The Joy of Scientific Discovery

Rachael Kipp is not one to baby her students, but she has been known to pull out a diaper in class to get their attention.

It’s all part of a new and innovative approach that Kipp and fellow Suffolk faculty employ so that students become absorbed in scientific discovery.

beakers with white granular substance

“We want students to have a good experience and to show them that science can be fun,” said Kipp, professor and chair of the Division of Physical Sciences. “Our goal is to make them learn how scientists think.”

According to Kipp, the traditional method of teaching science, which starts with a question and ends with an answer, is in the past. No longer do students follow a detailed recipe to an end point when it comes to biologychemistry, and physics.

“Here at Suffolk, we’re focused on the flexibility of discovery,” said Kipp. “Instead of coming up with a concrete answer, we want students to look at their results and try to understand what happened based on their particular data.”

Uncommon lessons

Enter the diaper as a learning tool.

“In our chemistry lab, for example, we take a diaper and soak it in water,” said Kipp. “We then remove the stuff inside that has been absorbed in the water – it’s like a gel substance.

“If you add a little sugar, nothing happens. However, if you add salt, you get back the powder and the water. They separate and it’s not a gel anymore.”

Kipp then challenges the students by having them conduct the same experiment using various dietary supplements. Everyone tests something different and then they compare their findings in small groups in front of the class.

“It’s basically an inquiry-driven approach to learning,” said Kipp. “We teach both science majors and non-science majors the importance of trying new things to come up with a solution.”

Positive and engaging approach

Kipp believes that this new teaching method helps students become more relaxed and focused in class.

“Many students have science anxiety from high school that they carry over into college,” she said. “They are scared about getting the wrong answer and working in a lab.

“But the way we teach now makes them more comfortable. They work in a very collaborative environment, and for many of their findings, there are no right or wrong answers. They have the most fun in the lab because that’s where they apply what they’ve learned.”

Kipp is quick to share a favorite observation about science with her students: “Conducting science is something like searching for a black cat in a dark room – very difficult, especially when, as is often the case, it turns out there is no cat.”

The quote comes from the book IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University.

“What it means is that when you do an experiment, you don’t know what the result will be,” said Kipp. “Or if you will get anything useful out of it at all.”