Making Science Real in Non-Majors Science Class

For the longest time, I complained about teaching one class, non-majors biology. While many teaching assistants complained about students, for me, it was the content I was teaching. The problem wasn’t that it was too simple and not advanced like in a majors class, it was that it was not relevant to the students’ lives (or mine anymore). This class was forced upon students who had to choose something science-y to fulfill a general education requirement. Most were scared of the math associated with physics and chemistry, so students signed up for non-majors biology begrudgingly, hoping it would be easier. From the chatter of students, I knew they did not want to be there, I knew they feared biology (or science as a whole), and I knew for most of them their only goal was to pass.

Every time I was trained for the upcoming lab, I could hear practically hear the students thinking, “why do we have to learn this stuff?” Honestly, I was thinking it myself. In my case, I had already learned it, but forgotten details, and had to relearn specifics for teaching this class. Here I was a year away from receiving a Ph.D. in biology, and I had to solve for p and q in Hardy-Weinberg equations by hand. As an ecologist that used Hardy-Weinberg in my research (I had to determine if alleles were out of H-W equilibrium), I had never done this by hand. Yet, this was one of the most difficult concepts for students to grasp. It actually wasn’t even the understanding of H-W equilibrium that tripped them up, it was solving the math equation. This was the main thing students learned and were tested on for the entire evolution component, which lasted just one lab session. Think about this; this is the last chance for students to formally learn about evolution and we are teaching them to solve for p and q in a made up population of cats.

These cats always need their alleles sorted out! This is what many of the questions looked like. Image from:

Spring forward to today, where many are upset and shocked by the role fake news has played in the US presidential election. One group of researchers is studying this and is finding (not yet peer-reviewed though!) that students cannot tell the difference between media stories and sponsored content, and do not verify information from online sources. I am not shocked.

Students in the study mentioned above had trouble determine the validity of these “nuclear” flowers. Original posting

I made this observation myself from just watching the news in the morning. Frequently on morning shows, reporters would say something along the lines of “drinking coffee decreases your chances of getting breast cancer.” Then the next week you would hear, “drinking coffee increases your chances of getting breast cancer.” How could the results be so different? In fact years later, John Oliver noticed the same thing and made a story on it. As a scientist, we understand all of the factors that go into results creating opposition between studies, but this takes an understanding of the scientific process, which you fully don’t realize and appreciate unless you take part in it. This is not something that the public is trained on. In fact, I did not even really understand this process until I went to graduate school.

The kind of class that I would use as the “last chance” to engage students in science would not teach students about the organelles of the cell, taxonomic classes, or even predator/prey relationships (something I am very interested in). Instead, I would teach them how to interpret the scientific process inside out in and relation to their daily lives. In other words, I would teach them how to tell real from fake news. And this occurred to me even before real fake news (oxymoron alert!) hit us in this Trump Era. How can you really trust a study? Or how much trust should you put in a study?

In my class I would literally give students media reports of studies on things that would affect them in their lives: Should you eat GMOs? Can eating X, Y, or Z diet get you rock hard abs? Will climate change ruin your spring break destination? Maybe those are a little superficial, but you get the point. Even in majors classes, students practice the peer-review process by reviewing and critiquing each other’s work. Why are we only saving the “secrets” of science for higher level classes? If we keep hiding what the process of science is like and refrain from training a critical eye to find the shortcomings in studies, we potentially create the view that all science should be trusted equally and without question. When someone’s study does have a shortcoming (and they all do) or contradicting results emerge, then this is can be used as an opportunity to manipulate science and ultimately distrust science as a whole.

By training the public on identifying the potential problems all studies incorporate, we can instead give the reader confidence and power to make more informed decisions about content.Reading scientific information critically, being able to interpret data, and knowing the characteristics of a good study are valuable skills and information needed to make important decisions as a U.S. citizen, and in my opinion, more important than the content taught in non-majors biology. Isn’t this better than figuring out the allele frequency in made-up cats?


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Melanie says:

    Yes , and again yes! I found this post because I’m currently teaching a non majors biology class, and am trying to focus it more on science literacy. Can you tell me more about what you did and how it worked?

  2. Thanks Melanie! This is Stephanie responding (the author). At the time I was a teaching assistant, so I was not able to change anything. Since then, I have not taught (I am now in a research position), so unfortunately I don’t have any data on what did/didn’t work. However, research suggests authentic engagement and making the work relevant to students’ lives. I work with K-12 students and we use citizen science projects in the classroom so the students are doing real science.

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