SME Online Journal Project:
Design Rationale

About SME

"Light in the Physical and Biological World" is a year-long course aimed primarily at undergraduate Stanford humanities majors that need to fulfill their science, mathematics, and engineering (SME) requirement. The students are typically extremely bright and motivated students who are, however, less than enthusiastic about science. We take their attitude as a challenge. SME lab coordinator Kelly Beck perhaps put it best when she described the course as having the goal of producing humanities students who would pick up the science section of the New York Times and read it just because it was there. And not only read it, but read it critically, knowing how to find out whether or not the article is valid if they choose.

This goal is often daunting. Some students bring to the course deep feelings of incompetence about their science abilities, born of prejudices instilled by years of boring science classes and bad high school science teachers. Other students are strong in science and come to the course expecting not to learn anything much, enrolling in SME because as a class geared toward humanities majors they feel confident that they can ace it without too much work. Teaching the former to get past their science roadblocks while at the same time interesting and challenging the latter is a task that requires vast amounts of time and energy.

Beyond both of these groups is a third: people who are somewhat interested in science and do not want to have to work too hard but who do expect to learn actual science. We've had complaints from this group about not teaching enough "real science," by which we understand students to mean the equations and abstractions that they learned in high school. Indeed, we have some more mathematically-inclined students who "like to play around with equations" and feel discouraged when we do more qualitative activities that we design in hopes that they will be more relevant to the students lives. Catering to these three disparate groups is a deeply complicated job.

How can we teach a group with such disparate backgrounds and motivations?

One thing we do to try to accomplish our goal is to teach material that the students have not seen before. The philosophy is that in doing this, we can level the playing field to some degree, since everyone will start out having little or no familiarity with the subject material at hand. For example, in a quarter-long unit on "Light as a Carrier of Information," we discuss the mathematics of digitizing sound and of computerized data encryption as well as the physics of fiber-optic cables. These topics were chosen not only because they are extremely relevant to students' lives (pretty much everyone has submitted credit card information electronically and has vested interest in understanding how it works, how reliable it is, etc.), but because they contain some very interesting math and science concepts that are not treated in high school curricula. This is one way in which we try to engage students who have mastered all the usual science and math topics, students with less prodigious science backgrounds, and the students with a yen for "real science" at the same time. Sometimes it seems like it's working, sometimes it doesn't.

The Online Journal Project

We tossed around many additional ideas for keeping our diverse population engaged in current science. One thing we tried last year in lab was to have students pick a science article from a magazine, newspaper, or the web and do some preliminary research into its validity. The students came up with some extremely interesting articles and seemed to enjoy sharing their findings with each other. In our planning meetings for this year, the idea of having the students keep a science journal came up. We decided that we needed a mechanism for having students reflect on science and how it was relevant to their lives and share their reflections with other students, thereby building a kind of rudimentary scientific community of inquiry within the class. Kelly Beck, the SME lab coordinator, has a background in physics education and has taken numerous education courses here at Stanford. She did prodigious research into project-based science education and journal-keeping for non-scientists over the summer, and consequently was able to give me a innumerable extremely helpful comments and suggestions, as well as a thick stack of testimonials from a wide vareity of sources detailing various professors' experiences with such undertakings.

I came to feel that the journal project should happen online. I believe that the medium of the web lets students personalize their submissions to give them valuable ownership of them. Additionally, from a practical perspective, the voice of experience suggests that students love learning to make web pages. We taught students how to make web pages last year in the spring and it was by far the most wildly popular project of the entire course. I wanted to use the popularity of the internet as a mechanism for added investment of the students in their journal entries.

I redesigned last year's internet project to eliminate most of what we had previously taught students about the internet itself (the workings of routers, isp's, internet protocol, etc.) and replaced that with an online journal requirement. I do walk students through the process of setting up web space on the Stanford server and teach them the bare minimum that they need to know to create files, move them around, and work with images. However, the internet itself is not the focus. The main point of the project is to use their web page as a medium for science reflection and communication with their colleagues in the class.

I had considered using some existing software for centralizing the process of reflection and the sharing of student work, but decided not to since I wanted students to have complete ownership of what they would create. I didn't want students to have to conform to any of the pre-established submission formats; it was important to me to let them make all the decisions from the color of the background to whether or not they would include scanned in pictures, sketches, and/or links to the way in which their reflections would be organized.

As I was researching pedagogical studies of and teacher's past experiences with science journal-keeping, a few other important aspects of successful journal projects seemed to stand out to me. I have tried to incorporate all of these into the 1999 SME Fall Internet Project. Please visit the link to see more specifically how I did this. My paraphrase of the principles I extracted and brief descriptions of the ways in which I used them follows.

  1. Ask leading questions. Mitchell R. Malachowski, a professor of chemistry at UCSD, has success with some of the following:
    • What is your opinion of Scientific Truth?
    • What is an issue of scientific ethics that is meaningful to you?
    • Basic Research--who should foot the bill?
    • What do you think of the use of statistics in scientific arguments?

  2. Generate an atmosphere in which students can hypothesize without being afraid of being wrong. One way that I try to do this in the SME assignment is to write several sample reflections that purposely contain some scientifically inaccurate conjectures. I clearly describe the sample reflections as sometimes being wrong but demonstrating good scientific thinking nonetheless. Interestingly, I noticed that I myself felt much less inhibited and more creative in writing the samples when I knew that I was not writing to be correct but to be thoughtful. I hope the students will have a similar experience.
  3. Don't force students to summarize articles. Summarizing articles can stifle unarticulated thoughts students may have about science. Although I encourage students to use articles for inspiration when it is lacking from other sources (even referring them to my own collection of science links), I do not require articles to be summarized even when their content is reflected upon.
  4. Create a community of learners. I link all of the students' webpages to a central page. I have written extensive instructions for students on how to keep various parts of their page hidden so that their privacy will not compromised in any way by giving their classmates access to their science journals. Furthermore, the central page from which the student web pages will be linked is the "privacy" part of the SME Internet Project web page, which I password-protected during the course. If a student so chooses, only her SME classmates will be able to see her web page. My hope is that the community of inquiry within SME will be uninhibited by privacy concerns.

    Another way in which I attempt to create such a community is to have the third and last reflection be a response to someone else's reflection.

  5. Mirror the journals with in-class discussions. Malachowski writes of his journal experiment that "Classroom discussion was greatly enhanced because the students had tangible notes to work from and seemed to be much less inhibited in sharing their thoughts . . . They realized that they frequently had meaningful thoughts about scientific topics and did not have to rely completely on authority for all their learning. For many of them, their new-found confidence about chemistry seemed to help them tackle the more difficult material with an openness not observed in previous classes." The requirement for journal-inspired interaction is almost a facet of the creation of a community of learniers; it is imperative that such a community have a face-to-face component in addition to its virtual one. I made it a point to tell students in the project introduction that their journal entries may be used as a basis for class discussions.

Selected References

  • Mitchell R. Malachowski. "The Use of Journals To Enhance Chemical Understanding in a Liberal Arts Chemistry Class," The Journal of Chemical Education, May 1988.
  • Eva M. Ogens. "The Write Stuff," Science Scope, September 1996.
  • Steve Trombulak and Sallie Sheldon. "The Real Value of Writing to Learning in Biology," JCST, May, 1989.
  • "To permit writing is to permit thinking. Writing can be used as a method of solving problems. It is a mirror of the mind to writers and a window to the mind for readers, allowing both to see how well learning is taking place. As teachers and students, the more we write, receive responses to our writing, and react to responses, the faster we accumulate knowledge, skill, and confidence. Writing about a difficult concept reduces anxiety by keeping thoughts flowing. It is a ways for students to ask questions that they might otherwise be unable to ask. It captures elusive, but valuable, ideas. Writing not only develops existing knowledge, it also creates new knowledge on the part of the writer. It is a way to make and rectify mistakes, and it helps students to stop thinking of mistakes as threatening and undignified. It is the currency by which people acquire ownership of ideas; ideas owned are ideas remembered, and ideas remembered are ideas learned. It is a way of bringing students together into a trusting team. It is a method of slowing the pace of learning to insure comprehension, which makes it more efficient, eliminating the need for desperate reviewing. It transforms boredom into curiosity."

    -Eva M. Ogens quotes D. Worsley and R. Mayer in Science Scope, September 1996, page 15.