Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Preparing Student Scientists for Tomorrow

It’s an exciting time for science. Knowledge in long-standing fields such as biology is increasing at exponential rates. Significant new discoveries are being unearthed. At the same time, traditional science disciplines are merging into entirely new and still evolving entities. Nanoscience. Bioinformatics. Molecular electronics. Chemical biology. This terminology describes ideas and combinations so diverse that it is often difficult for outsiders to imagine what they encompass. It can be equally difficult for scientists in these fields to keep tabs on the changes from month to month. Surveying this shifting landscape makes it almost possible to imagine how thrilling it must have felt to be involved in science in the time of the Enlightenment when theories and worldviews from the early days of chemistry and astronomy toppled under the challenge of new evidence and modes of thought.

It’s an equally exciting time for science education. We prepare students for a world that is changing even as they learn about it, and ready them for careers that are as yet unnamed. Headlines of the latest discoveries seem lifted straight from science fiction novels—discoveries of light-bending, “invisible” materials, teleporting atoms, personalized medicine, or genetic engineering cause us to wonder how science teaching should even begin to address them.

But what is really new about these new sciences? And are things actually changing as quickly as it seems? Certainly in some cases, the answer is a definitive “Yes.” In biology, for example, the amount of publicly available DNA sequence data has doubled every 14 months for 20 years. Samples from a single round-the-world voyage of the recent Global Ocean Survey quadrupled the number of proteins known to exist in the world. A technique announced in January promises to make DNA sequencing 30,000 times faster, completing an entire human genome in less than 30 minutes for under $1,000. The biological information explosion will not slow anytime soon.

This burst of information has brought fundamental changes in our knowledge of biology and in the way science is conducted. Scientists have witnessed the radical transformation of their tools and techniques in response to the torrents of data their experiments now produce. Data have become king, and harnessing and analyzing them have become the reigning challenge. As described in the article “Secondary Students Break Into Genetics Research,” entire new fields of computational biology, bioinformatics, and metagenomics have arisen seemingly overnight.

In other areas of science, the changes are different, but equally significant. As our ability to examine and manipulate the world reaches new scales, other changes come not from the immensity of the data, but from the minuteness of its size. In the minuscule realm of nanoscale science, individual atoms are the fundamental scale. The standard Newtonian physics that has served us so well now gives way as the spooky effects of quantum mechanics dominate. Understanding this poses a new challenge—in designing a nanoscale circuit or assembling structures from individual atoms, we must understand not only how atoms and molecules behave, but also how electrons interact with each other and their surroundings.

As these and other sciences evolve, the Concord Consortium is keeping pace. We are developing projects that anticipate the skills and knowledge students will need to meet the challenges of these new sciences. The GENIQUEST project fills the need for bioinformatics understanding by bringing cutting-edge genetics research to high school students. Our Electron Technologies project extends our groundbreaking Molecular Workbench software from atomic and molecular dynamics to pioneer scientifically rigorous, interactive simulations of the bizarre quantum behavior of electrons. (See sidebar for one student’s view of working with Molecular Workbench. MW helps Britiany and countless students like her prepare for the future.)

These and our many other projects demonstrate some of the numerous attributes that will be required of instruction and curricula in order to meet the challenges of the changing science landscape.

Complex topics demand deep understanding.

To grapple with the incredible complexity of new sciences, students need robust, highly interactive computational models such as those in our Molecular Workbench or BioLogica software. Interacting with our models helps students better understand tough concepts and retain them longer than with other materials.

Interdisciplinary fields require unifying concepts.

As students move into a world that blurs the lines between traditional fields such as chemistry, physics, and biology, understanding crosscutting principles becomes essential. Our Science of Atoms and Molecules (SAM) project responds to this need. This project, highlighted in this issue’s Monday’s Lesson, brings the notion of an inverted sequence science curriculum—with physics first, chemistry central, and biology as capstone—to its logical extension: If we’re going to teach these topics in a different order, we must also teach them differently. By making the study of atoms and molecules central to all subjects, the SAM activities provide a unifying thread across the curriculum. Such a fundamental understanding will help students succeed in the new interdisciplinary sciences.

New curricula must fill in the wide gaps that current curricula leave.

The rise of new sciences introduces complex new ideas and topics into both science study and everyday life. To live in a world of personal DNA results and genome-wide association studies, students will need clear knowledge of topics such as bioinformatics. Current textbooks often devote only a page or two (of a whopping 1,000 or more) to the topic. To understand the critical dynamics of the nanoscale world, students and technicians need a deep understanding of the quantum effects of electrons. Current curricula in this area offer mostly page-long equations and inscrutable jargon.

Guided inquiry curricula from our projects address this gap directly. By targeting the knowledge students need, we can skip past many often tired topics that are included by tradition, but offer only suspect usefulness. This does not mean that we discard fundamentals—indeed, they’re as important as ever. But the curricula for this new era must use these fundamentals to build understanding of carefully chosen overarching concepts. Current curricula are overstuffed with vocabulary or mired in the inch-deep-mile-wide process of national adoption. Our curriculum and software address the core of current student knowledge needs and bring solid pedagogy along in the process.

As we continue in this era of scientific change, we need tools for learning that do the change justice. Having these tools at our disposal makes facing the future truly exciting. By using the new approaches that our software and curricula offer, we can bring students the coherent scientific understanding they need to become informed future scientists and citizens.