Photograph by National Geographic
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A classroom in St. Cloud, Minnesota, 1919.
Photograph by National Geographic

An Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers

One day a few years ago, I got an email from someone who called himself Davis.

hey carl,
i have 2 do a report on the book parasite rex. and i kind of need help on chapter 4 i dont really get it! can u please help me?

thank you alot

your pal,

Davis

__________

Dear Davis:

If you have some specific questions, maybe I can answer them.

Best wishes,

Carl

__________

i mean can u explain to me what chapter 4 is talking about??? cuz i really dont get please help me out

your pal,

davis

__________

I don’t have time to answer such a general question. I suggest you reread the chapter, and if you are still confused, look at a
biology textbook for some of the concepts you don’t understand. If you later find you have some specific questions, feel free to contact me.

Carl

__________

i did all that and i still need help. please help me i have a C in biology i need at least a B- please help me

D

__________

The point of the chapter is to show how parasites can control their hosts for their own benefit. They control how their hosts digest their food, how they behave, and so on. The chapter gives a series of examples how parasites do this, and the effects that they have on ecosystems as a result.

Carl

__________

thank you soooooooo much

__________

[The next day…]

now can u help w/ chapters 5-the last chapter?
please

__________

well can u help me

__________

[Three days later…]

hey carl

can u please help me w/ chapter 5 can u just tell me that it is about?

please

you pal

Davis

__________

Dear Davis-

Describing one chapter for you is a favor. Describing two is
doing your homework for you. Sorry.

Carl

__________

I never heard from Davis again. But I have continued to get a steady stream of emails from other students. Some are a pleasure to read. They are the products of young minds opening up to the rich rewards of science. These young correspondents are starting to understand something important about the natural world, and that understanding triggers a flood of questions that will take them even deeper.

But a lot of the emails follow in the tradition of Davis. Essentially: I have homework. I need information from you.

In the past couple years, I’ve noticed a shift in the tone of these requests. They’re not furtive acts of desperation. They seem to bear the seal of approval from adults–either from teachers or parents.

Here, for example, are three emails I received on the same day not long ago:

Hello. My name is — and I am a 9th grader at —. I am currently writing a research paper for my Honors Biology class on the topic of evolution. More specifically, my topic is on the evolution of dinosaurs over geologic time.

From my preliminary research, one thing I have learned is that dinosaurs are related to birds. I was hoping you could provide me with additional information about this topic. Some of the questions I will attempt to answer through my research include: What are some specific features of birds that prove they are related to dinosaurs? How are they related? How did dinosaurs change through each geologic period? What were some reasons for the evolution?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing back from you soon.

__________

…I am a ninth grade honors biology student, and I am working on a research project regarding the evolution of dogs. I was wondering if there are any reference materials or websites you could suggest to add to my research, or if you or anyone else may be able to contribute any information. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you.

__________

…For my biology honors final exam, I am doing a research paper on evolution and how evolution and the Galapagos and evolution are related. As part of the research paper I must contact specialist in this field. I would be so grateful if you could email me information about this topic. Also if you know anyone else who specializes in this topic please email me their contact information. Thank you so much.

__________

All three emails came from the same class at the same high school.

I got in touch with the chair of the science department at that school to find out what was happening. Here’s the reply I got:

Their final examination internet research project is to select an evolution topic which must be approved by the teacher. These students will be entering a world in which global communication is necessary. They will have to confer with fellow researchers and professionals in many countries. This assignment is to provide these youngsters opportunities to investigate their topics by reading current articles, etc. and then communicating with authors, scientists, professionals, etc. Students are supposed to have read the work, formulated questions, all in an effort to bring their topics up to the minute. Teachers were very specific about “bothering” people just for information.

I wondered if other writers and scientists were having the same experience as me. In a discussion that started on Twitter, I found that they are. Here’s one example, from Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

@carlzimmer @JLVernonPhD Some have good questions, but vast majority just clearly haven’t done their homework & r asking us 2 do it for them

— Rebecca Skloot (@RebeccaSkloot) May 21, 2013

I want to emphasize that when a writer like Skloot says something like this, you should not take it to mean, “These awful kids! They’re interrupting my soap operas!” Skloot has dedicated a lot of her time to helping young students delve into the science in her book. In addition to speaking in person at schools, Skloot has posted a lot of resources on her web site specifically intended for students. And yet Skloot reports getting three or four desperate pleas for personalized help each week.

Over the past few days, I continued this conversation on Twitter and email and found other scientists and writers with the same experience. And we all felt the same consternation. We want to help students learn about science, but we don’t have time to handle floods of requests, and it doesn’t feel right to supply emails that students can simply cut and paste into their assignments, when they should be learning how to learn from reading.

So, here are a few thoughts I have about how to make this situation better.

First, to science teachers:

It’s great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept. Writers are perpetually scrambling to meet deadlines and pitch new stories. Scientists have full plates as well, between their research, their eternal quest for the next grant, and their teaching. To answer a single email from a student–either in the form of a long list of questions or just an open-ended plea for help–takes a lot of time. We may respond to the first few emails we get, but as they keep pouring in, we tend to burn out. And the more popular this becomes as a pedagogical tool, the more emails students will be sending to scientists and writers. And that makes people burn out even faster. It doesn’t seem fair to the students for their grade to depend on whether they get a reply from their email. Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.

And, frankly, we can’t help but wonder what good this exercise does. When we were young, it certainly was a thrill to get an email or a letter from someone we admired. A message like that can steer young people into a career and change their life. But the exchanges we get today are nothing of the sort. They are just requests for information. They’re sometimes courteous and they’re sometimes unintentionally rude. But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.

Don’t get us wrong. We enjoy communicating with students and we see it as a valuable thing to do. But we just want to do so in a better way. The Internet offers many other opportunities for students to make contact with scientists and writers. One way is to have a Skype video chat with a class. In 45 minutes, we can talk with dozens of students, who can pepper us with questions. Again, it’s not possible for any person to talk to a dozen classes a week. But there are a whole lot of writers and scientists out there.

If you decide that it’s still useful to have your students send out emails, please don’t just shoo them off into cyberspace. Spend time making sure that students are actually getting something from what they’re reading, so that their emails are thoughtful rather than boilerplate. I’d also suggest having them turn in draft emails to you as part of the assignment. Help them learn the fine art of letter writing. Don’t just send them off to write emails that start, “hey carl…”

And, to students:

You’re the first generation to grow up in the ocean of information that we call the Internet. In some ways, this makes you incredibly lucky. You can get hold of information in a matter of seconds that the students in the picture above would never be able to find.

But getting a string of words on your computer screen is not the same as learning, or as understanding. Once you find an article on, say, carnivorous plants, you need to read it deeply. Let the ideas sink in. The first time through, you may not appreciate how all the pieces of the story fit together into a whole. Read it again. Resist the urge to click away to Facebook after every sentence. Print the story out if you have to. Save it as a pdf if you have to. The more you focus on reading, the stronger your mind becomes.

As you read, questions will occur to you. Some of those questions may answer themselves as you come to understand the piece you’re reading. Others may require reading something else. You may find that something else through the Internet. But the Internet is not an Answer Machine, into which you type a vague question and out of which comes a paragraph you can drop into an assignment. Give yourself the chance to really understand the words that come flowing across your screen.

These are the years when you learn to think. When you send an email to an expert, hoping that the Answer Machine will spit out something you can show your teacher, don’t get angry when someone politely declines to do your thinking for you. Believe it or not, that’s actually a compliment.

__________

I would be grateful if science teachers and students leave comments below. It’s time we had a conversation.

Update: Thanks for all the comments. They inspired me to set up this new page for students and teachers at my web site.