Do we need to teach our students about the scientists as well as the science?

Earlier this year, I needed to cover Intro Bio for a colleague on very short notice due to an emergency. I needed to give two lectures, back-to-back, first thing Monday morning. When I got the email on Sunday, I pulled up the syllabus to see what was on schedule for the week. One lecture was on populations and, while there wasn’t time to prep the students for my preferred population lecture oriented around Pablo Escobar’s hippos, it was straightforward enough for me to work from the existing slides. The second lecture on the schedule was a community ecology lecture. When I pulled up the slides, I saw a lot of emphasis on details that I prefer not to cover — including on people like Clements vs. Gleason. I was a little surprised to realize that, while I taught very similar material just a few years ago, now I felt like it was going to be really hard to cover that, since I now feel pretty strongly that freshman don’t need to know anything about Clements or Gleason.* Apparently I have fully embraced the less-is-more approach to teaching. Instead, I decided to skip ahead one lecture to the behavioral ecology lecture (because, hey, who doesn’t love a class filled with lots of behavior videos?)

This had me wondering, though, about when it’s important to teach students about the scientists as well as their science – and about how that changes as we move from first- and second-year undergrads to upper-level undergrads to graduate students. Ecologists tend to use peoples’ names as shorthand for their ideas – a Tilmanesque view on competition, a Hutchinsonian niche, etc. At what level is it important for students to know that? And who should they know?

In my opinion, Intro Bio students don’t really need to know any names beyond Darwin’s (and they already know his coming in). I care much, much more about whether they know the concepts, and worry that trying to learn the names will distract them. I will mention the names of people who did the studies, and I cover classic experiments by Tilman, Connell, Paine, and others – but I try to use recent studies just as often, in part because I have a goal of using examples from diverse scientists. And I never identify an experiment or concept only by naming the scientist associated with it. Instead, I would say something like “In the experiment Connell did looking at competition between barnacles in the intertidal…” to set up a question on the topic.

I certainly expect grad students to be more familiar with people, and especially to be familiar with people whose work is related to theirs. I don’t currently teach a grad-level course, but when I did in the past, I spent more time on people than I do in my Intro Bio course. And, at qualifying exams, I think some amount of “name game” style questions are fine.

All of this has me wondering: who do you think students need to know? And at what level should they know them?

My original plan was to have a poll here, with a list of names and three columns where you could check if you think first year undergrads should know a person, last year undergrads should, and/or if grad students should. But I couldn’t figure out how to set up such a poll, plus the list quickly got too long. So, instead, I’ll just put a list of names below, and then ask for thoughts in the comments about how much you expect students at different levels to know names, and which names you think are the key ones.

And now, the list, compiled with suggestions from twitter:**

Anderson, Andrewartha & Birch, Brooks & Dodson, Carson, S. Carpenter, Clements, Connell, Cowles, Coyne, Darwin, Dobson, Dobzhansky, Earle, Elton, Endler, Estes, Fairbairn, Fisher, Forbes, Gleason, Goodall, P&R Grant, Grinnell, Haldane, Hamilton, Hanski, Hoekstra, Holling, Holt, HSS, Hubbell, Hudson, Huffaker, Hutchinson, Janzen, Kimura, Kuhn, Lack, Leibold, Lenski, Leopold, Leslie, S. Levin, R. Levins, Lewontin, Likens, Losos, Lotka & Volterra, Lubchenco, MacArthur, Margulis, May, Mayr, Menge, Muir, E&H Odum, Ohta, Paine, Park, Pfennig, Power, Queller, Reznick, Ricklefs, Roughgarden, Schindler, Schoener, Simberloff, John Maynard Smith, Stearns, Stebbins, Strassmann, Tansley, Tilman, Tinbergen, Trivers, Wallace, Watson & Crick (& Franklin!), West-Eberhard, Whittaker, George Williams, E.O. Wilson, Wright, Zuk

Can we pause for a moment to note how amazingly undiverse that list is? Sigh. Moving on…

This leads to a larger question of what historical information is valuable. Why is Connell’s barnacle experiment more-or-less required content in ecology courses? Can you be a competent ecologist without being familiar with the classic experiments? Is teaching about the voyage of the Beagle essential to understanding evolution by natural selection? Alex Bond argues that the narrative that these stories provide is really helpful for teaching, and I agree with that. In fact, the ability to tell the interesting behind-the-scenes stories about classic and recent discoveries – which students find really engaging – is one of the reasons why we have moved to a format where I teach the ecology portion of the Intro Bio course to both sections, and my colleague Trisha Wittkopp teaches the genetics portion to both sections. (We split evolution. In the past, one instructor taught the whole semester, but just to one of the two sections.)

But the stories don’t have to be about the classics (and those classics tend to be overwhelmingly by white men, so, again, my preference is to include more recent work, too). And focusing on the names can make students miss the big picture. So, for Intro Bio, I will continue to try to emphasize the concepts rather than the people.


*Jeremy’s recent post argues that Clements’ notion of communities as superorganisms is one of the biggest ideas ecologists have rejected. There’s definitely an interesting post in the question of whether (and at what level) we should continue to teach these sorts of ideas.

**I’m sure some grad students will use this as a checklist for studying for qualifying exams – check the comments for people I missed!

27 thoughts on “Do we need to teach our students about the scientists as well as the science?

  1. Maybe a better way to answer your question would be to ask what names were we familiar with after getting the 4 yr degree. From you list, for me, that was Clements, Darwin, Elton, Fisher, Gleason, Hutchinson, Janzen, Lack, Leopold, Lotka, Volterra, MacArthur, Mayr, Muir, Odum, Paine, Simberloff, Tinbergen, Wallace, Watson/ Crick, Whittaker, Wilson.

    You snubbed Curie, Ehrlich & Mendel… (LOL). I think it’s best to begin with historical figures (the big fish) with underclassmen, then get into more modern figures and some of the medium fish with upperclassmen (and women, too!).

  2. Interesting point of view, thanks for sharing. IMHO scientists should be more aware of questions/theories/debates that are moving – and some that has moved – science. Scientists should be curious and capable of making new questions, and that comes more by being exposed to different/constrasting scenarios and questions than by being able to match columns of theories and authors.

  3. I think teaching how each piece was fit into the puzzle of science is as important as introducing the pieces and the puzzle themselves to students. Both in the case of undergrads and grads, learning science is all about learning how scientific knowledge is produced. Therefore I try to put all my classes into historical and epistemological perspective. In my experience it helps students understand the subject better and also cross information from different fields.

  4. I’ve never been a fan of the name-game, but like Alex, I like to include as much narrative in teaching as possible, because it I find it helps the students relate to the scientific process. In the chemical ecology class I taught a few years back, we went pretty deep into a series of experiments where May Berenbaum explored the co-evolutionary relationship between webworms and parsnips. This is a pretty neat example, because you can set it up so the students can see how a series of predictions were tested experimentally, and how the results were interpreted to inform the design of subsequent experiments. Also, Berenbaum is kind of an entomological hero, and so she’s great to highlight for the students. Yet, even with that level of depth, I don’t think I’d ever do anything more than a one-point multiple choice question where I’d expect name recognition. The goal for me is to teach the process and the concept.

    • I do not recall ever having been examined on the names of scientists on any test, as an undergrad or grad. However I think when you spend more than several days studying a given process, hypothesis or theory, the names stick with you. As an undergrad, for example, I had one course where we read a book by Mayr from cover to cover. Hard to forget his name after that.

  5. I don’t think that undergraduates have any great need to know a lot of names, but I wonder if sometimes having a name/face/personality attached to an idea (or to competing ideas like Clements vs. Gleason) can actually _help_ with remembering those ideas, rather than being a distraction. Of course we don’t only want students to remember things, but to understand them, although I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of just having a mental catalogue of ideas and concepts. (Never Eat Shredded Wheat still comes in handy on a drowsy day when I can see where the sun is at noon (S), and I need to go West.)

    • “I wonder if sometimes having a name/face/personality attached to an idea (or to competing ideas like Clements vs. Gleason) can actually _help_ with remembering those ideas, rather than being a distraction.”

      I used to think that myself, Mark, and told my students as much. And then when I talked to students they told me it didn’t help, indeed if anything it hurt. I’m sure this varies among students, of course. But in my admittedly-anecdotal experience, most students don’t find attaching famous names to ideas helpful as a mnemonic device.

      Which raises the question of what mnemonic devices work. My friend Greg Crowther is big on science songs as mnemonic devices:

  6. I’m with you on this Meg, especially in intro-level courses. I do toss in names and historical anecdotes in my lectures, but just to jazz them up with a bit of human interest, and to remind students that science is something people had to figure out rather than being some kind of God-given wisdom. I never expect students to remember who those people were, and I tell the students as much.

    I also really like that you don’t automatically just teach “famous” textbook examples like Connell’s barnacle experiment (“famous” in quotes because Connell and his experiment aren’t famous to undergrads). Not so much because those examples are mostly by white men, though there is that. But just because we shouldn’t teach examples just because everybody’s long taught them, or because they were the first examples. We should choose examples because they’re good examples–good study design, clear results that our students can grasp, etc.–and because they’ve got some hook that will make them interesting to undergrads. (Those hooks can be all sorts of things besides “historically, this is the first-ever example”) Stephen Jay Gould had a good piece on this, tracing the history of why many evolution textbooks refer to a particular dinosaur as being the size of a fox terrier. Pedagogically, it’s a terrible comparison, because fox terriers aren’t a popular dog breed any more and most students have no idea how big they are. But it persists because textbook authors just copy one another.

    More broadly, I’m mostly against teaching history of ideas in undergrad science courses just for the sake of teaching history of ideas, or as a way to teach concepts. I think it leads to the field becoming hidebound. It’s one important source of the persistence of zombie ideas. And it confuses students, because the historical development of ideas often is poorly matched to their current structure. Biostatistics is a good example here. One thing that makes intro biostats hard for many students is that they have to memorize a bunch of different tests for different situations. Single-sample t-test, two-sample t-test, paired t-test, ANOVA, linear regression, etc. Why do we teach these as separate tests in intro biostats? Because historically, they were invented separately, and because historically that’s how they’ve always been taught. Which just goes to show that just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid. I’m convinced that it would be much better to just junk all these separate tests and just teach general linear models from the get-go. Perhaps mentioning in passing that this or that special case is known as the two-sample t-test for historical reasons. But I haven’t gone down that road (yet) because as far as I know there’s no intro biostats textbook written at the level of Whitlock and Schluter (and with W&S’s other virtues) that just teaches GLMs.

    I do think it’s useful and important for grad students, especially those thinking of going on in academia, to know the history of ideas in their field and the names associated with those ideas.

  7. I think the key question is what IS supposed to be the key teachings of a BIO 100 or other undergrad class? I have to confess to feeling less and less clear on the answer the longer I’ve been around.

    If teaching concepts is the most important (and there are some very good arguments for this) then I think names get in the way.

    On the other hand, if teaching how science is really done is the most important goal (also good arguments for this) then getting into people, how the context influenced their thoughts, their experiments, their thought processes, etc makes sense.

    Jeremy has already hinted at this, but this question is field specific. In particular I think evolutionists are much more likely to teach people than ecologists.

    • “In particular I think evolutionists are much more likely to teach people than ecologists.”

      Hmm, interesting! Not sure if that’s true or not. I’m now trying (and failing) to remember how many ecologists and evolutionary biologists were named in my undergrad ecology and evolution classes.

  8. Via Twitter, Gavin McLean worries about the need to avoid hagiography:

    This isn’t an issue I’ve really thought about much, so I’ll throw it out there to the crowd. When you’re considering whether and in what way to bring up particular scientists in your science classes, in what way (if at all) do you consider the personal attributes of those scientists? For instance, to use Gavin’s example, James Watson is in many ways the opposite of admirable. Does that affect whether you’d mention him by name in a science class? Does it affect what you’d say about him? Does it affect your choice of what material to cover? Do you ever alter the content of your course based on new discoveries about the personal attributes of the scientists you mention?*

    My first reaction is to think that this issue isn’t actually all that difficult. I’d think it’d be pretty easy to incorporate named scientists into a science class in a way that avoids hagiography. Even those whom you don’t have much choice but to mention (e.g., Darwin in an evolution class, or Watson in a genetics class).

    *Not an entirely hypothetical possibility. For instance, after his death, famous Yale literary theorist Paul de Man was discovered to have written anti-Semitic articles for a collaborationist Belgian paper during WW II ( The discovery caused a reassessment of his work.

  9. I don’t think undergraduates “need” to know many names. But I do teach about the scientists because I think it’s important for undergraduates to understand that the content they’re being asked to learn came from somewhere; and that somewhere was the hard work of people just like them. (And yes, hence we need names with diversity). As an additional bonus, I think people relate better to stories about people than to abstract ideas. This claim may or may not contradict Jeremy’s argument above; I think it’s a little different. I’m not suggesting tacking a name onto a concept works as a mnemonic. It doesn’t for me. I’m suggesting that some backstory about discovery by a real person can dial up the interest, and *that* helps learning. But I don’t have data to back that up!

    • “And yes, hence we need names with diversity”

      I have been an ardent supporter of diversity throughout my career, even when it did not receive the focus it deservedly gets today. Most of the projects I’ve been involved with since about 1995 had excellent diversity, to the point of me being the token white dude who could not jump, more than once. Of course that did not bother me in the slightest, and I not only enjoyed my colleagues, but we also meshed very well. I especially enjoyed my colleagues from overseas. Their unique perspectives & experiences were enriching for me.

      I am curious though, and do not mean to offend anyone, but if we are presenting course material to students concerning ideas X, Y, & Z- should not the focus be on the ideas rather than diversity? I acknowledge science, as well as many other careers, were dominated by wrinkly old pasty aristocrats for a long time. But I know for myself, I would have a real ethical conflict in presenting lecture material on idea X, for example, if I based my decisions for lecture content on the color of ones skin and not the content of their ideas.

      I’m all for a color-blind & gender-blind society, which I think means we not only provide equal opportunity for people, but we do not discriminate against anyone- even if they happen to be a pasty white wealthy old dude with a good idea.

      • There are so many topics to cover and so many examples to choose from for any one topic that it is not hard to end up with great examples by diverse scientists — provided that you are using examples from contemporary studies, not just the classics.

  10. Teaching two first year bio courses this summer and I found myself apologizing for talking about yet another dead white guy’s amazing insights… to my 75% non-white, female audience. I have found that instead of focusing on historical figures too much, I have instead added lots of ‘hot-off-the-press’ relevant science stories to go with the concepts we cover in class. Students get way more interested into current research examples (which tend to show more diversity) and ties to biology in everyday life… i.e. talking about genetics and then discussing the idea of designer babies, or GMOs, or genetic testing/therapy… A lot of universities have media departments that produce short video clips on YouTube when scientists have new research out – these are a great way to show the face of current science.
    My philosophy is that first year students aren’t all going to be biologists, but they should have a good level of biological literacy to take with them wherever they end up (nurses, dentists, pharmacists, etc..)

    • Hmmm, I still fail to see the need for apologies of this kind. Indeed, since about 1990, things have changed dramatically. Most of my collaborators since that time have been women and or persons from southeast Asia. And I really seriously doubt that persons like Leopold, Tinbergen, Mendel, to name just a few dead white guys, would have ever opposed equal opportunity. Certainly there are racist megalomaniacs like James Watson. So yeah, I’d apologize for his conduct were I to present his work to any audience. But he is the exception, not the rule. I think that by apologizing about dead white dudes who apparently never expressed a racist or sexist remark does them great disservice.

      • I think it is clear that emilyatlas was saying she was apologizing for a lack of diversity in her examples, rather than for those male scientists in particular. There is no question that many students from underrepresented groups are wondering “Do I belong?” as they sit in class, and showing examples from only white men suggests to those students that maybe they do not belong.

      • Ah, I can see your point of view. That wasn’t clear to me in the post. Certainly my apologies if I misinterpreted the intent. I agree we need to make everyone feel welcome, and to encourage their involvement. The world has changed for the better. So I agree highlighting this is really very important. I personally know so many highly successful women and minorities in science now, that I think we can communicate to students they are more than encouraged to prusue this career path.

  11. When I taught the ecology portion of intro bio for nonmajors last spring, I did teach some names, partly for the narrative reasons mentioned above, and partly to increase diversity (though I tried to do it in such a way that normalized, rather than tokenized — I tried not to make too much of a deal about adding the examples of women scientists). I talked about people like Mary Anning and naturalist painters like Maria Sybilla Merian. Generally, though, I agree that at this stage, the concepts are more important than the names, though I really think narratives are valuable as a teaching device.

    • I agree that it’s important not to tokenize the scientists. I never make a point of the gender or race/ethnicity of the example. I just say who did the work and, if possible, include a picture of the scientist. I agree that it’s important to make it seem normal (as it should be!) for science to be done by a diverse group of scientists.

      • It’s hard, because you want to acknowledge the pioneers, but at the same time I worry about narratives of negativity (“it’s been so hard for women and minorities in science!”) ending up as a deterrent.

        Additiinalky, by de-emphasizing people, we maybe break down the lone genius myth, too.

  12. If you teach IntroBio, I don’t see how you cannot talk about ideas that have failed. My premise is that the first lesson for any science course is how science works, and what makes science unique among the ways we know things. One key quality of science is that science works (and scientists become famous) by exposing flawed ideas, especially ideas that were at the time universally accepted. Its vital to portray science as always skeptical, and that we scientists, at some core level, delight in finding out we were wrong. Only then we have learned something truly new, and have not just confirmed what we knew in our heart had to be true. Put another way, how can you teach skepticism without showing the fruits of skepticism?

    If we focus only on what is currently thought to be true, then we risk conveying science as a compendium of truths that we as professors must pass on to the next generation.

    So, to my mind this means teaching that science is a verb, that it is done by all kinds of people, and that it is both an exalted and humbling process, with the young an “naive” often exposing the misconceptions of their elders. That is an easy sell to a room full of undergrads nowadays, but its not self-evident.

    Thanks for raising an interesting topic, Meghan.

    • I know when I was an undergrad long ago, I repeatedly was told about “endeavoring to support the null”. I haven’t heard that in any classroom for a long time. It communicates, and was always explained to us back in those days, of doing everything possible to reject your ideas.

      • Sounds a little like “Attention must be paid.” which I got from another memorable college class.
        But I was taught the same way. And for all the talk of creating scientifically literate citizens, that seems to be a lesson that is often skipped in favor of covering more material.

  13. Cool post!

    I actually think it’s pretty important acknowledge the “anatomy of a scientist” so to speak. When we talk about the people of science, we are reminding the students (and sometimes ourselves) that scientists are, well…people, and people come with a lot of baggage, such as being inherently flawed (among other things). I think by talking about that baggage, we make scientists and science more accessible. It also offers the opportunity to talk openly about diversity and challenges to increasing diversity. I don’t know that it’s something that I would spend a lot of time on, but I think it’s worth incorporating people into the curriculum, because they’ll spend their careers working with them.

  14. Short version of an originally much longer post: I think that having the names helps to lead to an interesting narrative of how a commonly held concept is formed. While it is easy to say what one thinks an undergraduate student “needs” to know for an exam, I have always found it to be beneficial to give a greater context. This lends a human element and shows that there were people (often multiple people) who contributed to the history of a current avenue of research.

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