What keeps me up at night when thinking about learning spaces? - Carlos Gutierrez

Response from Carlos Gutierrez, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry - California State University, Los Angeles
LSC Roundtable at Loyola Marymount University, May 2016

What keeps me up at night is how do I do right by my students and not lie to them in terms of science, of how science is done. The way that we traditionally teach science is that we say to students here is the truth and here are ten examples of why that indeed is the truth. And then I’m going to give you a quiz and when you recite back to me that you know what the truth is, then you get to go on, you get to go to heaven. This is the catechism of chemistry teachers.

So I think about how can we teach chemistry—any science—as science rather than as the catechism of the dogma? And I need space so that students can, for themselves, intellectually recreate how it is that scientists do their work and think about their work, starting out with an observation that leads to some research questions that leads to some hypotheses.

And so I need space that, while we’re lecturing (and there is nothing wrong with lecturing) I have flexible spaces in which—at a dime—we can spin those chairs around and get students into their groups. This is to enable them to do something that we don’t do in the classroom—we never teach people how to ask questions, even though we’re convinced that that is at the heart of science.

Well, the social scientists have done this work for us. They know how to do that. And so they can spin around: work with a group; generate in a matter of five/seven minutes 20 or 30 questions and then refine those to a few pretty good questions and then go from their best questions to explore the topic that we are supposed to be doing that day.

So my challenge is to teach science the way that science is done, rather than what they perceive as was done by a bunch of dead people who have nothing to do with them, perceiving science as a static thing. So whatever we think about when designing these spaces—well, yes, beautiful is good—but I need functionality. I don’t need the doing of science always funneled off to the lab. I don’t want to have to say to students, go to the discovery lab. That’s fine, of course, but how do we integrate the scientific method, of all things, into our teaching? Because if we can do that, we can empower students to move from being consumers of scientific information to becoming participants in the doing of science and—given a long timeline—into creators. We can do that.