Academia 101: Talk about careers and the big picture before the nitty gritty

The basics bore a lot of students.
The basics bore a lot of students.
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Almost every university student takes 101 classes. Usually, they’re viewed as ways to build foundational skills or complete requirements, rather than gateways to exposing students to interesting career possibilities. The 101 course should be a place where a student experiences the beauty of discovery for the first time—the fact that the cure for cancer could lie in her hands. Often this discovery gets lost in the granular details. It’s time we start thinking about introductory education in universities differently.

According to the New York Times, at Penn State University, 80% of freshmen—even those who have declared a major—said they’re uncertain about their chosen path in college. With the current skills shortage (particularly within engineering), we can’t afford to leave this many students undecided. The 101 class can be used to get more students motivated to pursue engineering, computer science, medicine, genetics—the list goes on and on.

To spark discovery at the 101 level, we need to change the way we teach altogether. Education reformists are trying to disrupt the classroom as we know it in a variety of ways—one method is a “flipped classroom,” where students listen to lectures at home and interactively work on homework in the classroom. A slightly different idea is to switch the order of the curriculum—teaching big ideas first and working down to granular levels of detail at the end of the course.

Let’s take Biology 101 as an example. Most 101 classes start with basic (arguably, uninteresting) concepts and work up to the big ideas. You might never know that you’d be able to clone a wooly mammoth by studying the structure of a cell in intense detail. When you’re learning about the nucleus and mitochondria, you’re often not getting the broader context about why this information matters in the real world. What if we inverted the order of the curriculum, starting with exciting concepts and digging down into detail? Would we have more geneticists? More bioengineers?

At Boundless, we’ve done a lot of research about how 101-level college students use our textbooks. More than 50% of students visiting our open textbooks online look up very specific terms or concepts, and spend most of the time on the site highlighting and quizzing themselves on these concepts to make sure they’ve got them right. Rather than spending time connecting the dots on big-picture concepts, students are researching and being graded on their ability to retain smaller details. They’re immersed in the assembly line model of teaching, which has been done for years and, to some extent, people argue that it’s proven.

But the sheer statistics about how our students rank in math and science skills prove otherwise. According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, “economic forecasts point to a need for producing, over the next decade, approximately 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields than expected under current assumptions.” With American students scoring 23rd in math and 31st in science compared to 65 other top industrialized nations, something must change the way we produce workers in these fields.

Major institutions are coming around to change—Princeton president and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman spoke out about the need to invert the science curriculum. Salman Khan of Khan Academy has also advocated for change on the K-12 level through a flipped classroom model. But how do we get more universities to adopt the change?

We need to do two big things. First, hook students with 101—don’t be afraid to make broad changes to the way classes are taught. Freshman year is a chance to get students interested in new subjects before majors are declared or set in stone. Second, use technology to make it easier for professors to be flexible. We need more flexible textbooks and adaptive study resources for students that aren’t rigidly tied to a set order or the “way things have always been.”

Math and science provide the answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems. And math and science careers are exceptionally interesting, ubiquitous, and in-demand. It’s a shame that we’re burying those realities in mundane details. Let’s make sure students know why they’re learning what they’re learning, before drilling into the basics. An inverted approach can make learning more exciting and get graduates prepared to compete in the global economy.