When Science Isn't Fun

Whenever I'm engaged in small talk at a conference, soiree, or any other miscellaneous function where people talk about what they do (in Washington DC, that happens to be all functions, everywhere), someone invariably responds to my description of my vitae with a well-meaning, "It's so great that you are showing kids that science can be fun!" Of course I appreciate people's enthusiasm in what I do; I firmly believe that science education is the most interesting thing a person can do. But the word "fun" doesn't sit well with me, and seeing as I am a person who loves to overthink all things, I have given the word fun, in the context of science, quite a bit of thought.

In the Lab of Shakhashiri

For all intents and purposes, my science family tree starts with SCIENCE FUN. My college intro-to-chemistry professor was Bassam Z. Shakhashiri of Science is Fun fame. Professor Shakhashiri literally wrote the book(s) on amazing science demonstrations. These demonstrations energized me to switch from being a zoology major to chemistry. I traded animal insides for giant purple flames and things that went pop pop fizz.

The chemistry lecture hall at University of Wisconsin-Madison

My first semester of chemistry was all sparkles and bright colors. When we started learning stoichiometry, I kind of checked out and figured I'd tune back into the content when we got to something that interested me again. That is a technique that worked perfectly for me throughout high school in just about every subject. I'd dive deeply into things that I was interested in, things that were FUN. I'm curious and hardworking enough that this is something that works 90% of the time. When we got to content that bored me, like stoichiometry or The Old Man and the Sea (yeah, I know, sorry), I just went on a mental vacation in class.

Me, before stoichiometry.

Again, this worked about 90% of the time, so odds for an A were pretty good.

When Your Master Plan is Foiled

By the time the next semester started, it started with stoichiometry. I gave it a friendly wave from the back corner in the lecture hall, knowing I would wait it out. But as more chemistry happened, it kept. coming. back. Equilibrium had it. Kinetics had it. We spent a month talking about acids and bases in the context of it. It wasn't going away! It was going to wait me out.

Chemistry was not fun.

This is me during my second semester of chemistry.

And it was clear that my strategy of relying on interest and exuberance over a topic was not going to get me an A in the class (the class that underpinned my major, my life). You know what, I wasn't even going to pass the class at this rate. I had a huge periodic table hanging in my dorm room and I felt like a total poser (is poser still a thing? This was the mid-90s. We were very concerned with not being posers).

I buckled down. I went back to lecture notes, workbooks, and the tapes (remember, this is the early 90s) Shakhashiri provided for the previous semester. I learned all the things I was supposed to have learned back then and studied my brains out to catch up to where I was supposed to be. Spring came to UW-Madison, and I can't tell you what a celebration it is as students begin to thaw and get out into the lake-drenched paradise. I can't tell you because I don't know. I was hitting the books really hard to make it out of that second semester with a decent grade.

And it paid off. I got a good grade, I spent many more years in chemistry. I learned amazing things and developed an intuitive understanding of matter and its changes.

But more importantly, I learned something about what it means to do science. Science is cumulative, and I can't go on a brain vacation whenever something seems boring or hard. If I want to climb up this ladder, I'd have to respect every rung. And I did want to climb that ladder.

It was something I wanted to climb.

There is a lot of talk these days about the so-called, "non-cognitive factors." These are a series of behaviors and skills that are essential to academic success and personal fulfillment that exist outside of knowledge in one particular field. These factors resonate with me because learning how to learn chemistry was the best thing I ever did for myself. It helped me learn a lot of other things I value in my life. It helped me learn how to write a dissertation, how to train my dogs, how to write a book, how to run that first 5K.

The lesson in stoichiometry was actually a lesson in these non-cognitive factors and they've applied broadly in my life: things like motivation, perseverance, social skills, self-regulation, and grit. In my next post, I'll talk about some of these factors and what they may mean for science education.

But in the mean time, before you find yourself hoping to inspire a budding scientist or engineer that "science is fun," please reconsider. I love science. Its not always fun. It is so much more.

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About the Author

Marjee Chmiel, PhD

Marjee is the Director of Evaluation and Editorial Development at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Marjee previous worked at the Smithsonian Science Education Center as the Division Director of Curriculum and Communications. Marjee has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a master's degree in curriculum design, both from Marquette University. Her PhD is from George Mason University in Educational Research and Evaluation Methods.