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Teaching science in creative ways

Interview with Mark McGinley, head of the Science Unit

Can you tell us about the classes you teach in the Science Unit?

1) The Process of Science (CCC8013) is one of the four common core courses at Lingnan University. This course introduces students to how science works. Our goal is not to teach the facts and figures of any specific scientific discipline, but instead to increase their critical thinking abilities and scientific literacy. Thus, a key component of this class is for each student to conduct an independent research project.

2) Natural Disasters: Science and Society (CLD 9012) examines the scientific basis of natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis, and typhoons) and discusses how we can better prepare for the effects of such disasters in the future. Understanding the causes of natural disasters requires an appreciation of complex events that take place far beneath the Earth’s surface or in the atmosphere. Originally, these ideas seem complex to the students, but with careful study they can master this material which, I think, increases their confidence in their ability to understand science.

Prof. McGinley teaching at Lingnan © Lingnan

How did the idea of teaching "Science and Creativity" start and what was the students’ reception?

The Core Curriculum and General Education Office asked if the Science Unit could offer courses in the “Creativity and Innovation” Cluster (CLA). It was clear that science, innovation, and creativity interacted. After giving it a bit of thought I decided that it might be interesting to look at the relationship between science and creativity in two ways, (1) how scientific investigations has helped us to learn more about creativity and (2) the role that creativity plays in science (science is an extremely creative process, not just the accumulation of boring facts and figures). I am not an expert in this field and there was no textbook to follow so I developed the course around topics that I hoped would be interesting and relevant to the students. I found the topics to be quite useful and stimulating and I think students enjoyed the class as well.

What is your favorite part of being a professor?

There are many good aspects of being a professor. I guess one thing that I like best about it, is that the job is always changing. Even though I have been teaching for over 30 years, each term presents new and unexpected challenges. For example, students from Texas in the USA, where I am from are different from students in Hong Kong so I have had to change my teaching style a bit. Teaching also changes depending on the subject of each class, and teaching the same class multiple semesters varies as I try new things to make the course better. I also enjoy interacting with students which is something that I have missed throughout the pandemic.

Prof. McGinley teaching at the Science Unit Laboratory © Lingnan

What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of teaching?

The challenge of teaching is to make information engaging and interesting to people who might be predisposed to find science to be uninteresting and intimidating. It is quite rewarding when students see that they can learn challenging material and apply it to their everyday lives in a useful way. It is also fun to expose students to the wonders of science.... nature is cool!!

How was the transition to teaching online when the pandemic started?

Obviously, the transition to online learning due to the pandemic was unexpected, so at the beginning things were rather hectic and haphazard. Over time, I figured out how to teach online. It was frustrating that many of the class activities that I have worked hard to develop to increase student engagement, interaction, and learning in face-to-face classes did not translate well to online learning. Thus, some of my courses were not as effective when taught online. Overall, I saw the movement to online learning as an unexpected experiment into how to integrate technology in higher education, so I have at least found it to be intellectually interesting. Technology will greatly alter the future of higher education in both positive and negative ways, so it is important that we understand and advocate for pedagogies that minimize the harmful effects while maximizing the benefits.

What do you think is the future of online teaching?

The move to online learning has been a challenge to both teachers and students and I think that we have reached a “changing point” in higher education. Increased use of technology is inevitable in the future; how and why that happens will depend on whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. This change to online classes will have profound effects on students because it will alter the perceived role of students in learning. In the traditional model of education, the teacher stands up in the front of the classroom and deliver lectures. In this view of education, the students are thought of as being passive vessels to be filled with the knowledge, thus placing the burden of learning on the teacher. Online learning allows students to have more control over their learning (e.g., they can study the lessons when and where they desire, and review the material many times,). Online learning shifts the burden of learning to the students . Online learning also requires more dedication and attention from students for several reasons. First, they are removed from a fixed schedule so they must be disciplined enough to make time for their studies, second, they choose where learning takes place so they must choose a suitable learning environment that is free from distractions), and finally, when studying at home they are free from the “conventions of behavior” that apply in a face-to-face classroom, so the professor won’t know whether they are paying attention to the lesson or playing with their phone). I look forward to testing out new strategies of online learning in the future.

About the author: Mark McGinley, a Professor of Teaching and Head of the Science Unit and the Director of Core Curriculum and General Education has conducted ecological research on behavioral, community, and evolutionary ecology of animals and plants. More recently he has focused on increasing the scientific literacy and environmental awareness of both university students and the general public. He is happiest when exploring the world, both above and below the water, so he is anxious to be able to hit the trail again as soon as conditions allow. He has survived the lockdown by becoming more active (lots of hiking in the nearby hills) and closely following American sports such as NBA basketball (L.A. Lakers Champions!), Major League Baseball (L. A. Dodgers Champions) and American football (all of his favorite teams stink now!).

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