Published: June 12, 2009

“It’d be like if you lectured to someone about skiing and then expected them to be able to ski; it doesn’t work well. They’ve got to practice, they’ve got to fall down, learn how to do things.”

–Mike Klymkowsky, CU Professor, MCDB


Mike Klymkowsky knows that experience and practice are two things that allow students to learn effectively.A vigorous proponent of this philosophy, Klymkowsky hopes his new web-based resources are a step in the right direction. He forsees that they will mean spending less time lecturing on concepts and more time running workshops that require students to think critically and scientifically about what they’ve learned.

Klymkowsky’s goal is to create a class of students who can think like scientists. “We are completely uninterested in whether they [students] remember the right answer,” Klymkowsky intimates, “Because there is no right. In science, there is often not a right answer—but rather a productive way of thinking.”

In the past, Klymkowsky has used what is called a phylogenetic tree to teach his students about the origins and ancestors of species alive today. The idea behind it is profound: we are all derived from the same place, from the same ancestors, from the same time. We’re all equal.He usually uses a physical paper representation of the tree that lists 3000 species and shows how they are all interconnected with lines.

The number of species listed in such a small space makes the map difficult to read, hard to understand, and basically “overwhelming,” in Klymkowsky’s words. Students become more worried about reading the tree right than they are about understanding the concepts—exactly the opposite of what Klymkowsky is trying to teach.

So Klymkowsky’s plan is to completely rethink the diagram. To make it consistently available to students, he’s bringing it online. And instead of 3000 species, he’s going to whittle it down to 200 animals. He wants to make the site dynamic with links from all the species on the tree to information on the internet. Global climate history and continental drift timelines will also be added to the diagram, to show how geologic and planetary events affected origins of species.

All of this will be available online, at the student’s convenience.

After it is created, with the help of Erin Furtak (an Assistant Professor in the School of Education), Dan Timmons and Matt Hynes-Grace (Staff members in MCD Biology) Klymkowsky hopes that students will feel more comfortable using phylogenetic trees as a tool, and as a pathway to becoming more comfortable with scientific thought. “They’ve got to practice, they’ve got to fall down, learn how to do things.” Klymkowsky says.

This essentially Socratic philosophy is coupled with the idea that the professor’s job is to provide the path to understanding. This can be done by offering students the best resources and posing thoughtful questions, while teaching a disregard for the fear of being wrong.

The new phylogenetic tree will offer students the ability to focus on concepts, rather than semantics. Because it will be easier to grasp, Klymkowsky's hope is students will feel more comfortable stumbling, falling down and getting up again. In other words, they will learn to act like scientists.

Written By: Kate Vander Wiede, CU '09, ASSETT staff