Fluorescent lights bounce off the black lab tables. In a back corner of the room, a group of students enjoy a game of cards. In another corner, several students are having an animated conversation. Throughout the room, heads are down and eyelids are closed. All the while the teacher drones on, never deviating from his sacred routine.
When I look back at my high school science education, I can only think about how badly it prepared me to face the rigors of science classes in college. Like most people, I took basic classes in biology, chemistry, and physics. These classes were not challenging; earning an “A” was synonymous with regular class attendance. Content was at an appropriate level, but quizzes and tests were designed to boost the passing rate. Although my experiences in these classes were far from positive, I developed enough of an intrinsic interest to realize that a career in science was a real possibility.
The teachers in my three science classes varied as much as the fields they taught. My physics teacher stood at the front of the class and droned on monotonously, oblivious to the constant talking at the back of the room. My chemistry teacher was a funny little man who resembled an elf. He truly cared about his students, but his desire to leave nobody behind forced the class to proceed very slowly. This was advantageous for some, but it placed most students in a stupor. My biology teacher had the same teaching style as my physics teacher, but he was much more attuned to his environment. He droned on in the same monotonous voice, but when he sensed a disturbance, he quickly raised his voice to a near yell and restored order. This stopped students from talking, but it also unintentionally caused them to tune him out and drift asleep. My science teachers meant well, but their lack of classroom control, coupled with their students’ apathetic attitudes toward learning, proved to be too great an obstacle to teach successfully.
You can get a clear picture of my high school science experience by examining a field trip our biology class took during my freshman year. We went to Deam Lake, approximately ten miles from our school, and were supposed to conduct a field study of the surrounding area. Our teacher split us into teams and gave each team a specific job to do. The tasks included collecting soil and water samples for later analysis of pH and microorganism content, finding and identifying the wildlife of the area, collecting and analyzing fossils from rocks, and identifying the various forms of plant and fungal life of the area. The field study was very well-designed and should have been an excellent activity for learning about how an ecosystem works.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the case. Less than five minutes after we arrived, two of my classmates got into a fight and went rolled down a hill. The fiasco continued. Our teacher was the only chaperone on the field trip, and he spent his time helping various groups with the assigned tasks, leaving the other groups free to pursue the leisure activity of their choice. At the end of the four allotted hours, our class had incorrectly collected the soil and water samples, failed to identify the required number of plant and fungal life forms, and not had much success in identifying the animal life of the area. The field trip ended on a sour note, albeit a memorable one, when a student mistook the large pile of fossils that had been collected for a heap of rocks and systematically skipped the entire pile, one by one, into the lake.
Like the rest of the activities in our science classes, the field study at Deam Lake was not very beneficial or enlightening. I didn’t learn about how the pH levels of water relate to the types of wildlife found in an area, and I certainly didn’t learn about how an ecosystem works. When I look at the kind of science education I had in high school, it is a wonder that I am still considering a career in science.