Van Andel Institute: Crafting a new vision for science education

73
Van Andel Institute is working toward quality science education for all through many activities and events such as “Slow Your Roll.” Courtesy iStock

Despite all the advancements in technology and all the exciting discoveries happening in science, I’m amazed that science instruction in schools across the country still looks much like it did when I went to school. Sure, the blackboard might have been replaced with a digital screen, and there’s certainly more computing power in each person’s hand than there was in my entire school. But pedagogically, science instruction hasn’t changed much. And sadly, it bears little resemblance to how science happens every day. But VAI is working to change that.

Van Andel Institute for Education is transforming science instruction across the country. Working with more than 8,000 educators, we’re helping schools make inquiry-based learning a reality. Why? Because it’s time our schools function less as factories that churn out pupils laden with content knowledge and more as innovation zones that develop the next generation of problem solvers. We envision schools that are beacons of curiosity, creativity and critical thinking — the very skills everyone needs to be successful, including scientists.

I come to work every day at a world-class biomedical research facility. And I’m struck by how starkly different science looks in our labs than it does in schools. First, science in school is predominantly book-based. Students read about science. If they are lucky enough to go into a lab, it’s usually to confirm what they already read about. This couldn’t be more different from how our scientists practice science. Our researchers are not conducting experiments to simply prove what they already read in a book or journal. They are seeking answers to questions that don’t have answers yet. Their work is entirely guided by inquiry — one question after the next, guiding them to new discoveries.

In the same way, our educators help teachers create inquiry-based lessons. For example, consider a typical lesson on electrical circuits. A teacher might have students read about how electricity flows in circuits. Then the teacher might give students some wires, a light bulb, and a battery, and instruct them to use what they learned to light the bulb. With this lesson, there’s a simple change that can make the experience, not only more akin to how science is actually done, but also more memorable, meaningful, and fun.

If we give students the wires, lightbulb and battery first, and ask them to try and light the bulb, we’ve instantly activated a sense of inquiry and engaged the students with a challenge. After exploring different configurations, some students will have been successful and others will not. But all of them now have a reason to read about circuits. By simply switching the order of instruction in this lesson, we have increased both the engagement and the sense of purpose, making the learning much more relevant and lasting.

Another characteristic of science instruction in schools is that it often is teacher-directed, and students are expected to produce a uniform response to the teacher’s direction. But in our labs, each scientist must be able to craft his or her own investigation plans. They certainly aren’t waiting on me to direct their efforts. And very often each scientist focuses on a different aspect of an inquiry, combining data from different sources, constructing meaning together.

VAI’s educators work to make student-directed, open-ended learning a reality in thousands of schools. For example, one of my favorite activities to watch our students do is the “Slow Your Roll” challenge. We give students a board, propped up at an angle, and a marble. Their challenge is to use various classroom materials to try and slow the marble’s roll from the top of the board to the bottom. It’s a fairly simple engineering challenge, with basic criteria and constraints, but it’s a clever, age-appropriate way to mimic the same thinking processes our scientists utilize every day.

Students are not given instructions, so they must collaborate and figure out what materials will work best for the challenge. And no two students will construct the marble run in the same way. Much like our scientists, they use trial and error to learn; they replicate their investigation for efficacy; they collaborate with one another to improve the outcome.

To realize just how powerful a simple activity like Slow Your Roll is, consider the process a scientist went through to develop time-release drugs. The scientist needed to slow the release of the drug, and they created obstacles in the path of the drug to accomplish that. VAI students are working through the very same thought process with Slow Your Roll, as young as kindergarten!

VAI’s educators always are surprising me with more instructional tricks up their sleeves, and I’m thrilled to see them impacting more and more schools across the country. At VAI, we’ve never aspired to be the biggest institute, but we are undaunted when it comes to taking on the world’s biggest challenges — whether that be curing Parkinson’s disease, abolishing metabolic disorders, or making inquiry-based instruction the norm in schools across the country.

David Van Andel is chair and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

Facebook Comments