Cultivating Wonder in Biology

In her poem Sometimes, Mary Oliver gives startling simple yet profound instructions for a life well lived:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

I share this excerpt with my introductory biology students because I think it so succinctly describes my goals for their development as scientists. Pay careful attention to the world around you – study it, measure it, watch it, immerse yourself in it. Then be amazed, wonder, be awed, be astonished at what you see and discover. Then share it with others – enthusiastically! (while also remembering proper reference formats!)

Cultivating our students’ ability to be astonished requires they first pay attention to the world around them. We have a tremendous opportunity to do this in our laboratories – both those associated with courses and those where we do our research. Open-ended, multi-week, discovery-based lab and field experiences help students gain an appreciation of science as a process and helps cultivate virtues like collaboration, patience, persistence and wonder. I know my excitement about science and my curiosity about the natural world did not flourish until I did independent research as an undergraduate – only then did I truly pay attention and have the personal experience that allowed me to be astonished by the natural world and its intricacies.

We have to model Oliver’s advice for our students as well. In the accompanying video, I describe one way that I try to show how close attention to the complexities of the natural world can lead to astonishment and fascination. I know that my favorite teachers were those who were excited and enthusiastic about the subject matter at hand. We have to model our attention to detail and astonishment at the world – and then tell our students all about it. I know some students might roll their eyes but many others can be inspired and transformed by an authentic sharing of one’s passion and astonishment. Feel free to “geek out” for your students!

I’ll share one more practical strategy that I’ve used with my introductory biology students. In advance of an open-ended group project, students first watch a short (5 minutes or less) video that gets at some of the big-picture concepts behind the upcoming lab project, like adaptation of wind-dispersed seeds, or fermentation and food. Then, they are asked to “wonder” – they post an audio or video submission to our Learning Management System in which they speculate about the video they watched: What are they confused about and why? What did they find most interesting and why? What are they now wondering about and why? This simple assignment affords students an opportunity to reflect actively on their learning and share what they’re interested in and intrigued by. By integrating “wonder”-ing into a scientific experience, I hope the students see wonder and curiosity as a key part of doing good science. Watch and wonder; pay attention and be astonished!