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Real world context key to learning

To the editor:

I was amazed when reading columnist Amy Pybus’ wonderful piece on effective childcare (“Setting basis for a child’s success,” Jan. 10) how many of her ideas apply to higher education simply by replacing “children” with “college students.”

For example, Pybus wrote: “Research suggests that pumping (college students) full of information for which they are not ready only develops a sense of helplessness and failure. The consequences of too much stimulation are great: the (college student) tunes out, and their overwhelmed brain cannot function at a high level or engage in creative thought.”

This is especially true in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in which college and university faculty pump information into their students with precious little context, which is crucial for holding and organizing knowledge. We at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have recently recognized this problem, and have addressed it through the Integrative Concentration in Science (iCons) Program for students in STEM majors.

iCons students form multi-disciplinary teams and work on real-world problems of global significance in biomedicine and renewable energy. iCons students learn science in the context of real-world problems they care deeply about; they take ownership of their education by framing and designing their own investigations; and they reflect on what they learned, how they learned, and why they learned. Again, quoting from Pybus’ piece with replacements: “(iCons students) are allowed to make mistakes and think about their thinking, which is really what’s going to give them future success. ... To really promote cognitive development, (college students) must be invited and encouraged by (faculty) to participate in the world around them.” In the end, the old adage applies to toddlers and college students alike: A genius is someone who makes every mistake once.

Scott Auerbach


Scott Auerbach is an associate professor of chemistry at UMass.

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