Thursday, February 2, 2012

Long live the Krebs cycle

So this is blogging.
Rather than wait around for fanfare, I suppose I'll begin.

If you read the introductory posts by my professor, you'll see that we are aspiring writers, scientists or both. If I'm not mistaken, you'll also see that we have discussed a few of the issues facing science writing and mass communication in general. Today I'd like to expand on the issue of communicating science as it pertains to teachers. I'm sure a good old research paper summary awaits in the near future if that's more your thing. For now, I'd rather take it easy.

This idea has risen in my mind many times before, but it really surfaced when the venerable Robert Krulwich brought it up in a blog for Radiolab: Every kid loves to learn about how the world works.  They're crazy about it.  They watch bugs go about their chores, sometimes testing their resolve with inconveniently placed sticks and other obstacles.  They muck around in mud and ponds looking for snakes, frogs and who-knows-what that they then wrangle with their bare hands for closer examination.  Most of all, kids ask questions – endless series of questions.  If you let them go, their minds branch off like links on Wikipedia pages that lead you along from subject to wacky subject until you don’t remember where you started. 

At some point, for many people, this fascination is lost.  Krulwich believes that point is in 9th grade, when most of us are introduced to certain dragons of rote memorization – take the Krebs cycle:

Krebs (Citric Acid) cycle: Wikimedia Commons

I just got chills.  This image was introduced to me (in a watered-down form) in middle school.  I “learned” it, and promptly forgot it.  In AP Biology during my senior year I encountered it again.  Same story.  Sophomore year of college came around and there it was a third time. 

I still don’t know what pyruvate does. 

But I’m still standing.

Robert Krulwich’s sentiment, unfairly simplified, is that every kid would be a scientist if only our teachers would inspire them and not scare them away.  “Save this ‘Krebs cycle’ stuff for the specialists,” a Krulwich apologist might say. 

That would be disastrous, I would reply.  Science is hard.  Science isn’t always fun.  I continue with it because it continues to excite me despite all the chemical names and body parts and processes I’ve learned and forgotten.  I’d like to think that if I do become a biologist, I will have earned it.  Let us leave science to those who have been through the gauntlet and still have the will to live.


  1. I agree with you Mike, I'd like to think that slogging through the less-than-exciting parts of a Biology major means I have enough dedication to the major to stick with it. Also, I read the article below in the NYTimes a little while ago and thought you might like it. It's about engineering specifically, but they mention that it applies to the other STEM fields as well.

    1. Not sure why the link didn't link, but if you copy it instead it works.

    2. Thanks, Libby. That article reminds me of the huge number of people in my high school graduating class who said they wanted to be engineers. The group seemed disproportionately large considering there were no classes in my high school that could have given us ideas of what it would be like to be an engineer. I swear they all just heard some offhanded remark about how lucrative engineering is, and with no academic discouragement in the form of a Krebs cycle-like analogs for engineering, they all decided to pursue it. I wonder how they're doing now...

  2. Where is the "like" button?

  3. Great post!
    Teachers must find a way to describe topics in a manner that balances accuracy and simplicity (age appropriateness). This can be hard but a good teacher can make even the Krebs friendly. Of course not all kids are going to enjoy this "friendly" Krebs cycle but as a vital part of cellular respiration it cannot be left out! Just like Shakespeare shouldn't be removed from English curriculums because it's difficult for people to understand. There's never going to be a world where everyone loves biology just like there will never be a world where everyone loves English, but there will always be people who find these subjects fascinating. These people should not be denied the details of their interests just because it puts other people off. Like Mike Y. keeps saying, we all have different areas of expertise and it is these differences that make for a beautiful balance of knowledge.

  4. I like Hannah's comment comparing the Krebs Cycle to Shakespeare. But often Shakespeare is merely frustrating to kids who don't enjoy English class while the Krebs Cycle is intimidating. They're both in nearly-foreign languages and yet the emotional responses to the two subjects are different (please excuse my gross generalization). What causes the differences in the responses?

  5. Facts are not science - as the dictionary is not literature. ~Martin H. Fischer

    Literature is much more than words, but you can't 'do' literature without words. Similarly you can't 'do' biology without facts but it is much more than this.

    No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous. Henry Brooks Adams 'Facts' are slippery too.

    Facts are easy to teach but dull. Concepts are hard to teach, but exciting, and they generally can't be taught without facts.

    Some facts that are helpful in understanding pyruvate are: that it is half a glucose, that it is half a glucose minus some electrons, that it disappears in the Kreb's cycle and ends up as 3 carbon dioxide molecules, but that some of its electrons go on to do marvelous things as they flow through membranes.

  6. Oops! Hit a snafu earlier... I like the above bit on concepts. I'm tired of people "liking" biology because they're good at memorizing, or "hating" biology because they dislike memorizing. Biology does not equal memorization. You haven't learned biology, or anything really, if your knowledge is based only on facts you memorized. It's like losing sight of the forest for the trees. Too often biology classes are taught in this format: present a set of facts and leave out the concepts that give those facts purpose. Don't get me wrong, memorization is necessary (as described above), but it's necessary for understanding the concept at hand.