“I tell my students that it is OK for their hypotheses to be incorrect. If their hypotheses are consistently right, then they are asking the wrong questions.” – USA
That David Baker’s book The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System (with NASA JPL scientist Todd Ratcliff) showed up on a Wired Magazine’s geekdad Gift Guide is no surprise. Baker works hard to make science accessible and “cool” to students. And the book’s mass appeal demonstrates just how effective his efforts have been. Baker, who teaches physics at Austin College, was named by the Princeton Review as one of this country’s 300 best professors for 2012, and by Oxford American Magazine as one of the “Most Creative Teachers in the South.” But it is Baker’s students-first approach that most stands out when he talks about what’s important to him. See what this innovative educator has to say about the promise of student-centered education and about how making learning fun (and, of course, cool), can get reluctant learners engaged.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
Science is cool. I strive to make it accessible and interesting to every person, even those who thought it was outside their realm of possibility.
Everybody does science every day – with our complex brain structure and critical thinking skills, it is just part of who we are as humans. The trick is to allow ourselves to recognize it and embrace it. Sometimes that requires us to break down the traditional ways of doing things, to make learning such a fun, exciting process that it doesn’t seem like work.
We wrote our book (listen to a podcast here) to do just that, to bring the WOW of science to the general public. Rather than a standard tour of the planets, we explore some of the wildest things out there: mountains taller than Mount Everest, hurricanes that last for over 340 years, and the potential for bizarre alien life. I’ve taught “extreme” college courses with this theme, and I’ve given numerous “extreme” interactive talks for groups ranging from kindergarten to retirement age. The response to these wonders is universal: Incredible, awesome, WOW!
Amazing education happens quite naturally once a student thinks a subject is cool.
Another great example of innovative learning occurs in our course for non-science majors titled The Day After Tomorrow: Global Climate and Extreme Weather. In this course, we watch the Hollywood blockbuster movie The Day After Tomorrow. Students ask their own questions about weather and climate while watching the movie, and then I design the course around their questions. They have immediate ownership of their learning – it is their course. The emphasis is different every time I teach it because the students are different.
I also implement Science Portfolios in which students make their own observations of science in everyday life, ask their own questions and develop their own hypotheses, design their own experiments, and record their own scientific growth. Just imagine a student with prior unpleasant experiences in science classes now conducting her own fun scientific experiments on things that are important to her!
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
Students recognize science more frequently in their everyday lives and have increased confidence in their abilities to do science. We have years of data from the Science Portfolio project (student surveys, focus groups, rubrics, and the portfolios themselves) that indicate improved scientific attitudes.
Students have become life-long learners of science, even if they have pursued other careers.
I frequently hear from former students what an impact this inquiry-based, student-centered approach has had on their lives.
For example, in the course The Day After Tomorrow: Global Climate and Extreme Weather, students give weather briefings using real-time Austin College and National Weather Service measurements. Years later, they are still analyzing weather data on their own rather than relying on TV meteorologists for weather forecasts.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
Student-centered learning requires flexibility in the curriculum. If we are truly responsive to student needs, the exact implementation will be different depending on the setting. This is the essence of student-centered learning. One size does not fit all.
It also requires the instructor to give up some control of the classroom. At a science education conference a few years, a group of educators were discussing some of their challenges. One person mentioned the need for students to view the instructor as an expert. In an instructor-centered classroom, it is a good idea for the authoritarian figure “professing” to the audience to be an expert.
But in a student-centered environment, the challenge is for the students to become the experts. Expertise no longer rests just with the instructor – it grows within each student at different rates and with different emphases. Student peers become resources, and collaborative learning pushes the educational experience far beyond what could occur in an instructor-centered class.
To become experts, students have to be encouraged to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. Science would not progress without failure and accidental discoveries. I tell my students that it is OK for their hypotheses to be incorrect.
If their hypotheses are consistently right, then they are asking the wrong questions.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
In our course The Day After Tomorrow: Global Climate and Extreme Weather, we use real-time weather data available on the internet to conduct daily weather briefings. We analyze the same data that National Weather Service scientists use to understand the atmosphere and to make their forecasts: radar, satellite, weather balloon data, and computer model output. My “lectures” often originate from that day’s weather – I regularly don’t know what the topic of the day will be until that day! The learning is natural and authentic. Without high-tech weather measurements and dissemination over the Internet, this approach would be impossible.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Standardized testing. It is very difficult to get students to think outside the box when educational funding, which is tied to performance on standardized tests, forces the educational system to remain deeply inside the box. Instead, a quality education pushes the boundaries. A quality education is filled with curiosity, hard work, risks, failures, and successes. A quality education is not standardized.
What is your school doing right to support education?
Thinking globally. Austin College places a strong emphasis on global learning. Over 70% of our students have an international educational experience during their four years of college. This is not a required part of our curriculum. Rather, it is a natural part of the learning culture on campus.
It’s been really cool to be a part of it. With Communications Professor Michael Fairley, I have led international travel courses to exotic locations such as Patagonia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Australia, Peru, Ecuador, and the Galapagos. Students experience nature and culture directly rather than just reading about it. We explore indigenous views and how they mesh with modern scientific views.
These courses also have a high adventure component: we climb glaciers, kayak with sea lions, rappel down waterfalls, and snorkel with sharks. But perhaps most meaningfully, we learn first-hand from the local inhabitants about their special relationships with nature. It is a life-changing experience.
What conditions must change to better support education?
The best thing that we can do is to have smaller class sizes, especially at the elementary and middle school levels. In recent tough economic times, teachers have been laid off and class sizes have grown. Unfortunately, students can frequently “tune out” in large classes. As an educator, I have found that courses with more than about 20 students often lack the individualized attention that can make a critical difference in a student’s learning experience.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Remember, it’s all about the students. Know your audience. Understand their prior experiences and interests, and design the course to take advantage of this background. Make it about their learning, not your knowledge. Let your enthusiasm and love of learning shine through every day. Create memorable learning events (good memories are preferred). Provide open-ended activities for students to pursue their own ideas. Think outside the box, and your students will, too. Remember, it’s all about the students.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
I’m very encouraged by the trend in inquiry-based learning. For younger children, Destination Imagination is a great example of engaging learning through inquiry. This program emphasizes creativity, problem solving, and teamwork with open-ended challenges. By moving beyond traditional ways of thinking, children find solutions that could never be imagined by their parents. And most importantly, kids have a blast doing it. I’ve found similar experiences at the college level provide just the right hook for students to be engaged. When it’s fun and engaging, learning doesn’t seem like work.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
The best educational tool is quality time with an adult: reading books together, cooking, building things, making up funny stories together, listening to music, making music, doing mental math problems together, or just talking about things that are important to the child. Think about it…what would you want to do with your childhood hero?
About David Baker
David Baker received his Ph.D. in Geophysics and Space Physics from UCLA, where he investigated bizarre features in the atmospheres of Venus and Jupiter. In 1997, Baker joined the Mesoscale Atmospheric Processes Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to conduct postdoctoral research on heavy precipitation and flash flooding on Earth. Baker currently chairs the Physics Department at Austin College, and is a member of the Center for Environmental Studies and director of the Austin College Weather Station. He co-wrote The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System (with NASA JPL scientist Todd Ratcliff), which received multiple honors including 2011 Knowledge Book of the Year – Bild der Wissenschaft Reader’s Choice “Surprise” Category.
Birthplace: Hot Springs, Arkansas
Current residence: McKinney, Texas
Education: B.S. in Mathematics, University of Texas at Austin
M.S. in Geophysics and Space Physics, University of California, Los Angeles
Ph.D. in Geophysics and Space Physics, University of California, Los Angeles
Website I check every day: ESPN
Person who inspires me most: Everything I ever learned about teaching I learned from a kindergarten teacher, my wife Holly.
Favorite childhood memory: Family camping trips to the lake. I’m not sure pancakes taste better than when cooked outdoors.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): In January 2013, I am leading a course to Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico to study the ancient and modern Maya and their
special relationships with nature (after the world ends in 2012, of course).
When was the last time you laughed? Why? My daughter recently retold the saga of my clumsy stalking of a cockroach. She is a great fictional storyteller.
Favorite book: How can you pick just one? A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murikami. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. And just about any mystery novel.
Favorite music: While I’m writing, I listen to secret-agent electronic lounge music.
Otherwise, my current favorite artists are Florence + the Machine, the XX, and Aussie musician Missy Higgins.
Your favorite quote or motto: From my grandfather, “Look both ways, then go.”