On Monday I showed up at Kenyatta University, Northeast of Nairobi, found a group of graduate students hanging under a tree and started teaching them Neuroscience. On that day, the Biochem Masters students were scheduled to have three 3-hour long lectures at 9am, 12noon, and 2pm (straight through). Normally this means they would have no lunch break, but luckily all three professors had something come up that took priority over teaching. In fact, the hole day was one long lunch break, until I came along. I spent an hour playing the go-between with several professors and I was able to clear up that no-lunch-break problem, and carve out time for my own class on Mondays at 4pm.
Since this was already the third week of the semester I couldn’t fathom waiting another week to start lectures. So I just jumped in without any notes. In retrospect, I don’t think any good professor should bring notes to his or her first lecture. We should learn how to improvise and listen to our new students.
“So this is who I am and these are the subjects that I could teach,” I began. And we went over topics. I learned what other classes they were taking. And we agreed upon a grading structure (which seemed to be important).
“Okay, what percent do you want for the final exam?”
“Perfect. And 30% will come from quizzes and other class assignments.” They wanted more detail. “Okay. There are 11 weeks left. So there will be 5 quizzes (what you call continuous assessments) and 1 unannounced test.”
“Because I want you keeping up with all the material, every week, not on quiz weeks.”
Next up, some real questions with my 9 new students:
“What do you want to do with your master’s degree once you pass out?”
No idea. Eventually it was the safe stuff: teach at a university, stay in academics, or do research at a university. (Really? I thought. If Universities only exist to train people to work at themselves, it feels rather incestuous. With prodding, one person finally conceded to the possibly of doing research at a company.)
“Do you know someone personally who is a scientist?”
“Yes of course!” They know the people at the university.
“I mean people outside of school?”
Nobody knew a scientist, or had ever met a biochemist.
“Next question: Is there a scientist that inspires you? Someone that you admire?”
“I’m trying to figure out what motivates you to be in this field! Either you have an idea of what you want to do, or you’ve met someone that inspires you, or…”
“Newton.” One man offered.
“Newton. Sure he’s a good example. And do you know why Newton was so important to science?”
“Because of Newton’s Laws.”
“That’s true. But there is more to it than just his accomplishments. It is what it meant to the world he inhabited. You see, Newton probably wasn’t any smarter, er, maybe he was just a little bit smarter than the rest of us, but he was much more curious about the world. He was detemined to find better answers. He was dedicated to learning everything he could in pursuit of a better answer. That drive and curiosity made Newton a giant.”
This segued into a surprise lecture on the philosophy of empirical science…
“You see,” I contined, “Before Newton, people were happy to attribute to God all the things they saw and couldn’t understand. Newton believed that the natural world should be governed by rules. It was that idea which was his greatest contribution. Once he believed nature should follow predictable laws, he sought to define them, and elevated the way experiments were used to confirm these rules.”
Then I drew this:
“Newton, by finding these laws, was suddenly able to explain the orbits of the planets, and how light – something you can’t even see directly – can bend and merge with other light to create colors and patterns in his Optics book. All of these things came at a price. People who previously attributed these things to God suddenly saw Newton take a bite out of the realm of God’s power over the world and felt threatened:
And ever since, scientists have piece by piece explained more of the world. This threatens those who were comfortable with God being the explanation for everything that God was invoked to explain when they were taught about the world as a child. Now I personally feel there is a whole lot left for God out there, but you can see why science and religion are often described as being at odds with each other.
What I hope to share with you about the complexity of the real world should reveal stunning order – and beauty. I hope to inspire you to appreciate the world as a whole, God included. If you are curious, you can be Newton. If you are curious, you will probably enjoy a future full of new discoveries.
In that discussion I also ended up talking about three other influential people: Thomas Kuhn, Carl Popper, and Richard Feynman. They had heard of none of these, but then again these are all 20th century people. Apparently science education doesn’t have time for modern science.
Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) was influential because – in a nutshell – he argues that real science doesn’t progress as people are left to believe. The textbook myth is that scientists are given two sets of evidence in support of Theory A and B, and the group supports the one with the best evidence. Kuhn points out that this doesn’t happen; older scientists cling to the old theory as evidence slowly mounts against it, like a frog in water on hotplate, unable to sense a slow change in temperature as it boils. It falls upon the next generation of scientists, who weren’t raised on the old theory, to reject it in favor of a new one. Scientific theories expire when the people who cling to them expire.
Promising thought? Probably not. But if you want to change the world through advocacy, it’s good to know what you’re up against.
Karl Popper said a theory needs to be falsifiable to be viable. So there are a lot of theories out there – like Sigmund Freud’s theory of the mind – which simply don’t make any testable predictions. These don’t belong in science.
Richard Feynman was a Nobel Physicist who was a great communicator. His piece, “Juding Books by their covers” – about his stint on a commission to choose California textbooks reveals much about the Kuhn-style world we live in. Textbooks are not vetted for their factual accuracy, their clarity, or even their ability to inspire people to think like a scientist. They are chosen as part of a business that cares about selling books and making money.
“I am teacing this class because I believe I can inspire you to appreciate this wonderful world, and I can help you think like a scientist. What you do after is up to you, but I hope you’ll think about how important you could be in helping Governments and Leaders make smarter choices, based on evidence, grounded in scientific thinking,” I told them.
And then we had to switch classrooms. But the students were engaged, since I was okay calling it a day but they insisted on reconvening.
We got onto another topic from the talk about advocating to government. “What makes someone an expert?” I asked. “I mean, what do consultants do?”
“Consultants look at problems and prescribe solutions.” Someone offered. This didn’t jibe with my beliefs. So I offered an alterative view. I explained our experiment using the storytelling project in 2010 and asking 68 experts to predict what the people would talk about most often from a set of 12 choices. Only one of the 68 got the right answer. I had the 9 of them try to make the same prediction, given the same choices. “What will Kenyans talk about in this story project?”
The most common answer was jobs/economic opportunities. This was not the most-discussed topic.
“So experts have knowledge, but only about certain things. A consultant has to be about to use the scientific method to gather evidence about all the pieces of the problem.”
I had them map out the steps in the experiment we’d done with the prediction game:
- Define the problem
- Formulate a hypothothesis (possible solution)
- Run an experiment to test the hypothesis
- Analyze results
- Redesign a better experiment. (Repeat as is usually necessary to find the best solution.)
- Disseminate / Publish results
In class we’d defined the problem and made predictions – which is like a hypothesis. Then I had told them the results of the experiment, and whether they were right. For step four (redesign – the step textbooks often omit) we actually had a fruitful discussion.
“So we asked this question on paper to thousands of people. What do you think would have changed if we had instead collected Kenyan Facebook status updates and mined them to the answer?”
“People would be more educated.”
“And richer, because they have internet on their phone.” [For the record, all of my students had a smart phone in class, but none of them could buy a textbook in Kenya for this subject. This is a Paradigm Shift in what “educational resources” should be essential in the classroom!]
“Yet the paper one would get more swahili speakers too.”
I said, “But we would also be getting tens of thousands of people instead of a few with Facebook. Isn’t that better?”
“But they are also younger on Facebook.”
We started getting into random sampling problems. These are serious topics for a classroom, and their insights are not trivial – and yet it all began with “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
In the final hour I got into actual neuroscience and explained the structure and organization of the brian from the macro down to individual synapses.
I will give it a much more thorough working over next week, and include actual youtube videos on my computer.
After, we took a group photo. A student uploaded it to our Neuroscience 506 Facebook group and people tagged themselves. I invited my neuroscience PhD friends to join so it would be an “Ask a neuroscientist” forum to replace the text book. I posted linked to online readings. This is better than a text book. Students have joined an online learning community co-populated with mentors in the field.
I’m starting my next lecture with this image:
This first mention of the brain in history comes from Africa. It is time that neuroscience became a part of Africa again.