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disappointed that when I took Environmental Microbiology only 4 years ago, the lab portion of the class is completely outdated.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a way that we can teach labs with mindful learning when we know the skills we are teaching will most likely be soon outdated?