Mindful learning in the Sciences

Reading Ellen Langer’s works on mindful learning got me thinking about how science is taught, and specifically how soil science and microbiology are taught. For context, both soil science and microbiology are relatively new fields, and microbiology especially is a rapidly changing field. The work that I do now would have been entirely inconceivable 15 years ago, and possible but prohibitively expensive even 10 years ago. Even the software that I use to process my data is constantly in flux. Every year a new database with updated taxonomy for microbial organisms is released, and the changes between database versions are significant. “The basics” aren’t even a guaranteed thing as the development of technology allows for better analyses of the microscopic organisms.

How do you teach microbiology when what we think we know can change from one semester to the next? This is where mindful learning comes in. Prefacing every lesson with “This is what we currently think we know, but we may be completely wrong” seems like a good place to start. Is it enough though? Are there other ways to encourage mindful learning in the sciences? I occasionally feel disappointed that when I took Environmental Microbiology only 4 years ago, the lab portion of the class is completely outdated. We mostly worked by culturing organisms, which is relatively cheap and more fun, because students can see things under a microscope. However, to date, none of my research has come close to doing anything similar. We simply don’t work with cultures, because we now know (believe) that only about 10% of organisms can be grown in lab cultures. I still believe that lab classes are very important in the sciences to give hands-on learning and provide another way to teach information that is difficult to convey in a lecture. Is there a way that we can teach labs with mindful learning when we know the skills we are teaching will most likely be soon outdated?

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9 thoughts on “Mindful learning in the Sciences

  1. The field isn’t so much in flux, but I know a micropaleontologist who held a small class’ lab activities in her own lab, so they were inside the environment of an active research laboratory and actively involved in current research practices. These may change year to year, but maybe by being in the lab and seeing the small changes that happen over a semester students can get an idea of how much of the field is fluid while still getting a few useful lab skills and safety protocols.

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    1. That’s a good suggestion, and I think it would work really well for those smaller upper-level courses. I know with most lab classes, the group size would be too big to regularly have them all in the research lab at once, but maybe the TA could dedicate a small portion of the beginning of class to talk about his/her research a little. Perhaps even talking about the ups and downs of getting theory to work in the lab, and the struggles of study design, and the excitement of analysis slowly over time would provide some of the same benefits to larger introductory classes.

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  2. Kristen Noble

    I really enjoy your post. You bring up a really important question: how can educators design lab courses that effectively communicate what scientists are actively doing given limited resources and in an ever advancing field. I don’t know anything about Environmental Microbiology so I can’t suggest how you should bring more advanced technology into the undergraduate laboratory experience. However, I think that an ever changing environment is perfect for immersing students in mindful learning. Even if the skills the students are learning are outdated, the real lesson might be learning how to think about a problem and come up with a creative solution. Perhaps their thinking and creativity could contribute to the development of a new taxonomy.

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    1. I agree Kristen. When I taught the lab portion of VT’s Environmental Microbiology, the students had to come up with their own hypotheses for experiments and had to support their reasoning. In that way they did get some experience in mindful learning. This is why I will never say that a lab is useless, even when we were using clunky and outdated methods.

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  3. Hello,
    I can understand your description of your field being in a constant flux. I feel that almost all fields are going through something similar especially with the recent boom in technology and analysis methods. Even civil engineering, which is one of the oldest disciplines has seen significant changes with many more anticipated to be coming as we continue to grow and adapt technology into our daily lives.

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  4. I think mindfulness can still work in the fast-changing fields. It seems to me that part of the goals for mindful-teaching is divesting from information overload and investing on critical thinking, which doesn’t undergo rapid transformation as often. I also think there is a certain slow-down in mindful teaching techniques that help cover fewer subjects but with a deeper understanding of each.

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    1. Thanks Arash. I tend to view labs as a chance to slow down and get a better understanding of the material. As an instructor, I always liked to have a discussion with students about the activity they were doing that day, why we were using those methods, what the limitations of that particular method are. This was a lot of fun in Soils because for any one measurement, there were usually at least 2-3 ways to measure it. In that way, I was attempting to cultivate critical thinking skills. I also view lab as developing a toolbox, so that in the future if a student wants to know something they will know what they can do to figure it out. My concern is that, aside from the skills in good lab practices and critical thinking, the tools I teach in these labs are not going to be useful by the time the students graduate.

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  5. I work in a food science lab on campus and I feel that even though you may think that your current information and techniques are in constant peril of becoming out of date, I think that the thing that you can leave with your students is the experience of being in a lab and feeling comfortable in that type of environment. Additionally, to a certain extent, all science in constantly becoming updated and we are always learning new information, so I think designing lesson plans around that idea would be helpful for your students. Best of Luck!

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  6. Jake Garner

    I think you raise an interesting question: “How do you teach microbiology when what we think we know can change from one semester to the next?”

    I feel like the solution we most often generate is to teach students the unchanging basics of a science that might not resemble current work. When doing that, I think your suggestion of being open about the uncertain and contextual nature of college is key.

    Still, I feel like we could do more to expose students to cutting-edge methods and what is really happening in the field. I realize that at times might be impossible due to the volume of students or prohibitively expensive, but at time I wonder if we put up an artificial barrier when it comes to letting undergraduate students do meaningful, cutting-edge work. We might say it’s above their level, but perhaps that’s imposing a limitation on them. That said, I’m not a microbiologist, so I can’t speak to that field specifically.

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