Day 18: Learning through conversation

Teaching this Great Experiments in Science class is stretching me in lots of different ways. I am working with material outside of my most comfortable content area. I am gathering materials and doing experiments that I haven’t done before (sometimes even physics ones). I am figuring out how to teach a really interdisciplinary class, and the humanities side of it (especially doing readings and structuring discussions about readings) is the farthest from my expertise.

I am also figuring out what it means to teach a class that is really based in experiences instead of content. Even though experiences are important in my physics classes, too, mastering content has always been the context in which other skills and abilities were developed. This class definitely aims at a few of our scientific abilities, but it is in such a different way that it sometimes feels like I am picking up a second instrument—I have to start over, but unlike learning my first instrument, I am acutely aware of just how bad I am as I’m learning.

All this preamble was to set up the story about my afternoon today. In tomorrow’s class, we are finishing our Galileo projects. That means that Tuesday’s class should start a new experiment. Next up on my list is Pasteur’s Broth (thanks, Twitter friends for pointing me to that one this past summer). Trying to stay a little ahead, I spent some time last night researching and planning. I realized I would need to figure out how to give more historical and/or social context to this experiment to create an experience that would last as long as we needed to wait to see the results in our broth, and I headed down the rabbit hole.

It began with me looking for a primary source to read, and it ended up here:

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 6.48.28 PM

And okay, that was actually only an intermediate step, not an ending point. I don’t know that it has ended yet, but it has gone into space and sent me into the conversations that I intended to write about when I titled this post.

But yes. It turns out that the people who really love Pasteur’s experiment are creationists. Social context, here we come. And as I opened more and more and more and more tabs in my browser, I started to realize that I had no idea how to structure a class about all of this. So today I spent most of my afternoon engaging in conversations with colleagues (in history and biology and our academic dean) to try to figure that out.

I really appreciated the time everyone gave me today. I also found myself thinking about our conversations as they happened. Explaining my confusions and ideas forced me to articulate things I hadn’t realized I needed to ask or to answer. I realized (again) how social a process learning is. Even having already spent hours thinking about how to run this unit, it only took a few minutes to get a new perspective. And the questions my colleagues asked me that I hadn’t thought to ask myself also pushed me forward.

So, of course, I already knew how important discourse is for my students. Of course it’s important to share and defend your thinking and to challenge yourself and your peers with your reasoning. And it’s still always a powerful experience to really remember it, viscerally, for myself.

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