Friday, July 13, 2012

The Science Behind CSI

The Faculty of Medicine at my university runs a Youth Summer Program (Medicine) for high school students. There are four one-week modules: Human Physiology, Molecular Biology & Genetics, Pharmacology & Toxicology, and Microbiology. The final module is two weeks of working in a research lab.

One of the modules that takes place in my building is the analysis of forensic evidence at a mock crime scene [The Science Behind CSI]. Here's the description from the website.
From stem cell research to criminal convictions, the science of molecular biology and genetics is at the centre of many of today’s most contentious issues. In this module, students learn about DNA fingerprinting, forensic investigations, and genetic transformation through a variety of hands-on laboratory activities and lectures from world-class speakers. Highlighting the program is the mock crime scene investigation where students collect and analyze crime scene evidence. After students have collected the appropriate evidence, they move into the laboratory to perform their analysis and, assuming they have collected the correct pieces of evidence, solve the case.
I can understand why students might find this appealing but there's a problem. One of my goals is to teach students, including high school students, about the wonder and excitement of science as a method of knowing. I would like students to appreciate the knowledge for it's own sake. I would like them to be excited when they learn how life operates at the molecular level (i.e molecular biology & genetics).

One of the major impediments to this goal is the widespread belief that science is just a tool and the main objective is not knowledge for its own sake but applications of science. According to this view, you only learn about molecular biology and genetics because it will somehow cure cancer, detect genetic diseases, and solve crimes.

I think it's wrong to reinforce this belief when we have a chance to educate a select group of high school students. I would much prefer to teach them about molecular evolution, how genes are expressed, and how we solve the structure of proteins.

This isn't going to happen in a program with such a heavy emphasis on medicine and medical applications but, in the long run, science will lose out when these bright students enter medical schools or forensic programs instead of pure science programs.

What's the appropriate balance between catching and holding the attention of students by having them solve a "crime" and trying to teach them the value of scientific discovery for its own sake?


15 comments :

  1. And would you worry that students encountering Fielding's "Tom Jones" in a literature course would all want to become gourmet chefs because of the eating scene? Or that those who follow the space program will all wind up as astronauts rather than astrophysicists?

    I doubt we need to worry that bright students will be so very limited in their imaginations that they won't become interested in science for its own sake, no matter the initial vehicle. And so much the better if the doorway to that more general interest is something people apparently find inherently fascinating (even if I do not), like crime scene investigation.

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    1. I doubt we need to worry that bright students will be so very limited in their imaginations that they won't become interested in science for its own sake, no matter the initial vehicle.

      I disagree. I think it's a very serious problem. The vast majority of students go to university to get trained for a job. At my university, something like 70% of the students entering biological sciences want to become physicians. Even those who are interested in science think that it's physicians who do all the exciting research in genomics.

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  2. Sounds appropriate to me. These are high school students - the emphasis _should_ be on catching their attention. The points you are concerned with should come later, once they are in a university program.

    Also, if you got all or even most of them more excited about science than technology/applications you're setting them up for disappointment. If we don't first change the job market (and face it, that won't happen), we should be aiming for a scenario where 90% or more of people with scientific background are primarily passionate about technology and only a small minority are primarily passionate about science.

    I do agree that students should learn the value of scientific discovery for its own sake, but it's a _good_ thing if this is not the primary motivator for most.

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    1. These are high school students - the emphasis _should_ be on catching their attention. The points you are concerned with should come later, once they are in a university program.

      Young children are interested in dinosaurs, astronomy, and rocks. They are curious about the natural world.

      By the time they get to high school that curiosity has been beaten out of them and all they want is a high tech job.

      By the time we see them in university, it's too late to convince them that dinosaurs, rocks, and stars really are interesting.

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    2. Good points, but we are discussing a short event aimed at drawing students into a medical curriculum. It's not the time and place to address the problems you point out.

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    3. On the other hand, if you were promoting an event to expose young children or their teachers to (non-applied) science, I'd be 100% on your side. I myself benefited (at age around 8-11 I think) from such events hosted at a university (but organised mainly by non-academics I think), so I can attest that they _do_ make a difference.

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  3. There's another such course given at my University as an "outreach" course. They warn us that UW police officers will be in the building and one of the lounges will have "Crime Scene" tape blocking it off. Outside the building four floors below the nearby patio lies the corpse -- the teachers were loud in their praise of the technician who volunteered to be the corpse and was actually able to lie still for a whole hour. Owing to the legal complexities of working with human samples, the case instead hinges on cat fur on a jacket.

    Here's the link.

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  4. Relative to basic research, one can never predict the possible ramifications of basic research.

    A textbook example was a somewhat obscure paper published, I believe in 1908 in the Zeitschrift der Physik (although it was possibly published in the Annalen der Physik) by a somewhat obscure employee of the Swiss Patent Office. The subject of the paper was stimulated emission from atomic nuclei. The consequence of that paper is known today as the laser, which is almost ubiquitous, being present in CD and DVD players, as well as other applications. I don't think I need identify the author, who is one of the three most important scientists who have ever lived, along with Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

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  5. Sounds like you want everyone to become an academic without acknowledging the world needs academics as well as industry scientists. Would it help if we referred to these "others" as technicians?

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    1. Sounds like you want everyone to become an academic ...

      The purpose of education is to educate, not train someone for a job.

      I want everyone who takes science courses to appreciate the value of knowledge and to learn how to think like a scientist. I don't want them to become academics. I want them to be educated lawyers, business people, politicians, and taxi drivers who understand why you should vaccinate your children and why you shouldn't believe in homeopathy or astrology.

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    2. So do I, but how many people likely to become lawyers, business people, politicians or taxi drivers attend the event under discussion? You must be commenting in the wrong thread...

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  6. The outcome of the idea that science must be applicable, usefull and benefical in financial terms can be seen at
    http://www.labtimes.org/labtimes/issues/lt2012/lt04/lt_2012_04_20_24.pdf

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    1. A very interesting and dispiriting article. This is everywhere; I teach internatiionally, aand for all the lipservice administrations pay to learning, the bottom line is numerical results, minimum cost, like a production line.

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    2. This is an outcome of the ideas that universities should fund themselves from research grants, that the quality of teaching is irrelevant, that universities should only employ top researchers, and that research quality is sensibly measured by the metrics used. But it is not an outcome of an emphasis on applications, except indirectly inasmuch as funding institutions implement this emphasis.

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  7. Are you sure that there are enough basic research jobs to justify your Cassandrian wailing about getting students interested "technology" oriented jobs?

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