The way that scientists collaborate and share findings with colleagues isn't very different from the science talk we promote in classrooms. Both conversations encourage deeper understanding of the material, challenges us to articulate complex ideas and force us to find connections between our own expertise and others'.
As a graduate student and research coordinator, conferences, presentations and meetings were day or week long science talk events. Every presenter or participant brought along some materials to aid their conversations and questions to help start new ones. The expectation in a poster session or conference dinner was that every conversation might lead somewhere important. At first, the pressure felt enormous.
I remember feeling so nervous talking to geographers at a conference that I couldn't remember their names. I might not even have asked them. I recited my lines perfectly, shared my research and collected plenty of contacts. Looking at their cards later, I had no idea what they studied or when I had met them. I was so fixated on having the answers that I didn't bother asking questions or taking time to listen.
Honestly, it felt like my 10th grade chemistry classroom. Faced with a classroom terrified of wrong answers, Mrs. Johnson would pull names out of a Yankee's cap to get us to talk. Classroom discussions were jumbled, halting recitations of loosely related facts. Not productive at all.
Just recently, I sat down with Cathy, a sea ice physicist, and at first, I thought I might be back in Mrs. J's classroom. I was way too nervous to say something wrong, but Cathy is an expert science talker and she soon put me at ease. Before long we were sharing ideas about new research initiatives, combing archives and making plans. As our brainstorm was winding down I asked Cathy about science talk and her teaching method. She named her teaching program after one of the best science talkers of all time, Merlin.
We all know Merlin, right? In the Arthurian legend her was young Arthur's teacher and the king's closest advisor. The thing that made Merlin so uniquely suited to great science talk, was that he lived his life backwards. Living backwards meant that he knew answers before he even knew the questions- so every conversation starts with something he knew and ended with a million questions about things Arthur could find out. As a teacher he guided Arthur through discussions always pointing him towards a new question and offering tools for discovery. Arthur grew from a student who asked his teacher for answers to a king who questioned everything, sought new paths for solving problems and considered different perspectives from his many advisor to make informed decisions.
So maybe all our students won't grow up to be the King of England, but we can make sure they develop the same skills. In one of our recent brainstorming sessions we wrote down these words, "Democracy requires scientific thinkers." Whatever our science students become, having the ability to ask questions, collect and analyze information and make informed decisions will be key to contributing to society.
What does science talk look like in your classroom?
Share your ideas and experiences below!