Let’s face it—successful instruction of these required courses often times depends on a certain amount of student buy in, which essentially means we need to sell the science. So in addition to putting on the “performer” hat to engage students it’s also time to perfect your sales pitch. In this note I will discuss tips on selecting material for your general education science courses that will connect with students and create not only that sought after sale but buyer satisfaction.
Personally, it was very liberating when I came to the realization that it was okay to let go of the mentality that “I must teach every topic A – Z in my general education science classes.” Remarkably, when I began to focus on specific topics within my discipline the connections between all topics began to flow organically, which was not only exciting for me to see but it demonstrated to students a fundamental utility of the course in a way that was tangible and real. It also allowed me to introduce topics in passing and refer students to additional courses we teach that covered those topics in more depth; a built in course advertising bonus!
Make The Material Relevant
So let’s talk about utility. To me, the secret in choosing which topics within our broad disciplines to present in our courses lies in establishing their relevance to the student. Yet it’s impossible to understand what is relevant to our students if we do not know who are students are. Do you know your student population? What are the most common majors of students at your school? What about their demographics? The more non-traditional your student base is the more important it is for you to explain how the course is relevant to their lives.
The most straightforward way to demonstrate relevance to students is to tie the material to events they encounter in their everyday lives. For example, the health sciences can do this quite easily by covering illness or infections that are common within our population. This not only illustrates to students why they should learn the material it makes it personal.
Tying Topics To Current Events
A second powerful way to establish relevance is to tie the topics to a current event. Courses that focus on weather can do this quite easily by requiring students to monitor their own weather or discuss a current, significant weather pattern. This approach also prevents the course from going stale and breathes new life into topics we may have taught dozens of times before.
One of the best ways to establish relevance and generate excitement about a topic is to tie the subject to sports, a topic many students are passionate about. For example, I recently came across an app that taught geography by showing students a map of the United States and then asked them to identify the location of a city by giving them a sports related hint like the name of a stadium. (See http://classtechtips.com/2012/05/29/espn-map-madness/). There are many ways to connect sports to just about every science: physics (force needed to throw a football), biology (common sports injuries like ACL) and biochemistry (why athletes should drink a sport drink after a heavy work out).
Use Pop Culture!
One last tip to generate relevance in the class is to try to use pop culture to your advantage. This may, however, require that you actually read, watch and/or listen to things that are important to the younger generation, which may be an interesting experiment in and of itself. One of the most successful ways I have done this is by using examples of bad science in popular films and TV shows.
Establishing relevance goes a long way in answering the “Why do I have to take this course?” question. Who knows; it may even lead students to a new found interest in science….