November 16, 2018

Science or no science, that is the question

November 16, 2018

During the Co-Design Year, students are engaged in the process of designing Core Courses. Specifically, the Co-Designers will participate in these prototype courses and provide feedbacks to further refine the courses.

Thus, I was surprised to learn that we would be chosen randomly instead of only participating in courses we are interested in. I thought that because I would be more focus, my contribution would be more beneficial; and that I would not be able to provide feedbacks for course I don’t like.

Unfortunately, we don’t usually get everything we want. I was chosen to participate in the “Scientific Inquiry” course, definitely not a piece-of-cake for social science student like me.

To be honest, before I took the course, I was certain that I would sleep in most of the classes because sleeping in science classes was definitely my specialty. Just like when you throw a rock into a lake, it will sink to the bottom; when you “throw” me into a science class, I will also “sink” to the bottom of my dreams.

Of course there were times I was completely awake in science class. Why? Because I already slept enough in the previous period so I couldn’t sleep anymore. Another reason was because that specific class so good that it captivated my attention.

So let me tell you the reason why I didn’t sleep a wink in the “Scientific Inquiry” course at Fulbright: because it was fascinating.

The course is designed in a way that even science-haters like me can easily digest it. How? Because the purpose of the course is not to provide the heavy scientific theories, but to teach us the skills to answer fundamental scientific questions. This helps make the syllabus seem easy for Vietnamese students, who are used to learning theories by heart.

One of those scientific questions presented in the course was: “What is science and what is Scientific Inquiry?”.  Instead of giving us the answers, Dr. Hung and Dr. Samhitha only provided us with hints so that we could come up with the answers ourselves. The types of hint varied.

They could be strange activities such as walking around the campus and asking about thirty Why-questions, or imagining what kind of experiment we would want to do with zombies and draculas. One day, Dr. Hung would think of a random person and we had to strategically asking him questions to find out who was in his mind. The two professors really inspired me and helped me understand science – the type that would usually send me straight into deep sleep.

There is a famous saying: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” I immediately thought of this saying when Dr. Hung asked us to actually do a scientific experiment for this course. I thought it was a joke because how could a person with little scientific knowledge like me do an experiment. Yet, Dr. Hung and Dr. Samhitha were serious.

The professors let us pick our own topic that we were interested in; then, they gave us advice and feedbacks on the feasibility of the experiment. After we were grouped into a team and decided on our topic, we had two weeks for this experiment. I have to say that it was a huge challenge for me.

I still remember feeling irritated when, every afternoon, I had to crack the eggs – because my experiment involved eggs, record the data, and do the analysis. I then repeated the experiment for the second case, and the third and so on… I thought to myself: “Is this what scientist does every day? If that is the case, I do not want to become a scientist.”

This experiment helped me have a better understanding of what kind of job a scientist would do; and that was also one of the questions this course wanted to answer for us. It became clear to me that I am not suitable for this line of work.

I also gradually realized that the professors did not aim to create an interesting course for everyone – because the experiment did not seem so appealing to me. When the course ended, Dr. Hung shared with me: “The goals of this course is neither to provide students with any scientific knowledge, nor to make them love science.

We just simply show the students what science exactly is, and whether they love or hate it is their own choice.” I understood then that the experiment might be boring to me, but to others, it could be fascinating. One can only know whether or not they are interested in a certain subject by trying it out for themselves.

Fortunately, I have the chance to not only trying out the Scientific Inquiry course but also other Core courses so that I can have a better understanding about myself – my strengths, weaknesses, and my passions.

Moreover, our professors applied the “Flipped Classroom” method for this Scientific Inquiry class.  “Flipped Classroom” is a teaching method in which students will have to do required reading before going to class. During class, students will have to use the knowledge retaining from prior reading to discuss with their classmates.

For example, I was assigned to read this very interesting article; but because it was quite long and tough, I could only read thoroughly 50% of it and skim the rest. I thought I would forget this article by the time I finished it. On the contrary, the class discussion proved me otherwise.

Everyone started asking questions and providing answers for each other. It was the lively debate that made the class so compelling and the knowledge explained, integrated, and retained. What I didn’t fully get from the reading was analyzed and became crystal clear to me as my classmates continued throwing out one hard question after another.

To be honest, if these questions came from Dr. Hung or Dr. Samhitha under the format of a homework, I would hate it so much. Yet, under the format of classroom discussion, these questions intrigued me; I just wanted to solve these questions right away using the given information. That help make such a difference.

After this course, I still hate science; yet, I cannot bring myself to hate this amazing Scientific Inquiry course. Through this course, I learned the fundamental scientific knowledge, and understood what science really is so that I can justly decide to love it or not.  I still don’t love science; but I love how my professors showed me “science” so that I can understand the root cause of why I don’t like it.

As Fulbright’s mission clearly states: “We teach the mindset, not the knowledge.” I can’t say that I learned that many scientific theories after a month participating in the “Scientific Inquiry” course. Yet, I now understand the mindset of a scientist – and that, to me, is the first and most important thing one should be taught.

Chenh Hung Phat 
(Co-Design Year Student)

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