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#PLOS #SfN15 Recap: Intimidating Science–Tailoring Science Classes to Non-majors, by Natasha Wadlington

Imagine being told that you had to take a course from a major that, for most of your life, was considered “hard.” The only classes available are for students that want to be in that major. Picture being surrounded by all the students of that major, competing to get the top spots, while you are there just to get a passing grade. Intimidating, and not so fair, isn’t it? Yet this is what non-science majors have to face at many institutions in order to fulfill general education requirements.  As a result, some educators began creating courses and materials that create a safe, non-intimidating, space for non-majors to regain interest in the sciences. From this SfN15 session entitled “Teaching Neuroscience to Nonscientists”, there were four themes that repeatedly came up to aid non-majors: simplify, relate, diversify and create.

The first speaker, S. Marc Breedlove, a writer of non-major science textbooks, approached this issue by simplifying the titles of textbooks so that they are less “scary”, and using cover photos that are more inviting. Including simple graphics and various media sources, such as YouTube videos, were two easy mediums that made complex subjects understandable. Breedlove explained that these tools should be self-explanatory and easy to follow for any student; the content must be able to show the logic of the science and also tell a narrative in ways that non-majors can relate to easily.

Christina Williams took a different approach and incorporated diversity into her classroom, by combining majors and non-majors alike in what they called an intersection of courses. Topics in these courses were taught by both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) professionals and non-STEM professionals, providing the students a wide perspective of each discipline in relation to each other. Non-majors gained an appreciation for STEM subjects which they could relate to, and majors gained insight into how their research is applicable to real world situations. Williams also presented problems from policy and scientific perspectives and had the students create and defend viewpoints with the class. In effect, this allowed the students to openly discuss and debate topics that often led to changes in opinion. These exercises helped form safe spaces where non-majors could interact with majors in a non-intimidating manner.

Leah Anderson Roesch, the third speaker, took a hybrid approach to teaching non-majors. She combined a traditional lab-and-lecture format that followed SfN’s Core Concepts with a creative approach. Students picked apart movies and television shows to determine how accurate their science was compared to the literature. By limiting the course to only non-majors, Roesch gave them a safe space to discuss and debate with other students from diverse backgrounds.  This allowed for the students to relate their own personal interests into the topics studied.

Laura E. Been also implemented a hybrid approach, in which she created a class for non-majors that incorporated non-traditional materials for lecturing. The first three weeks of her class taught the simplest fundamentals of neuroscience in a boot camp approach. After the crash course in neuroscience, she used a New York Times Best Seller author’s book to introduce case studies of neurological diseases. This book contained narratives from real people that made learning about the diseases accessible and relatable. By combining the stories and with primary literature to tie in the science, the non-majors gained a diverse perspective of the topics. Some students still struggled with the class, and Been found that it stemmed from the students lacking confidence in their abilities to succeed. Giving opportunities for the students to gain extra credit for understanding the main points–or talking it out with them in office hours–gave these non-majors the confidence to do well in the course.

Toward the end of the session, Bevil Conway showcased his more radical approach for non-majors learning STEM topics. He is a firm believer in student-focused-learning, and that discovery was key to motivating students. In his classroom, Conway fused vision neuroscience with art and allowed the non-majors to use their own creativity to problem-solve experiments. Sometimes, the experiments repeated what was discussed in lectures or textbooks, but the process of discovering the phenomenon for themselves allowed the students to retain the knowledge better. It was crucial for Conway’s students to understand that they need not be experts but simply rather observant and interested in the topic.

Finally, Lisa A. Gabel, presented another collaborative classroom approach for majors and non-majors. Her strategy was to start everyone to the same level by placing them in an unfamiliar situation from day one. In doing so, everyone began on an equal playing field, resulting in students who were more willing to relate with each other. This built trust that allowed them to discuss any clashing or diverse perspectives in a safe environment. Students were guided through topics to develop a common language and were allowed to discuss these perspectives once they understood basic concepts. It is important to note that this approach depends on the unity of the students and in the instructor relinquishing some control of the classroom. However, Gabel promotes that not lecturing the students in a traditional manner facilitates a better learning environment.

Courses designed for non-majors are critical for taking the intimidation factor out of STEM education. Classrooms must be safe havens where non-majors can explore and discover science on their own terms. Topics need not be “dumbed down” but rather simplified in a way that is relatable to non-majors.  While this approach is designed for non-majors, the techniques can also be essential for STEM majors in order to keep them motivated and driven. Bridging the gap between majors and non-majors can provide an opportunity for students to be creative and have fulfilling, diverse perspectives of science and research. Ultimately, this process not only will fulfill general education requirements for non-majors, but will also serve as a way to enrich their lives and open their eyes to the science in everyday life. That idea is not intimidating at all.


NatashaAny views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS.

Natasha Wadlington is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago. Her current research focuses on developing white matter injuries in neonatal mice to understand the mechanisms that can lead to neurocognitive disabilities. She is heavily interested in science communication and outreach, particularly in the Chicagoland area. During her spare time, you’ll find her traveling the world to see the South Korean Pop group Girls’ Generation and learning about new cultures.

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