Peter J. Bruns
Bruns on Progress and Promise
Peter J. Bruns has seen a lot change in his more than 40 years as a science educator, first at Cornell University and more recently as HHMI’s vice president for grants and special programs.
Bruns retired in August 2010, but before he left, we asked him to reflect on his career and the future of science education.
Q: What has been the biggest change in science education since you started teaching?
A: I started on the Cornell faculty in 1969, and it was clear in those days that how you taught was not part of the equation. I arrived there in August having just received my Ph.D., and that fall I taught the big genetics course with no experience whatsoever. I think teaching is more on the table now. People are asking really interesting and challenging questions, including “How do you judge someone’s effectiveness as a teacher?” and “How do we do good peer review of teaching?” Those questions haven’t been solved, but at least they are being addressed. That’s been a big change.
Q: What has been HHMI’s biggest contribution to science education?
A: Because of the HHMI grants program, greater attention is being paid to undergraduate research as a component of a thorough science education. Research was always something somebody might do, but it was a small group of upper-level students who were already interested in science.
Now we understand that undergraduates are capable of doing research, even in their first or second year, and that research is good for them. The idea that research should be included as part of gateway courses is really important and is gaining acceptance. Undergraduate research should be like voting in Chicago: early and often.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge in science education?
A: Getting people to think about science education in the same way they think about research is really important. You ask practicing scientists if they are doing experiments the same way they did them as a graduate student, and they will surely answer of course not. But ask if they are teaching the same way they did as a graduate student. Most are. How do scientists learn new science? They read the literature. They go to science meetings. They talk to colleagues. All of these approaches can work for science education too.
Q: What do you see as HHMI’s role in the larger science education community?
A: A very critical role for us in science education, as in science, is to support innovative thinking, to allow people to do proof-of-principle work with our funding. We are willing to support useful experiments that don’t work, as long as our grantees know what happened and why. In that way we act as a catalyst to push science education in entirely new directions. And, given that HHMI is a science organization, we do this by working directly with the scientific community by working with scientists and science departments.
Q: Has science education improved?
A: When we first started our HHMI science education program for high school teachers at Cornell in 1989, we went to some of the schools around Ithaca and watched what they were doing in the lab. There was no discovery, no understanding, no reason why a reasonably smart person would want to do that for the rest of their life.
I think we have gotten better at conveying the excitement of science and why it is worth doing. And we are doing a better job of that in higher education too: we are doing more to teach the right things in the right way. Maybe I’m a naïve optimist, but I think things have improved. Still, we have a way to go.