are attracted to work consistent with the cultural notion that these are appropriate roles for women (traditionally, nursing and teaching).
In some sense, she is advocating "pink science” while ignoring the large number of female mathematicians, physical scientists and engineers who find the subject matter itself attractive.
It is analogous to telling women in medical school that they should become pediatricians and ob-gyns rather than neurosurgeons.
The other fallacy is that women are so shortsighted as to see only projects directly aimed at improving "the lives of people living in poverty” as having a meaningful societal effect. Surely, we all have a vested interest in enterprises like designing bridges and airplanes that are structurally sound.
We need to move forward with more female scientists in all fields rather than relegate them to certain subspecialties and pretend that such work is more valuable to our society.
Hubble has put several billion miles on its odometer, and, as with any high-mileage vehicle, things go wrong. An onboard computer froze in October of last year, briefly shutting down the whole telescope. But today, it's running smoothly. And that's good news, says Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble's senior scientist.
"We're doing everything from looking at objects in the Solar System — trying to understand, for example, Jupiter — to looking at things far beyond our solar system," Wiseman says. "We're even studying some of the most distant galaxies ever detected."
The telescope is in more popular than ever, Wiseman says. This year, astronomers have written more than a thousand proposals for how to use Hubble. That demand is partly because of upgrades done by astronauts like Massimino. But the main appeal is its location.
Could a Biblical understanding of our relationship with nature be the key to effective and purposeful conservation? As part of this current series of guest posts, Steph Bryant, coordinator of the God and the Big Bang project, writes about the relationship between human beings and the planet. She considers the damage we have done, and whether there is any place for hope as we explore ways to remedy the situation and better care for the world around us.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been enthralled by animals. This fascination has steadily grown into a love for scientific knowledge, which helps me to understand the natural world. It was of very little surprise to anyone who knew me that I found myself studying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in zoology and focussing my final year studies on ecology and conservation science. For me, an appreciation of the natural world leads naturally to concern over its destruction and how we might remedy the situation. But how does that fit with being a person of faith? As a Christian, where do I see purpose in conservation science or ecology? Where do I see hope in a discipline often tinged with despair?
Conservation science is, for me, an act of seeking to obey God’s commands. Genesis 1says that God created man to ‘rule over’ creation. If, as Psalm 24 states, ‘the Earth is the Lord’s’, why would we allow our ‘rule’ to be characterised by irresponsible, destructive and exploitative practices? Surely, instead we should try to reflect God’s great and awesome love for all of creation through work that is characterised by love and responsibility.
A responsible rule would be one which benefits the natural world. But it is also an effective way to care for other humans: to seek to ‘love your neighbour’ (Matthew 22:34-40). As much as we pride ourselves on our technological advancements and the distance we have put between ourselves and our ‘caveman’ roots, we still depend almost entirely upon healthy, functioning ecosystems for our survival. We need wetlands to buffer our cities from storms and floods; animals, namely insects, to act as pollinators or pest control for many of our food crops; forests to protect areas from erosion and catastrophic landslides; healthy oceans to provide us with much of the fish we eat… The list is endless. It is particularly important for us to acknowledge this if we are to love and help not only the world around us but also the most vulnerable, struggling and impoverished of nations: people who often directly rely on these so-called ‘ecosystem services’ for their livelihoods.
One of the biggest obstacles to conservation is outlined by Andrew Balmford, a Professor of conservation biology at the University of Cambridge, in his excellent book Wild Hope[i]. He asserts that the recent rapid urbanisation of human society (over half of us now spend our time living and working in towns and cities, indoors, online or travelling by car or train) is contributing to an ever increasing disconnect between humans and creation. Where does the water in my tap come from? What watershed area do I live in? What are the bird species I am most likely to see at this time of year? What phase is the moon in? Most of our answers to questions like these would indicate that we have, indeed, lost a great deal of our awareness of the natural world. This is a problem: how can we effectively help a world that we do not currently understand?
So a key purpose for conservation scientists is to study the natural world, ‘the works of the Lord’ and to help others understand them – to grow, and encourage others to grow, in knowledge and understanding and therefore in appreciation and love for creation. Last year I spent 9 months living in Canada. I was working with A Rocha, an international Christian organisation which – inspired by God’s love – engages in scientific research, environmental education and community based conservation projects. It is a pleasure to see the way that projects like this can cultivate understanding and kindle a desire to care for God’s world, inspiring us to use our power, creativity and intellect for the good of all who share this remarkable and awe-inspiring planet.