How to be a scientist without studying science

    Neal Blair wants you to think like a scientist. He doesn’t want you to become an expert on organic geochemistry, one of the subjects he teaches at Northwestern, nor does he expect you to drop everything and invest yourself in the world’s biggest scientific challenges.

    To Blair, thinking like a scientist means a whole lot more than just understanding all those scary advanced concepts that seem so foreign to those like me who never made it beyond high school chemistry.

    “I think in general, people who aren’t scientists professionally can follow scientific principles and use scientific approaches in their lives – in other words, questioning aspects of what they see,” Blair said. “Science basically teaches us how to ask a question and how to answer it, and if you want to be successful at anything, you probably want to be able to do that a little bit.”

    Then there’s the issue of trust. Understanding what goes into scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, Blair said, gives you a different perspective on those findings – and the people who discovered them.

    “The other aspect is, I think, being a good, informed citizen,” Blair said. “If you know how science is done, it’s going to be more likely that you’re going to trust scientists, and that becomes a big issue when, say, you have to vote for someone and the person is saying climate change doesn’t exist.”

    Throwing around the term “science” seems imprudent given the extensiveness of its scope. So, how do we define a term so broad that it scares away many perfectly capable minds?

    To earth sciences professor Emile Okal, science comes down to applying measurements to the environment and to your own life – a lesson he passes on to students from his Geologic Hazards course, perhaps better known as “Rocks for Jocks,” all the way up to his more advanced Global Tectonics class.

    “You’re ‘doing science’ when you’re trying to quantify something and rationalize it,” Okal said. “Why does it take place and what is the process by which it is more or less predictably going to evolve?”

    Quantifying change is a central theme of calculus, a subject that Martina Bode calls the “mathematics of change.” Bode, who directed Northwestern’s calculus department for 15 years before recently leaving for the University of Illinois at Chicago, sees many practical uses for her subject outside of the classroom – for example, understanding trends in the economy, which is constantly in flux.

    But is math a type of science?

    “To me, yes, but there are different parts of math,” Bode said. “There is applied math [that which answers questions from outside mathematics], which is probably more like an applied science, and then there is pure math, which is more like philosophy.”

    Bode was known at Northwestern for connecting with students in her calculus classes, even non-math majors, essentially by making her classes fun and encouraging communication between students. She was an early adopter of the “clicker” method, in which students use handheld devices to send in answers to questions in class. Bode took it a step further, dividing her classes into teams and rewarding the winners with small prizes like candy. The reward itself didn’t matter so much as Bode’s ability to spur her students’ interest in the subject and hold their attention, instead of just lecturing to them for the entire class.

    “I engage the students, and I think that’s very critical in particular with a subject like calculus,” Bode said. “You have to spark their interest. You have to help the students to care about it and to show curiosity about it. You can’t do that by lecturing. You have to engage them.”

    But not everyone will make a living off studying and teaching science. Some, like Blair, are drawn to the constant uncertainty that drives others crazy.

    “I love the inquiry part, the forensic aspect of science,” Blair said. “Quite frankly, to me it’s like a drug to be able to go and discover something new that someone else didn’t know.”


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