"I'm just not good at science."
I hear this statement from a surprising number of incoming students at the start of every environmental systems lab I teach. In a class designed to broadly cover topics like weather, climate, and hydrology, many students enter already resigned to the idea that they won’t do well because they aren’t predisposed to think like a scientist. To some degree, I empathize with these students. I have had my fair share of classes with topics that felt inaccessible – classes that relied on texts with dense and foreign terminology and class structures that lulled me to sleep with disinterest. And yet, I also actively oppose the idea that some people are inherently “bad” at science. I firmly believe that science can be accessible for everyone, and I strive to make that belief a reality within my own classroom.
Accessibility of science requires first acknowledging that no student is a blank slate. We all enter the classroom with prior knowledge, experiences and conceptions. Many times, we learn misconceptions that contradict actual scientific facts and theories taught in the classroom. For example, every year when teaching about seasonality, students express the belief that our changing seasons result from the Earth’s proximity to the Sun. This is a common misconception, and during our class we deconstruct the true cause of seasons, which relates to the Earth’s inclination changing solar altitude and intensity as our planet rotates the Sun. In order for effective learning to occur, it is critical to provide students with an opportunity to unpack their prior knowledge and reveal any misconceptions that might inhibit learning. Additionally, this provides an opportunity for students to relate class lessons to their own past experiences. Within that same module on seasonality, I explain why the Northern and Southern Hemispheres experience opposite seasonality. For international students, or students who have studied or travelled abroad, this frames the concept of seasonality within their experiences around the world.
Accessibility also requires consideration of the language of science, in which words can be foreign, intimidating, and potentially confusing. Although my own instinct is to deconstruct the root and affixes of new words, I have found that this is not a practice that comes easily for others. Thus, it is often necessary and helpful to break down scientific concepts into layman’s terms. For example, the adiabatic process is often difficult for students to pronounce, spell, and remember. When teaching this process, I ask students to picture a group of people crammed into a tiny room, where their body heat contributes to increasing the room temperature. I then ask them to compare this to the same group of people moving into a large gym with space to spread out and cool down. This visual, paired with their own personal experiences with such situations, helps them correlate expansion with cooling and compression with warming. Breaking down scientific concepts in this fashion is not only helpful but necessary, particularly for students who believe they aren’t good at science.
Finally, accessibility to science requires acknowledging diversity and inclusivity, both within my students and within the field as a whole. Academic sciences have firm roots in colonial, white-washed, and generally male-dominated histories. The result is that many students turn away from science not because they don’t care, but because they don’t see their cultural identities reflected in the field and subsequently cannot visualizing themselves as part of it (Tanner and Allen, 2007). As a woman, I have first-hand experience learning about history’s great male scientists, sitting in a class surrounded by men. I have also worked a science-heavy job where I was one of three women on a team of twenty-five and was often passed up for “manly” tasks that required heavy lifting and instead offered more administrative or creative tasks. I understand that this lack of representation is even more problematic for international students, or students with nontraditional identities. Thus, through my teaching I strive to change the status quo and make environmental science more accessible to and representative of our increasingly diverse student bodies.
I have found that by actively acknowledging and incorporating students’ prior knowledge, breaking down scientific concepts, and representing diverse teachings and scholars, I can create a more accessible atmosphere in which students can truly learn. This opens the doors for students who thought they weren’t good at science to change their mind and begin to understand. Occasionally, I will witness these moments when students begin to piece together class concepts, and these are my favorite moments. Just recently, I witnessed a student making sense of the Coriolis effect, a topic with which she had struggled for many days. I broke out a globe to assist and rotated it while she traced a path with her finger. With that visual, it all suddenly clicked, and she was able to relate that this forced caused the spin on the hurricanes that frequently visited her hometown. Watching these lightbulb moments is my drive for teaching. Everyone can understand science and use it to explain the world around them. They just need an accessible and understandable opportunity to do so.