An Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers

One day a few years ago, I got an email from someone who called himself Davis.

hey carl,
i have 2 do a report on the book parasite rex. and i kind of need help on chapter 4 i dont really get it! can u please help me?

thank you alot

your pal,



Dear Davis:

If you have some specific questions, maybe I can answer them.

Best wishes,



i mean can u explain to me what chapter 4 is talking about??? cuz i really dont get please help me out

your pal,



I don’t have time to answer such a general question. I suggest you reread the chapter, and if you are still confused, look at a
biology textbook for some of the concepts you don’t understand. If you later find you have some specific questions, feel free to contact me.



i did all that and i still need help. please help me i have a C in biology i need at least a B- please help me



The point of the chapter is to show how parasites can control their hosts for their own benefit. They control how their hosts digest their food, how they behave, and so on. The chapter gives a series of examples how parasites do this, and the effects that they have on ecosystems as a result.



thank you soooooooo much


[The next day…]

now can u help w/ chapters 5-the last chapter?

[A day later…]

well can u help me


[Three days later…]

hey carl

can u please help me w/ chapter 5 can u just tell me that it is about?


you pal



Dear Davis-

Describing one chapter for you is a favor. Describing two is
doing your homework for you. Sorry.



I never heard from Davis again. But I have continued to get a steady stream of emails from other students. Some are a pleasure to read. They are the products of young minds opening up to the rich rewards of science. These young correspondents are starting to understand something important about the natural world, and that understanding triggers a flood of questions that will take them even deeper.

But a lot of the emails follow in the tradition of Davis. Essentially: I have homework. I need information from you.

In the past couple years, I’ve noticed a shift in the tone of these requests. They’re not furtive acts of desperation. They seem to bear the seal of approval from adults–either from teachers or parents.

Here, for example, are three emails I received on the same day not long ago:

Hello. My name is —- and I am a 9th grader at —-. I am currently writing a research paper for my Honors Biology class on the topic of evolution. More specifically, my topic is on the evolution of dinosaurs over geologic time.

From my preliminary research, one thing I have learned is that dinosaurs are related to birds. I was hoping you could provide me with additional information about this topic. Some of the questions I will attempt to answer through my research include: What are some specific features of birds that prove they are related to dinosaurs? How are they related? How did dinosaurs change through each geologic period? What were some reasons for the evolution?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing back from you soon.


…I am a ninth grade honors biology student, and I am working on a research project regarding the evolution of dogs. I was wondering if there are any reference materials or websites you could suggest to add to my research, or if you or anyone else may be able to contribute any information. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you.


…For my biology honors final exam, I am doing a research paper on evolution and how evolution and the Galapagos and evolution are related. As part of the research paper I must contact specialist in this field. I would be so grateful if you could email me information about this topic. Also if you know anyone else who specializes in this topic please email me their contact information. Thank you so much.


All three emails came from the same class at the same high school.

I got in touch with the chair of the science department at that school to find out what was happening. Here’s the reply I got:

Their final examination internet research project is to select an evolution topic which must be approved by the teacher. These students will be entering a world in which global communication is necessary. They will have to confer with fellow researchers and professionals in many countries. This assignment is to provide these youngsters opportunities to investigate their topics by reading current articles, etc. and then communicating with authors, scientists, professionals, etc. Students are supposed to have read the work, formulated questions, all in an effort to bring their topics up to the minute. Teachers were very specific about “bothering” people just for information.

I wondered if other writers and scientists were having the same experience as me. In a discussion that started on Twitter, I found that they are. Here’s one example, from Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:


I want to emphasize that when a writer like Skloot says something like this, you should not take it to mean, “These awful kids! They’re interrupting my soap operas!” Skloot has dedicated a lot of her time to helping young students delve into the science in her book. In addition to speaking in person at schools, Skloot has posted a lot of resources on her web site specifically intended for students. And yet Skloot reports getting three or four desperate pleas for personalized help each week.

Over the past few days, I continued this conversation on Twitter and email and found other scientists and writers with the same experience. And we all felt the same consternation. We want to help students learn about science, but we don’t have time to handle floods of requests, and it doesn’t feel right to supply emails that students can simply cut and paste into their assignments, when they should be learning how to learn from reading.

So, here are a few thoughts I have about how to make this situation better.

First, to science teachers:

It’s great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept. Writers are perpetually scrambling to meet deadlines and pitch new stories. Scientists have full plates as well, between their research, their eternal quest for the next grant, and their teaching. To answer a single email from a student–either in the form of a long list of questions or just an open-ended plea for help–takes a lot of time. We may respond to the first few emails we get, but as they keep pouring in, we tend to burn out. And the more popular this becomes as a pedagogical tool, the more emails students will be sending to scientists and writers. And that makes people burn out even faster. It doesn’t seem fair to the students for their grade to depend on whether they get a reply from their email. Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.

And, frankly, we can’t help but wonder what good this exercise does. When we were young, it certainly was a thrill to get an email or a letter from someone we admired. A message like that can steer young people into a career and change their life. But the exchanges we get today are nothing of the sort. They are just requests for information. They’re sometimes courteous and they’re sometimes unintentionally rude. But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.

Don’t get us wrong. We enjoy communicating with students and we see it as a valuable thing to do. But we just want to do so in a better way. The Internet offers many other opportunities for students to make contact with scientists and writers. One way is to have a Skype video chat with a class. In 45 minutes, we can talk with dozens of students, who can pepper us with questions. Again, it’s not possible for any person to talk to a dozen classes a week. But there are a whole lot of writers and scientists out there.

If you decide that it’s still useful to have your students send out emails, please don’t just shoo them off into cyberspace. Spend time making sure that students are actually getting something from what they’re reading, so that their emails are thoughtful rather than boilerplate. I’d also suggest having them turn in draft emails to you as part of the assignment. Help them learn the fine art of letter writing. Don’t just send them off to write emails that start, “hey carl…”

And, to students:

You’re the first generation to grow up in the ocean of information that we call the Internet. In some ways, this makes you incredibly lucky. You can get hold of information in a matter of seconds that the students in the picture above would never be able to find.

But getting a string of words on your computer screen is not the same as learning, or as understanding. Once you find an article on, say, carnivorous plants, you need to read it deeply. Let the ideas sink in. The first time through, you may not appreciate how all the pieces of the story fit together into a whole. Read it again. Resist the urge to click away to Facebook after every sentence. Print the story out if you have to. Save it as a pdf if you have to. The more you focus on reading, the stronger your mind becomes.

As you read, questions will occur to you. Some of those questions may answer themselves as you come to understand the piece you’re reading. Others may require reading something else. You may find that something else through the Internet. But the Internet is not an Answer Machine, into which you type a vague question and out of which comes a paragraph you can drop into an assignment. Give yourself the chance to really understand the words that come flowing across your screen.

These are the years when you learn to think. When you send an email to an expert, hoping that the Answer Machine will spit out something you can show your teacher, don’t get angry when someone politely declines to do your thinking for you. Believe it or not, that’s actually a compliment.


I would be grateful if science teachers and students leave comments below. It’s time we had a conversation.

Update: Thanks for all the comments. They inspired me to set up this new page for students and teachers at my web site.

131 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers

  1. I am truly sorry that you are buried in these types of requests. We are seeing the effects of a generation raised on instant answers. I am amazed to watch college students type full questions into Google then turn to me and say, “I can’t find any information.”

    I am still searching for the key to getting them to value synthesizing information from several sources and thinking about things for more than 15 seconds.

  2. Wow. This is appalling in so many ways. When I was a student, I would never have thought active journalists or authors would have the time to address such questions. If I had any access to you at all, I would only ask that you perhaps comment on my thoughts or theories about something as a sanity check, so to speak. Carl, I can’t believe you were even kind enough to keep dialoguing at all with that first student asking for help on Chapter 4, then 5 and so on. The world is a very different place since the Internet.

  3. Typo: “But there a whole lot of writers and scientists out there.”

    I guess even twenty years later, social etiquette has not caught up with email…

  4. Excellent ideas; I hope it gets distributed widely. As a paleontologist, I get a fair number of e-mails of this ilk. Many are related to my career, and I don’t mind answering these briefly. But I have also received “Hello, my name is Andrea. I am 15 years old, and I am doing a project on how dinosaurs became extinct. Do you have any information that you can send me in order to help me with my project? ” – I just send them to a website. The tension is that as a university faculty member, public service is important, but there is a fear of being buried by “can you help me requests.”

  5. Fantastic post and very true. I think you are referring to the importance of what I like to dub integrated information. I try to instill this in my students. Giving students the answer does little to help them. Having them come to comprehend a subject by learning about seemingly unrelated topics does much more. Please don’t hesitate to contact me.

  6. As I science student, I would have balked at an assignment like this. Even the thought of going to office hours without a specific questions – but it takes time to get into a topic and think of a really good question, as question you’re not embarrassed or anxious to ask. I would venture to say most HS projects are on a pretty short timeline – often I wouldn’t really understand what I was thinking or writing about 80% through the project….which (to be honest) is usually a few days at best before the due date. If a “personal” source is required, then it forces the student in probably two paths: a generic question, early on, to make sure you get the credit, or a better question, late in the game, not knowing if your source will have time to answer you. (And that’s not counting the hours hovering over the send button if you have social anxiety like me.) In my opinion, it cultivates and tests skills that might just be better off learning after high school. There’s already so much to teach in those 4 years.

  7. I am a high school science teacher and I am not surprised by your observations. You have identified a variety of problems here.
    1. Students want instant gratification. If someone else will do the work for them, they love it!
    2. The information highway has depersonalized relationships. Our students do not realize you are a real, live human being with other demands on your time. The concept of burning you out by sending an email is foreign to them.
    3. Parents: Many parents condone their children getting marks anyway they can. Now that the parent is no longer able to do the homework for the child another, more knowledgeable, adult can do it instead.
    4. Personal responsibility — need I say more?
    5. Literacy and critical thinking — Students need to read, synthesize and reflect on what they are reading. Not just skim it once and then update their facebook status. I have come the full loop back to instant gratification.
    Luckily there are still many curious youth who want to discover and experience the wonder of the natural world on their own, rather than have answers spoon fed to them. It is on these youth that I pin our hopes for the future.

  8. In your statement to the students, you’ve correctly hit on one of the most relevant factors driving this kind of info-seeking. These kids are all digital natives and the majority of their teachers are not. Even teachers at the younger end of the spectrum haven’t had the benefit of growing up with the ease of access to information that current high schoolers have. Teachers recognize the internet as a powerful tool, but often fail to intuit how to manage it effectively as part of their pedagogy. It doesn’t help that technology standards are being integrated demanding the use of web tools in the curriculum without necessarily providing support or instruction for teachers to incorporate it appropriately. Like any other skill, some folks are good at it, some aren’t.

    Teachers need to look hard at their curriculum and determine whether these types of assignments are being given to fulfill a standards requirement, to develop a 21st century skill, or what? Perhaps teachers feel that because kids are more adept at navigating the web that they don’t need specific instruction about information gleaned from it and communicating with others.

    The ease of the internet is seductive. Execute some Google-fu and the information is *right there*. Most of us learned to read but not effectively use the public library. The internet is no different. Teachers need to be willing to dedicate at least as much time to classroom discussion, work revisions, and in class guidance as they would expect an expert online to do. If they can’t, they’re doing a disservice to their students and should stick to a more didactic approach (Gardner be damned).

    ~Lali – Science Teacher, 15 years

  9. I’ve had similar issues, but probably not to the frequency you have. I suppose the most alarming thing I’ve faced, isn’t necessarily the persistent questions from an individual, but the sense of entitlement they seem to have. One schoolkid was so affronted that I had politely declined to do his homework for him that he sent me a string of abusive messages accusing me of being a fraud. Of the answers I did supply (in the early, polite exchange of messages about black holes), he’d posted, verbatim, what I told him on his personal website and passed it off as his own research. Annoyed, I contacted his school but received no response. The offending website has since been removed, but I was surprised by this behavior. I’m now a little more careful how detailed I get when replying to emails from students!

  10. A few years back, i spent some time on Yahoo!Answers. At first it was a total waste of time. Then i noticed that there were lots of students looking for a cool science fair experiment. I spent maybe an hour looking for internet resources, and organized them a bit for how advanced they were. Then i started answering these questions with such lists. I soon discovered that others who answered questions started picking up my lists (which was totally OK with me).

    I felt that i potentially saved these kids some time looking for resources. Maybe they could spend more of their time figuring out what they were doing. Honestly, if they knew how to find stuff on the Internet, they’d let Yahoo!Answers point out that these questions had been asked before. They really seemed to want a customized answer. I assume that we’re all social animals.

  11. It makes me sad both that you have to deal with this and that this is how kids handle their homework. I like the idea of having kids ask an expert a question, but the teachers should first make arrangements with a willing expert and make sure the questions build off of whatever they’ve already read or learned in class.

    On a vaguely related note, I wrote a book report about Parasite Rex over a decade ago. I wish I could read it now and see how well I did on summarizing chapter 4…

  12. “I want your thoughts and research.”

    “That’s why I’ve already worked so hard and so fervently to publish and share them.”

    The answers are out there, and most of them are free. The level of ingratitude for this colossal gift is staggering.

  13. On the other hand, i’d have loved to have been assigned Parasite Rex in school. When i get my time machine working, i’ll make sure i get a copy when i was a kid.

  14. Great irony in how Davis ultimately got feedback on that specific subject: “The point of the chapter is to show how parasites can control their hosts for their own benefit.” Whether intended or coincidental it’s pretty good.

  15. Thanks for the great post, Carl. I do think one of the big issues is that students aren’t reading the books/articles they’re assigned to read, perhaps in part because they feel like they can just send emails/tweets/etc like these to writers and scientists and get their homework done without actually doing the work. I agree with all you said above about that.

    Another issue is reading comprehension (and in somecases fear of reading): I get a staggaring number of emails from students who have done (or tried to do) the reading and don’t know how to translate it into a paper or answers to homework questions. I also get emails from students who just don’t know where to start — they’re intimidated by the idea of even reading a book, let alone writing a paper about one … they’re not avoiding their homework like the other group, they just don’t know how to do it.

    Critical reading is a learned skill — how to engage with a text, how to annotate, how to ask questions, absorb information from reading, etc is something that many students simply don’t know how to do, and need to be taught. One of the greatest lessons I got as a young student was from a teacher who brought several books she’d read into class, photocopied chapters from each complete with her underlinings and annotations, and walked us through what it all meant, how she did it, etc. That was a major lightbulb moment for me — I’d never even thought of writing in a book, scribbling questions for the author as if I were actually talking to that person. Of course, everyone engages with reading differently (some write in books, use multi-colored highlighting systems, others can’t imagine marking up a book and instead rely on notebooks or flags or post-its, etc), one thing students need to do is figure out what their system is, which takes time, and often coaching.

    Which brings me to another thought I have each time I read one of these student emails: What happened to asking your teacher for help when you don’t understand the homework? I hate to play the back-when-I-was-a-kid game, but … pre-Google/etc, when we didn’t understand the reading or know how to do an assignment, we went to the teacher and asked. Or we went to the school’s tutoring center for help. So this is one thing I tell students: Talk to your teacher, seek out a school tutor or guidance counselor. I feel like teaching students to seek help through appropriate channels is a much better lesson for me to teach them than any answer I could give them related to my writing.

    Of course, as Carl say above, some students contact me who have clearly done a close reading of my work, and have read all of the materials I put on my website to help students (including the detailed FAQ page), and still have questions. Those students often floor me with their curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, and I try my best to reply to each of them in detail (in in some cases, my replies to them make it onto the FAQ page of my site to help other students in the future). At times I’ve gotten on the phone to do interviews with those students, or skyped with their classes, or met with them privately before or after a public event in their town. But as Carl says, it’s impossible for any writer to do such things enough to keep up with the demand, or even really make a dent in it. This is why I’ve put so many resources for students online, including videos of me doing class visits. I do think there are many ways that we science writers can and should contribute positively to science education by engaging with students. But I also think it’s important to draw the line at what is and isn’t our job, where we can and can’t help (because trying to help would harm our ability to do our work by making it so we have little time to write, and in the end it wouldn’t truly help those students anyway).

    1. I have reviewed different ways to interact with articles and it never occurred to me to photocopy my preferred method. I may change a chemistry lesson based on this idea.

  16. You hit the nail on the head with this statement: “But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.”

    But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.”

    Today’s students are conditioned to think that having access to the information is as good as actually grasping the concept. The disappointing part is that both the students (and the teachers that assign projects like the one you were bombarded with) don’t see that this is an educational flaw. Intentional or innocent, the tone of these questions is one of wanting the experts to do the thinking and puzzling out of the basic concepts for them.

  17. Mr. Zimmer,

    As a New Haven, CT public school science teacher for the past 15 years, I instantly empathized with the sentiment you expressed.

    I am a huge fan of your work. You do a fantastic job of bringing complicated ideas to the interested reader. I regularly share your writing with my classes. I find that I have the greatest success when I actually work through readings, in class, with students. It’s time consuming, but in my opinion it is time very well spent.

    Unfortunately, I find our students read very, very little outside of class.

    While science is rewarding, it involves a lot of thinking. Thinking is hard.

    I am constantly discovering new “hooks” that work to get students to dig in and volunteer their time. But “the easy way out” seems to be frequently irresistible.

    There are many reasons why I suspect this is happening. A culture that rewards good grades (high GPAs) over meaningful connection to ideas is one major shortcoming.

    I look forward to seeing other comments on this critical issue.

    Chris Willems
    New Haven, CT

  18. Nice post. I would only add this, to teachers: If a student is going to write an expert, the teacher should first review the questions and the draft email *with* the student. Forming good questions is one of the most important skills a student — any inquiring mind — can develop. It doesn’t happen on its own. Some help formulating good questions would teach a great lesson itself — and might create an email that a scientist or science writer would feel inspired to answer.

  19. In fairness, it’s not just scientists who are dealing with this. I used to work for an organization that dealt with global issues, and we could always tell when it was class assignment time. Before the internet became so ubiquitous, we’d get a few letters from students towards the end of school terms. But in more recent years we’d get deluged by emails from students whose teachers had assigned them projects that required they contact an “expert” in the subject area and get answers to a list of questions. An interesting project, but I don’t think the teachers took into account just how many students would be contacting a small group of experts. My office had a total of 3 staff, plus a number of unpaid interns (usually university students), and it was a struggle to respond appropriately and positively even to the students who had taken the time to send a well-written email with thoughtful questions. On the one hand, we wanted to encourage young people to learn about and get involved. On the other hand, we already had a lot of work to do. In the end, we compromised. (Guess how our interns ended up spending a lot of their time towards the end of the school year.)

  20. Personally, given the massive access to information (words, pictures, sounds) that students have today, I do not think that “gaining access to greater quantities of information” is a useful task. Nor is “becoming comfortable talking with people”. Some students will have issues here, but for most I think the problems will reside elsewhere.

    The problem, though, with information, is testing how valid our understanding of it is. And that is something that I think can be incredibly valuable in a classroom setting.

    In other words, instead of reaching out to people – something that hopefully most of the students are doing already – turn them to trying to do something with it. “Lab work”, with networked information sources as a resource. My beliefe is that if this is done right, students will not be looking for pleasing words so much as they will be looking for underlying meanings.

  21. It is odd that students today have the greatest research tool in the history of mankind at their disposal, yet they seem to have forgotten or they are not being taught how to do research. I was in grad school in the nascent years of the WWW and I am certain my research was facilitated by the amount of information that I could easily access, but learning how to read scientific literature and how to follow your questions and inspirations are the keys to using that information. That has essentially always been the rule. It seems to me that students today also need to learn how to filter. The amount of information available within a few keystrokes is absolutely overwhelming and not all of it is reliable information.

    As for the idea put forth by some of the educators mentioned in this story that students in the future are going to have ever more opportunities to communicate with other scientists, this is true – but with one important caveat. It is important to first build relationships with people either through reputation, common associations, or through personal contact. Cold emailing an eminent scientist with vague questions and without some form of introduction is not likely to ever have a good result.

  22. simply stated: just as not all students challenge themselves to pursue knowledge versus answers, some teachers are simply looking to meet the benchmarks versus inspire a thirst for knowledge. It’s no secret that the educational system is broken.

  23. In the first class for my students I offer to give them all the information they need on to a memory stick. For assignments they just hand the stick back to me. They quickly see that this would be cheating and that they would be cheated. Lesson one: Education is more than information transfer and retrieval.

  24. Carl – it’s not just scientists who get this. As a historian, I get several requests a year from students who seem to want me to do their homework. Some are polite; others are demanding. In both cases, I refer them to one or two useful introductory books that they can ask their school librarian about, and sometimes reliable websites if they exist. I tell them that if they have specific questions after reading that material, to let me know. I figure that’s a good way to balance the demand on my time with my responsibility to serve the public, as a historian at a public research university.

    I was once asked to be a talking head for a high school documentary. That was a creative request, I agreed, and we had fun shooting it.

  25. This brings up a concern related to the “flipped classroom” concept in which the students are expected to follow a traditional lecture posted electronically (outside of class time) and participate in deeper discussions (critical thinking) and/or demonstrations in the classroom during class time. If they won’t read outside of the classroom, why will they follow a lecture outside of the classroom? If they neither read the course textbook nor watch the lecture outside of the classroom, how can the “going deeper” time inside the classroom have value or be meaningful?

  26. It doesn’t stop after high school. I regularly hear from graduate students who I swear would text their friends asking how to open their refrigerator. Books, advisors, journal papers–it’s as if these resources were locked in safes.

  27. I am a history teacher and I think what you are experiencing is a problem that K-12 educators have been facing in epic proportions- many of our students lack persistence. It may seem to you that they are very persistent with a barrage of emails, but quite the contrary. They want a quick Google result or an answer emailed in a flash. This is evident in the emails I get about grades, homework and materials each evening. It sounds like these science teachers are asking some really challenging and powerful questions that require students to conduct thoughtful research and READ IT. Those of us who are authors and researchers know the level of persistence this requires. This year, I had 100 8th grade students conduct a mock trial for the case of Henrietta Lacks. The kids desperately wanted to talk to Rebecca Skloot. I told them they could do that immediately BY READING HER BOOK. They were perplexed at first, and then actually did it. Some read it all and others at lower reading levels read parts with support. Then they conducted research on privacy and civil rights law and developed a “case” that was truly remarkable. Now of course they still want to talk to Skloot, but not to do their work for them. They want to share what they know and how she inspired their learning. That is how authors and leaders in any field should be connected with students. I urge you to connect with and support K-12 educators when you see students (and teachers) that are persisting with a topic, reading critically, and being genuinely mindful about the learning process. Thank you for putting this out there.

  28. I am a college biology teacher, surprised at the number of students who enroll for classes without expectation that they are required to read the text. I am not sure about the requirements for non-bio classes, but many of my students appear to have been convinced somewhere in their academic careers that they were non-textual learners. Perhaps they are the same students you hear from. Not surprisingly these self-described hands-on learners also do poorly in the lab since they are not able to follow directions or understand the implications of their experiments. It could be laziness but, a more pressing concern, it could indicate problems in adult literacy. Since many of our “turn a rachet” jobs have been automated or relocated, what are these non-literate, unskilled workers (most of my community college students already work) qualified to do, albeit poorly? Note to teachers: assign, grade, and return homework!

  29. One time in a followup email, a student (who hadn’t look at my bio beforehand) expressed surprise that a “German” researcher was actually able to understand his ENTIRE email, since it was in English. Besides the fact that this thought was probably better left untyped, my webpage says my BSc is from a University in the town where the student went to school…

    Actually, the data he was writing in to request was already freely available as the supplement to the online article he was asking me about.

    So my tip for students: before sending your mail, research not only your question but also the background of the researcher you’re writing to. You might have something in common that will make it more likely to get help (as I did with this student).

  30. I read about a study in the newspaper that seemed interesting. I suggested to my son that he use it as a basis for his science project at his Jr High. He wrote to the author who replied fairly tersely, but who did send a copy of the publication. I wondered why he was so short, but now I know. I should have known at the time.

    Neverthless, my son took it and ran, ending up as a state finalist for his experiment and presentation. I’m grateful to the researcher for helping my son. One email was all it took, from both of them.

  31. I have gotten my fair share of these over the pasr year or so for forensic toxicology and drug chemistry. They are always the same questions verbatim…from kids in the same school…

  32. So many of these comments seem to be negative and critical of kids these days. Just to be a bit more positive, it’s worth noting that more people contact science writers and scientists because they voluntarily make themselves so much more accessible. Carl and others have a wide online presence and multiple ways they encourage readers to interact with them (even many newspapers include email addresses near bylines). I don’t think I ever wrote to someone I didn’t know in my pre or nascent internet days, but I’ve more than once commented on a blog post or sent off a brief email to a writer of an article.

    I wonder how much the lazy, disrespectful kid who didn’t want to do homework wasn’t about to write a letter to an author/scientist asking for help. Similarly others who are engaged an interested in a topic also rarely wrote. I suspect the disrespectful/lazy requests are increasing rapidly because they’re so easy, but writers are also directly corresponding with more kids who really thought about a topic & want to know more.

    Similarly, I wonder about whether the rants about kids who can’t use search engines are the same types of kids who couldn’t really engage with multiple sources in a library and those who would have excelled in library research are doing just fine in internet searches.

  33. Yup. I help moderate a scientific programming group. It’s interesting to see the cluster of “joins” to the group from the same tight geographic area and then start seeing posts requesting help that look not so much like, “how do I get this subroutine to talk to that subroutine” or “what is the best scientific math library for this particular compiler…” but rather, “can someone please help me calculate the area of a circle using a program that uses at least one subroutine and two functions with ascii file input and output.” (I mean come on, kids! Use a little artful subtlety at minimum!)

    We want to be collegial but at the same time, it’s pretty clear that by doing so we are undermining a professor on the other side of the world.

  34. There should be an online forum/chatroom or something where top scientists are encouraged to participate in discussions. Students would know that scientists are there, and could post questions and engage in debate with them. But like all forums, you’d only have to put in as much time as you wanted – there would be no obligation to do other people’s homework or answer non-specific questions or even put in more time than you have. You could even have moderators who ensured this didn’t happen. Then students could have a good exchange of ideas and engage their critical faculties while the scientists could feel like they’re contributing something useful to a new generation of curious students. It would be harnessing the good sides of the internet while avoiding the bad. Dunno if it would actually work.

    If anyone decides to set this up you can have my business model for free. Aren’t I generous!

  35. Hi Carl,

    This one struck a chord with me.

    I’m a marine biologist (Prof at UNC) and I get this sort of email all the time. At least 3-5 a week.

    I rarely answer them anymore. They are usually long lists of questions that could easily be answered with a google search. They also often appear to be, as in your case, part of an official class project. So I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of requests and also frustrated by what I’m asked to do.

    I even get them from undergraduates at UNC! Yes, there are profs (mainly in the humanities) who assign their students to interview their colleagues across campus for class projects. Iv’e written to the profs to ask “what’s up with this?” They never respond…

    A lot of undergrads taking science classes at UNC often write to ask for references for papers on coral reef decline, coral bleaching, etc. These are for term papers assigned by their profs. It is easy to respond with a few PDFs, but there is this cool invention called “google scholar” and also the “e-library” at UNC. So easy to use!

    I do a ton of outreach – visits to schools, blogging, etc. – and Ive spent a lot of time working with primary ed teachers to make lessons plans and other teaching materials, talking at teacher training workshops, etc. So I support their mission, but this is just an unreasonable request.

    Several colleagues have set up web sites with answers to the questions we all get, e.g.

    Which often are about how we got our jobs, what our jobs are like, etc. You can find them all simply by googling “i want to be a marine biologist”.

    Bottom line; the key skill in being a science writer or a scientist is finding information, ideally without having to email someone else for it. The internet provides limitless information that can be called up in seconds. It is truly incredible. You don’t even need to go to the library anymore.

    Rebecca, Carl, and I spent a lot of our time doing this and it isn’t really that hard. As Rebecca says, you’ve got to learn to comprehend what you find and you certainly have to learn to be selective, organized in your search, etc, but it seems to me, this type of research is what students should be taught. This is the skill that can facilitate life long learning or a cool gig like Carl’s.

  36. Great article and wonderful comments.

    Like bsci, I want to be a little kinder to students. I taught a college-level biology/writing class to high school students and college students for four years before going on to bench research and now working closely with a lab as a writer and researcher of scientific literature.

    As a teacher, I experienced a lot of frustration with the seeming entitlement to grades and information my students had. However, now that I’m swimming in the sea of pubmed papers and Internet posts, I can sympathize with how daunting it can seem–especially if you only have the maturity and experience of a 14 to 22-year-old.

    Part of the solution to student requests for information handouts would be to educate them in how to navigate the glut of information available and just how to ask an expert a question–Letting them become savvy researchers who come up with a problem/question/topic, do preliminary background work to clarify, then approach the expert with proper and insightful emails, and finally synthesize THEIR research into THEIR paper. But that education takes time. Sometimes lots of time depending on the age of the students and the support they get at home. For my class, I had two semesters to work step by step into this process. And even then, for some, it felt that two semesters wasn’t enough. Sadly, most teachers have even less time. And instead of giving time, we just pile more work on both the teacher and student plate. I think everyone is overwhelmed.

    I honestly don’t know what an easy solution is. I think Rebecca Skloot does an an excellent job with her online resources. Perhaps other experts could also either compile such resources or have a stock list that they can refer to inquiring students (even the ones with appalling emails). Sometimes having a list of a few vouched-for sources is enough to start a student on the quest for their own understanding–with this life-ring of sorts, they find the information ocean a little less daunting. And if the student is persistently lazy, a stock response of ‘I will not answer general questions’ may be a solution.

    Of course, there will always be those students who truly fit the lazy/entitled stereotype, but in my experience, the majority, for one societal reason or another, have just not encountered the tools yet. Maybe Carl will be the one to supply them; maybe it will be the teacher. Whoever it is, when they get that spark–when they learn they can own their knowledge–the moment is truly magical.

  37. math.stackexchange frequently has the “do my homework” problem and posters are often referred to a FAQ that explains how to ask a homework question and why full answers may not be given.

  38. Dear Carl,
    Thank you for writing this post. I am going to forward it to the SUNY Oneonta “Bioforum” where professionals exchange the best ideas in the field of biology education. I am a Science Research teacher. As part of this three year course, students must email a scientist in the field they have chosen and ask them to become a mentor for the following year for a journal level investigation. But first let me say that my students must spend months searching and reading general literature to refine their topic and lean all the background they need to understand the next level of the first year of the course: how to read scientific literature on their chosen topic. They read five or six scientific papers showing me what they have read, annotating and highlighting these articles. Then and only then, do they email scientists looking for mentors. In this formal initial letter they include the cited bibliographic materials they have read and ask key questions: “and it better no be a question you can find an answer to on the internet”. I read and correct all these letters before they send them out. They can expect many rejections and non reply’s before someone answers.
    My point is this, this course is a 3 year course and takes equally tremendous dedication and motivation by both the district and the students to make this successful. Most of the educational problems come from mandated and poorly thought out policy. Very few districts can think in this innovative way and fiscally support this kind of program with the money and freedom I have enjoyed. It is true education is in crisis but short term solutions to thinking and deep inquiry will never substitue for the deep thinking that is needed in colleges. For those professors that are looking to cut down your email, dont be afraid to ask students to complete tasks before you answer them. As already stated, learning is hard work and if students seek the advice of a learned person they should be willing to do the work first.

  39. I think it might be helpful to make all peer reviewed publications public and easy to access so that anyone could familiarize themselves with what research entails and what he final product will be. If google had a database of all legitimate research done by everyone on the planet with appropriate translations it would cut out a lot of this work. More important than deriving a list of authorities on a subject you could go straight to their work and learn what is credible and why it is credible. And having all publications up, including the ones that are discredited or disproved, would let people understand what the standards of proof are and what constitutes evidence. Once a child learns how to read you can plop them in front of this database and they can learn why everything is so that parents don’t have to make up answers or get annoyed and discourage curiosity.

  40. My belief is if you don’t know how to use the library, then you don’t really know how to use a search engine effectively. I’m not saying I make my students use encyclopedias, but I will do one of two things for research projects. Either I provide a wide choice of research materials (mostly the ones made out of paper!) and students extract from those sources, or I provide approved websites for their research work. While this does not improve their search engine skills, it does improve their reading-for-information, note-taking, and information processing skills, and limits the chances for plagiarism because I am closely involved in the reduced amount of information available. I’m sure some educators would balk at my logic, but a young person is not prepared for access to limitless information. It takes all your years in school and them some to become a good researcher, whether that is using microfiche, journals, encyclopedias, in-person interviews or the internet. Initially, learning to research has to be done in a controlled environment.

    When I am using technology to facilitate class, I will often use some of that time to teach search tips and appropriate use of the world wide web. It is unfortunate that teachers are forced to ‘use technology in the classroom’ by administrators who don’t understand the implications, and have pressured teachers to abandon traditional methods of teaching and learning, when the reality is students must be exposed to a variety of methods of research education. There is room for both and value in knowing it.

    The biggest myth from administrators and parents (teacher know better) is that today’s students are highly technology savvy and know more than you do. Nothing could be further from the truth and this lie has been told for far too long; to the point where the kids believe it too (my students don’t know the difference between a browser and a search engine). Why is this a problem? Because districts believe formally teaching technology-use is no longer needed. They aren’t willing to offer yearly technology courses, other than for internet safety or keyboarding, and don’t allow time to incorporate it in existing classes because the curriculum is already bloated with standards and test-taking strategies. The danger from the parenting side is that too many children are given laptops and sent off to their bedrooms with the door closed. Proper use of technology must begin at home and continue throughout a child’s academic career. It should not be pawned off to school at the age of 5.

    When I come across a student blatantly fishing for homework answers on Yahoo Answers or WikiAnswers, I respond with incorrect, but official sounding, answers. If the student can not be bothered to do their own work, they were never going to get an A anyway, so perhaps earning a low grade by cheating will teach them to go back to the good old days of doing his/her own work.

    I am sorry to hear of your experiences with demanding students, although not surprised. The age of entitlement is frustrating and frightening.

  41. Wow! I could cut the smug air of superiority in this thread with a knife. “Back in mah day kids didn’t pester strangers and ask ’em to do their homework for ’em!”

    But what’s really hilarious about this thread is how everyone’s age is showing. You’re writing personalized emails to students who request help or just not responding at all? Really??? Why even write them using email, why not reply by telegraph since you all clearly have no idea how the Internet enables productivity.

    You should have stock responses in your draft folder, with links to resources online where they can find their answers. That summary Zimmer wrote for the one student? Why are you wasting keystrokes on one person? When someone sends you a question that requires a customized answer, you should post that customized answer online and send them the link to it. Then all you have to do is send that same link whenever someone else asks that question, plus anyone who googles that question might find your answer without having to ask you.

    But you know what’s really really really funny? That Zimmer wasted even more keystrokes writing this lengthy article as an open letter to teachers and students WHO WILL NEVER READ IT. Well… that’s not fair. Now Zimmer can email a link to it as a jerky response to students he feels are asking him to do their homework.

    On a serious note, I understand that you educators don’t really understand technology, and society has to wait for you to retire for our students to learn how to effectively use the Internet as a resource, but if you can learn to use hyperlinks and email drafts, you can also use the wonderful “Let me google that for you” website as both a way to lightly slap students and point them in the right direction.

    CZ: And why did you bother wasting your keystrokes if we’re so beneath your contempt? In your rush for snark, you haven’t absorbed what we’re talking about. You haven’t actually engaged with the argument I presented, or with the reflections in the comments. Of course the Internet enables productivity–no one here is denying that. But productivity is not enabled by trying to get people to do your homework. You imagine that there’s a one-size-fits-all response to these students. But if you bothered to read the emails I presented, you’ll see that students were asking me for information about dogs, the Galapagos Islands, and parasites. There is no stock response to these requests–except: sorry, I can’t help you. If you have some constructive comments about how to improve this situation, please share. Otherwise, don’t waste your keystrokes.

  42. I need information from you.

    This is exactly the problem: these kids are being told to gather information and then present that information. No thinking required, let alone being creative. They’re simply doing what they’re being told to do.

    investigate their topics

    Except those topics so painfully obviously aren’t theirs. The topics are handed out to them, but that doesn’t make them theirs.

    Also, they won’t know what to do when told to “read deeply until questions occur to them”, either. What questions? They are not used to asking intelligent questions—you don’t get credit for asking questions but for giving answers. This is a fundamental problem in education.

    One obvious place to start improving things would be to teach students to recognize (epistemic) problems: a situation in which some phenomenon of the world seems to jar with what we think we know about how the world works. Let them describe the problem so that another student who hasn’t looked at that particular phenomenon actually understands what the problem is. Then let them formulate ideas (tentative solutions, theories, whatever you’d like to call them) for how to solve the problem. Then let them test these ideas.

    And your students will be engaged and will learn.

  43. Why don’t these scientists tells the students that if they don’t understand a the reading after going over it a couple of times there isn’t much hope for them in the subject. It’s the truth? Isn’t that in vogue anymore?

  44. I work in an urban district, and I hear about how we must increase 21 century learning skills, improve literacy by having students read more. There are studies that show that a reader must understand 98-99% of the words in a text/article in order to comprehend it. Many of the students may only know 50-60% including what we may consider general or non-content area vocabulary. Teachers have been pushed to a student centered style of teaching without training that often results in them handing out worksheets and packets for them to complete alone or in groups of students with the same level of vocabulary. When they ask some of these teachers for help, the teacher refers them to the reading. Why should they continue to seek a teacher’s help? Giving them written assignments isn’t going to help either,because they know what you want, and that they cannot provide. Learned helplessness results in cut and paste. Giving them “lower level readers” just results in elementary school level content, and the student’s impression that you think they are stupid.
    We need to be able to spend less time worrying about a nonteacher cutting funding and more time doing what we went to school for. You hire “highly qualified” for a reason.

  45. What a great comments thread — thanks for all the thoughtful responses and suggestions. I think it’s important to re-iterate: Carl isn’t complaining about students here, neither am I. We both care deeply about students, and science literacy, and we devote a lot of our time to both. That’s what motivated this discussion in the first place: Since science writers (and scientists, and historians, and any number of other experts) can’t reply to every student, and shouldn’t just do student’s homework for them, what *can* we do to help move this trend in a positive direction?

    I have an auto-reply that goes out whenever anyone emails my public address — it points students to the education resources on my site and the FAQ page for answers to their questions (and the last question on that page tells them to contact me again if they have a question that hasn’t been answered there). That includes lots of science writing career tips/info of the type John Bruno mentioned. I’m now working on adding a section to that page that provides resources such as general critical reading tips and (inspired now by this thread) online researching tips and resources. If there are resources in those areas that others find particularly useful, I’d love to hear about them (but don’t worry, I’m not asking you to do my homework for me! I’m busily gathering them on my own as well).

    Lauren: thanks so much for guiding your students in the way you did — it sounds like a wonderful experience. I’d love to hear from them. I adore getting notes from students telling me about the experiences they had related to The Immoratl Life, and I do my best to reply to all of them (those are very different emails from the ones we’re talking about here). I know that can be an important part of the education process.

  46. The fact that your observations are so far reaching speaks to a larger phenomenon dealing with our educational system and culture.

    Teachers and students operate in a culture of inadequacy, where students are forced to measure up to externally set criteria as their goal (grades), and teachers are often held accountable for them falling short.

    Children become alienated to the concept that they are the owners of their learning and can foster their growth on their own accord instead of through an educator or professional. It is not the information that is inaccessible. It is the acknowledgement of their learning. They aren’t given the power to assess themselves, and as such they look elsewhere to validate their efforts.

    Learning is something that exists on an individual, personalized level, and somehow we’ve convinced students that this isn’t the case.

    – science and math teacher (7yrs.)

  47. I’m sort of shaking my head above the “Oh these whippersnappers are so horrible!” comments. Listen up, you old children. Don’t look down on the younger generations. They are in every way better and smarter than you are, it’s just that due to the internet and your sour information bias you get to see the slower ones more often. Not to mention it’s the job of the elders to educate the young.
    Now get off my lawn!

  48. Honestly, this is just a new riff on an old theme.
    Back when I was in school, the kids would try to get the librarian to find the encyclopedia article they needed so they could copy it out. Or get their parents to do it.
    Wanting instant answers, being lazy, and lacking problem-solving skills is not new; it’s only that now there are different people being annoyed by it.

  49. I’m a molecular bio PhD candidate, and while I don’t get public requests, I am a TA and I get the same questions from college sophomores in microbiology lab. They say, ‘I don’t understand chapter 4.’ I ask, ‘what do you not understand?’ They say, ‘all of it.’
    Initially, I thought they were being lazy and not reading the book or lab manual, then I thought perhaps they weren’t listening to my lecture (though I could clearly see them sitting there), then I was a bit angry that they’d impose on my research time to, essentially, have me give a private repeat of my lecture.
    I began asking this question, ‘What can you tell me about topic X?’ If they couldn’t recall any of the information I’d send them away with a reading assignment. If they could tell me the things they ‘knew’ or understood, it usually led to more thoughtful questions. Sometimes students don’t know what they don’t know. Science is all about asking the right questions.
    However, the worst students are the ones who ask no questions then beg for a letter grade change on their overall course grade.

  50. It’s not just students, unfortunately. I run a web-store selling toys and I am constantly plagued by parents calling with questions that just reading the item description would answer! Read the words, people….we put them there for your information…

  51. “Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.” That would be me. Well, almost: fortunately, the merely-information-grubbers are always *immediately* obvious and quickly dismissed. I’ve learned over the years that it is rarely, if ever, worth responding to such “requests” — they just don’t and probably never will get it, and they exhibit zero interest in learning. Unfortunately, they are a black hole; whatever efforts you give toward them, no matter how huge or small, there is ever precisely zero return on investment for any and all concerned. However, the earnest student who genuinely wants to learn (however ill-equipped they might be at the moment is almost beside the point) is also easy to spot. I always, without exception, take the time — sometimes a lot of time! — to craft a well-considered response. It is sad indeed that such students seem to be the exception.

  52. As a writer for high school science and maths texts and as someone who works on creating a practice service for students to practice science questions (and maths) I see a lot of this kind of behaviour from students. Almost daily I get a request from a student for me to basically do their homework for them despite the whole point of the practice service being to help them learn and understand the concepts.
    It saddens me to see students growing up to think that they can simply send off an e-mail or google something and get an answer when this does not promote learning and may indicate laziness on their part.
    Real learning only happens when students engage with the material and when writers, authors and teachers present their work in a way that kids can more easily engage in it.
    I would love to see a world where we educate the next generation on how to find answers for themselves and can guide them on a personal journey through various topics.

  53. l am sure that the basic tendency of students to behave like this has always been with us. 30 years ago I remember being admonished as a class by our maths teacher for asking questions of the form “I don’t understand” or “I don’t get X”. We were always made to ask questions to show that we had engaged with the work and possibly failed. However, then our questions would as a consequence be focused on specific problems or confusions.

  54. Just a note on everyone’s learning curve here: This fall, I started teaching a high-school world geography class with a textbook that was published in a partnership with National Geographic and included online resources that were glitch-laden enough for me to throw up my hands early on. One of the resources was a “write an expert” link which had, at one time (and this book wasn’t a year old) connected students with members of the National Geographic Society. The link went to a page that no longer existed. At the time, I thought it was a great idea in theory but that the scientists hadn’t known what they were in for! It’s a brave new world for all of us.

  55. I don’t think Zimmer is being overly critical of the children and their teachers, my post is really a response to what I perceive as the over-dramatization of the issue in this thread. My snark can’t help but come out when I read so many commenters seeming to complain about “kids these days,” instead of formulating solutions to the issue of how to constructively redirect students to find solutions themselves. That’s something on which I would like to see an article.

  56. I have an email policy section in my syllabus. I did this because students have a difficult time filtering what is appropriate vs. inappropriate communication. I totally agree with your observation that emails are seeking teacher approval of something. Often students are so afraid of taking ownership of their decisions and would rather have the teacher make decisions for them. I get emails on whether or not to drop a class. Emails on how I should teach. Lengthy tomes on life histories that read like scripts from soap operas. Requests for special provisions that fall outside my syllabus rules. And of course special meetings to go over book chapters!! So I discovered that I had to teach them effective email communication. Their email has to have a subject line, contain no attachments or spam, and be only three sentences in length. If it is longer, they have to see me in person. (I also think email is a detriment to interpersonal communication skill development). Any email that does not fit my email policy (and I have other rules) is deleted. This method has worked wonders. I also have in my policy emails which I read. I want to hear about students’ interesting weblinks, good news, news of them getting into med school, and of course incidents of cheating in the class. Emails about class content are to be posted on the class discussion board for other students to answer first. Thanks for posting this article!

  57. Good grief … presumptuous of the science teachers to make your time and effort part of their lesson plans without asking you if you had the time.

    I had this happen ages ago when I had one of the only English language web pages about a Mexican writer … students asking me to translate her works, tell them the significance of her works. I was not polite: I told them that if their instructor wanted me to do his work, I would expect part of his salary.

    Required parts of that assignment should be:

    1 – How to ask an answerable question about a specific issue. Coherence counts.

    2 – Submit your questions to the teacher.

    Student must explain to the teacher where they have looked for answers to the questions, and why they still need to get a personal

    3 – Grammar and spelling count, and the teacher has to approve the e-mail draft before it is sent.

    “Hey Carl can u answir this” is not acceptable.

  58. One of the greatest lessons I learned somewhere in my education was to never waste someone’s time answering a question that I could find the answer to myself. I won’t pretend that I do not occasionally forget this tenet, but it has served me well when I follow it. If your responses lead a student in this direction, then you will have done them a far better service than a good grade on an assignment. On the other hand I still remember the thrilling experience of speaking to scientists as a young child. That they took the time to pause fora few minutes FOR ME blew me away. Actually it still does.

  59. I remember seeing the types of requests from students on UseNet years ago. One time a disability group got a whole slew of questions from the same location, apparently it was a school assignment to contact parents of disabled children.

    Those were easy to ignore, unlike personal email.

    I hope it is not the behavior of every student to email an author to explain their work. I, as a parent, would not stand for that. I told my kids I had already been through school and had done the homework, it was time for them to do their own. I think I learned that from my mother who when I came to her to ask about something in a book, she glanced at the pages, then told me the read the next paragraphs which answered my question.

    (I did not leave my kids on their own. I took them to the library, zoo, museums, etc. I shared my experience growing up all over as an Army brat, I proof read papers, and even introduced them to other parents who happened to be scientists. I even dragged my son’s cat to class as an evolutionary example when he did his 7th oral report… I now share my popular math books with him because he is a math major on the teaching track)

  60. As a college science instructor, I would never give students an assignment that called for them to write a researcher or author. It seems rather presumptuous.

    Nonetheless, this has been going on a long time. Thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I had an English instructor who assigned such an assignment. I thought it was inappropriate then, and still do.

    That said, I’ve written researchers myself, when I’ve had a burning question that could only be answered by asking the author. In such cases, I’m willing to chance a social faux pas for the opportunity to answer my question. So far, I’ve always received a reply, even though it’s an imposition. It’s great — akin to getting a reply from a rock star!

  61. Hi, Could any students be asked to comment here? They’re being excluded (but perhaps that is a circular argument). However, those that have moved onto greater things might share their feelings about how and why they did what they did, and their views of education – critical learning + on-demand-factoids? I did my degree before the Internet and look back wondering how on earth we did that, with humour. One can just remember what libraries were (austerity).

  62. Good to see that the library was brought up a bunch in the comements. As a librarian with a science background, I think that kids these days have several issues or problems. 1) They don’t know what they don’t know, so they have a hard time trying to figure out what questions to ask, and who to ask. (They could start with asking the public or college science librarian for sources of info.) 2) Google & Google Scholar brings back a huge amount of information, and kids may have a hard time synthesizing it all–figuring out what is the good stuff from the mediocre, or which is at their reading level. As adults, we have learned how to filter things out, and we can quickly see authors and publishers and filter out based on cues. 3) Students do need to learn how to use things like libguides which often have lists and lists of great resources. This is a meta-search skill and it can be tough concept to learn. Students need to learn to find what type and kinds of resources are bound to have the type of information they are looking for. They are not searching for the answer to the question–they need to learn how to search for something that contains the answer. This is not an obvious way to search Google or the library, but it can sometimes be the most effective, once students and researchers get the hang of it.

  63. That hurt to read. I cringe at the thought of begging anyone to do my thinking for me. It also seems a little risky, what with all the rules about academic dishonesty that so many schools have been forced to develop. I love chatting with my teachers or guest speakers, but that’s because I’m curious! If I want homework help, I’ll go to the tutor lab.

  64. I am also a university science instructor and I think the ability to access so much information so easily via the internet has had a detrimental effect on students’ ability to absorb and synthesize information by reading. It is also having adverse effects on problem-solving and critical thinking skills. I don’t get high school students emailing me like you have had, probably because I’m not an author. But I do see university students who can’t seem to absorb the information in a well-written lab manual. Who instantly turn to Google to find the solution to a physics problem rather than spend time trying to work it out on their own. Who find problems which can’t be Googled (because I wrote them myself) far harder than comparable textbook problems whose solutions are easy to find online. The situation has gotten especially dire over that last five years now that the vast majority of the students spend most of their waking hours online. Thank goodness for websites like that at least keep the rampant plagiarism in check.

  65. Based on the comments and views expressed I think many if not most of the folks expressing their opinions are far removed from the reality of education. I teach at a public school with a population of 2700 with 65% socioeconomically disadvantaged. 800 freshmen a year are required to take biology – they typically have no interst in the subject. Additionally most have to work and help support the family. An email to a professor at a university is a big win for a science teacher.

    Lastly, if your claiming to be a teacher, then learning is the bottom line. Why not spend three minutes and “do the homework” for a 14 year old kid that probably has more stress at home than you do. If they at least read the email you may have taught someone something they didn’t know – which is why we work each day.

    [CZ: Do the homework for a 14-year old? Wow.]

  66. There is definitely a common cause to much of the concern, student centered education. It’s a bad metaphor and many of the consequences of placing students at the center are listed above. Education is about passing on the knowledge, not the silly dichotomy that sprung up in ed literature on teacher vs. student centered. When education is knowledge centered teachers can focus on what they are legitimately experts in and problems they might be able to fix. We are not going to solve poverty by ourselves. Even worse many of the survival tactics that one does as a teacher to produce the appearance of substantial education are ultimately counterproductive to the students long term success. Interesting lessons are great for example, but when the focus has shifted so far towards entertainment that students are conditioned to expect that, then there is little hope of them ever learning how truly hard they have to work to be successful in STEM fields.

    As a science teacher myself getting students to substantively read the textbook is a major challenge, and I generally have some pretty good students. I haven’t come up with a really good strategy, but there is certainly a cluster of the students who figure out that they can get by based only on the in class lessons, and graded homework. In fairness I did the same thing in high school, but that made learning how to read textbooks a struggle even into grad school.

  67. “” Why not spend three minutes and “do the homework” for a 14 year old kid that probably has more stress at home than you do. “”

    Because then the 14 yr old kid will go through life expecting others to do the homework for them. And when they get blind-sided later in life when someone doesnt do it for them they are going to be completely incapable of doing for themselves. You may not realize it but you’re causing the lazy entitled mentality.

  68. This is my 7th year of retirement, after teaching 7th grade science for 33 years. During that time, I also mentored at least 14 student teachers.

    While I am extremely gratified to see the responses of dedicated and caring teachers, Carl, you are spot on as you write about teaching the students to think.

    That’s one of the great challenges of teaching, one I always tried to improve upon, and one I always pushed with my student teachers. It never ends, as students seem to come in, even as 7th graders, wanting their thinking done for them. Taking the quick way out may seem easy, does not benefit the student in the long term.

    Thank you Mr. Zimmer, Ms. Skloot, and other writers for your efforts in helping to get students to think.

  69. Mr. Zimmer (in the article):

    It’s great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept.

    I mentioned this to my nineteen year old daughter who is a college junior. Her response was that those are lame and stupid assignments.

    Though right now she is in the midst of writing a term paper that requires her to pay almost ten dollars for twenty four hour access to a paper from a German typography journal that the university stopped subscribing to. With one week before finals she is a bit grumpy, but she does her own work.

  70. When students are being required to ask questions, as they are in these sorts of assignments, their questions will invariably suck. Real curiosity can’t be forced.

  71. I see two major ideas in this thread: (1) Persistence of students to complete reading tasks and (2) Low levels of critical analysis of text. My observations of students in elementary through college is that they view internet resources through a lens that is different than professional educators and researchers. They are ready to accept the easy answer, the first one that jumps off the page or the opinion of an “expert” But let’s face facts: How many of us resorted to Clif notes and our friend’s answers to complete homework? How many used the World Book Encyclopedia for research? How many of us really read many pages of difficult text with deep understanding in middle or high school? How critically did we evaluate information sources when we were teenagers? Yes, we want to challenge students to do better than us, but it is the rare student who willingly does this stuff. I was a research scientist for 17 years and am currently in my 3rd year teaching middle school. I push students to look at science in a variety of texts – fiction, biography, news articles, blog posts, op-ed pieces, textbook pages, etc. As a teacher, I want students to see science in all of these contexts. However, my experience suggests that even advanced students aren’t the motivated, high-level readers that we might think. Students need support to read and think critically. They need to be motivated to avoid the easy answer, to work to understand. I would suggest that should Mr. Zimmer or Ms. Skloot want to respond to requests for chapter summaries, why not reply with a question like “I really want to know what you think that chapter means?”

  72. The reason students are having a hard time with these types of assignments is because they don’t care… they are being forced to learn something that they have no interest in. This is why they are not synthesizing the information they are reading. After they have finished these assignments they instantly forget anything they have learned because they just don’t care and don’t see the value in it. Only the students who are interested in these subjects will truly care about the assignments and retain the information. They synthesize what they read because it is something that THEY care about.

  73. DCortright

    I push students to look at science in a variety of texts – fiction, biography, news articles, blog posts, op-ed pieces, textbook pages, etc.

    Perhaps you should teach your students to use paragraphs.

    But, seriously, you need to remember that both Mr. Zimmer an Ms. Skloot are science writers, not scientists. If you were truly interested in your students getting connected to science you would find real scientists and invite them to your class room. Surely you know a few.

    If a school has a sports boosters club, why can’t there be a science boosters club? Bring in real scientists and engineers to the school to talk about what they do.

    Wrangle in the parents who are actual scientists and engineers. Show them how it works. Don’t bug science writers, bring in the real deal who are more than willing to share their passion.

  74. Myself:

    But, seriously, you need to remember that both Mr. Zimmer an Ms. Skloot are science writers, not scientists.

    Let me amend this by saying I have the greatest respect for both Mr. Zimmer and Ms. Skloot as writers (I actually read the Henrietta Lacks book in one sitting), but they are both busy and have lives that involve researching science, but not actually doing science. There is a small difference.

    When my kids were in high school I was part of a group that brought in real scientists and engineers to speak to students (along as being available for field trips). The parents, many of them actual scientists, went through their contacts to find actual factual scientists to share their passion with teenagers.

    This included a botanist who had his lab burned down because some folks thought he was creating GMO trees (he wasn’t, but he is now… and his department moved him to a brick building), an oceanographer measuring Arctic Sea salinity (and some have written letters asking him to be fired because his research as confirming global warming), a biologist who used DNA testing to determine where ivory was being poached, a representative of the human subjects department who explained the realities of ethics (she was very interesting and had exercises for the students) and a physicist who explained the Large Hadron Collider.

    Bringing in real scientists is much cooler than making kids send an email. Especially if their presence adds points to their semester grade.

  75. Le sigh. It is past bedtime, and I screwed up. When I wrote “Especially if their presence adds points to their semester grade.”… I did not make it clear that if students attended the presentations and provided proof they got actual scholastic points.

    Yes it was a bribe. But it worked.

  76. I wholeheartedly agree with your stand on this, as a graduate teaching assistant in a fairly large university, we get questions all the time about assignments and topics, and it takes a lot of patience to go through them one by one. I enjoy getting emails from students that have a specific question or want to learn more about a topic but when they ask for information for their essay or how to write it, it becomes a spoon feeding exercise. I am happy to help any student who is genuinely interested but when they ask general questions with no thought behind it, I usually send off an email full of questions to get them thinking. The professors in our department usually encourage us (the grad students) to email other scientists in our field but with specific questions on our own research.

  77. This reminds me of some people I know. When I go out and do my own legwork on looking something up, I’m mocked and put down. When, instead, I bug someone else to tell me, it’s considered acceptable. These people who treat me in this fashion are all adults, by the way.

  78. Dear Carl,

    The phenomenon you describe exists not only with high school science students, but also with students in other disciplines at higher levels, too. I teach at university. I get very similar requests from Master’s and Ph.D. students asking me to essentially do their research for them. I responded to the first few dozen requests, and now I ask them to have their supervisors contact me so I can be invited to be part of their supervisory committee in an official capacity. I never hear from them again.

  79. In the late 90s, colleagues and I used a small grant from the American Society of Primatologists to set up an innovative outreach program that included having students do a teleconference with selected researchers at a scientific conference.

    We started by contacting a number of scientists for their willingness to chat with middle-schoolers during the conference. Then, we got copies of the abstracts of the research they were presenting at the conference. THEN, I did some work to find out about the other work these scientists were doing, and together with the students, we developed questions that would help the students understand the research — some of them were basic information, since a lot of the research was in the tropics and we were in Wisconsin, after all. So, information about plants, animals, fungi, habitats, etc were valid. But we also asked some “why” and “how” and “what is the purpose” questions.

    It was great fun, but hard to do a the time (required complex links between university and a local Kinko’s near the conference site, etc.).

    So, yeah, I am all for having the students ask good questions, but like everything else we want our students to do, they need our coaching.

  80. I remember Isaac Asimov wrote an essay for his “Asimov’s” science fiction magazine. He got letters from an entire class of kids, because the teacher had told them to write him. He wrote the teacher and gently explained that he didn’t have time, and the teacher wrote back and was quite angry with him. So he fired back.

    This has been going on for a long time – email and the internet has just sped it up and cheapened it (they don’t even have to buy a stamp anymore).

    Asimov’s take on this was that this was lazy teaching – teachers who can’t be bothered to teach the kids what they need to know and want them to get it somewhere else.

  81. I am a college professor in the sciences and unfortunately it is not better. Students shoot off emails before thinking, or reading the syllabus. So now I review to them when it is appropriate to email me. 1. read the syllabus. 2. Ask a classmate. 3. Email me. And I still get the questions, to which I refer them back to the syllabus. I tell them I have 225 students and they don’t realize how a “quick email” is not so quick. Setting the expectation at the beginning of the semester has helped a bit, though.

  82. A project I’ll suggest to teachers, having tried it myself on one of my classes.

    Have your class look up some number that’s pretty well-known (to science), like the radius of the earth. But look it up for page 1 of returns, page 2 of results, etc. up to the number of students in the classroom. They will _not_ get the same answers, or even anywhere close. Part of the reason is that there are multiple radii (polar radius, equatorial radius, spherical equivalent radius), part of the reason is rounding (spherical equivalent is 6371.2 km, but could be rounded to 6370, 6375, 6400, and, rarely, 6000). But they’ll get numbers far from any of these. Some times because they hit a flat earth site, some will be other unreal earth shapes, some have typos (they meant, probably, to say 4000 miles, but actually say 4000 km), and so forth.

    Thence to class discussion on how to decide which to use for class project. Or on to a project to measure it yourself using Eratotsthenes’ method and a cooperating class well north or south of you (I ran across a number of sites giving details on how to do this).

    One feature of this exercise is, students can see pretty quickly that while it’s easy to get _an_ answer, getting a _good_ answer takes some work. Just asking somebody isn’t good enough. Nor is asking many somebodies.

  83. I am going to challenge an assumption that most people are making: that information is easier to get these days. As someone with a lot of experience is dealing with computers I have seen information become harder to obtain, and it’s not that it’s not easy to find information, it’s that useful, relevant information is being buried by noise.

    Consider: 40 years ago when I was a kid doing research you went to the library, looked in the encyclopedia for background, then maybe looked in books for depth. Both those sources had already been edited and vetted for relevance and accuracy. It was easy to find useful info.

    What do we have today? Petabytes of useless, inaccurate, opinions dressed up as fact, nicely indexed and easily searchable. What do we tell the kids? Go look at all these inaccurate opinions and find some facts. How?

    In my opinion, for what it’s worth, teaching people how to search the web should be a fundamental part of education – an expansion of what has been known as ‘critical thinking’. The fundamental question should be: how do you ask a computer for information, modify your question to improve your results, and assess the credibility, accuracy, and relevance of the results?

  84. I cringe at the thought that students are “gathering information” for the sake of gathering information. This is clearly a bad assignment but given with the best intentions. I think it boils down to the right tool for the right job. How about National Geographic working with content literacy and NSTA on teacher training opportunities for “When a scientist is like a screw driver and when they are not”. With common core standards in literacy there is opportunity for better use of technology pedagogy as well.

  85. We got same problem over here. We run a website that cover all material from junior to senior high in Indonesia, with emphasize on national curriculum and national exam preparation. You can take a look on here . So far we have at least average 15.000 visit each day and 25.000 at the highest, to give you the magnitude of the impact on our policy “not to answer homework” on our website. At first we were glad to hear hundred responds and questions from our students across archipelago. The geographic barrier here, make it difficult for large number of students to get high quality teaching experience. That was our main reason to launch our website couple years ago. We also got another agenda. We like to ignite curiosity among science students. Science not just solving exam problem, but beyond. On the first year, we got so many questions, out of curiosity, about everything in science and even on science religion issues. And we were glad to en light young mind about the beauty of knowing the reality. But in the last 2 years, the question sent to us becoming more and more mundane. Almost 90% file sent to us scanned, or even worse, they just take picture on their exam paper or homework. Sent to us, and say: “help me with this quick”. Same with you, we decide not to help this kind of student. I think part of problem are within the teachers. Very often I heard teacher in classroom telling their student to “find the answer on internet”. Without any clue and skill how to find the correct one on jungle of Web information. The point is, I hope you can write some small booklet or guide about Internet literacy for science teacher and student alike. And.. reading your post on this issues, really brighten up my day. I plan to share it with my colleague. Thank you so much Mr. Zimmer

  86. I think it is time that teachers realize that they are paid to do a job. I have heard numerous complaints over the years from the teaching profession, ranging from poor pay, lack of resources, and large classes, to promiscuous and violent behaviour. They have done little if anything to deserve a change, they have only gotten lazy.

    It is ETHICALLY WRONG for teachers to pass their work off onto other professions. My wife works in the not for profit sector. Recently, the entire charity was inundated by calls from children who were directed by teachers to do interviews and get information directly from the charities themselves. Most of the questions they asked were already answered on the website. This not only SERIOUSLY impacts the ability of the charity to take care of the needs of people far less fortunate than these children, it is also stressful for all the workers who already have far too much work to do.

    There are 7 billion people on this planet; almost 400 million of those people live in North America. There is ONE author of a book usually, and only a handful of people in any business who can actually answer questions about the business. NONE of these people have the time to teach the student that the teachers are paid for. They definitely don’t have the time in a work day to field questions from hordes of schools who don’t actually teach the children to research.

    Our combined yearly income is less than a teacher and both my wife and I have a secondary education. We WON’T put our children through the regular school system because we have seen how lazy teachers are now that they can just direct their charges to the internet. Here is a clue: NO ONE will support increases in teaching wages as long as the teachers keep leaving the job to other people. If a teacher just wants to watch/supervise children, but doesn’t want to teach them, they should open a daycare because they are not opening young minds if they won’t educate them personally..

    What happened to teachers that could teach?

  87. My coworkers (not all of them, but many) do this to me every day. They obviously aren’t as young as the students mentioned here, but they are in the range of 20 – 27 and are of the mindset that those of us willing to TEACH are somehow willing to instead DO for them.

  88. They teach this in pedagogy classes for science teachers. It’s “authentic learning.” These teachers are underqualified to teach the subject, and tyet they constantly have to innovate in their methodologies. It is appalling.

  89. I think you and your colleague have missed the mark in your advice.

    Solitary contemplation has its place, but I think it is overrated, particularly among people who are stuck in an industrial-age mindset.

    Rather than “do your homework,” I think it is vastly more useful to advise them to “help each other understand the subject matter.”

    When I was younger, I was great at learning “science” from books, textbooks, and articles. As I got older, I realized I was even better at learning it by studying with others. In college, I was lucky to go to an excellent liberal arts college with an exceptional record of science grads going on to careers in research. I took a different path after graduating, but studying with my peers, helping each other learn the material and develop our reasoning skills was at least as important as talking to our professors (and we had exceptional access to fantastic professors).

    That it was once often necessary to wrestle alone with your homework doesn’t mean that is the only or the best way to learn difficult subjects.

  90. I have to say that my favorite assignments in school were overwhelming those in which I learned more than what the assignment was. That is to say, the lessons that actually stick with a student are the ones where a skill is acquired or a new technique or strategy is learned. Information and fact memorization is very come and go; arguably, in the era of technology becoming less important.

    I too have worked with students in areas of low socioeconomic status, trying to each even fairly complex principles. Many students have use the internet as a primary resource and consider googling to be extensive research. The problem with e-mailing researchers is not that they are reaching out for information, but that they will sit and wait for the answer to come back. Asking questions is terrific and always welcome, but self-motivated learning should be what all educators aim for.

  91. I believe that students making contact with primary sources is a valuable tool that should be available. I am a band director and have taught music for 21 years in all grade levels and in urban and suburban settings as well as music in college and military bases. I have been amazed at the gracious responses I have received over the years from composers who have been very happy to discuss their works. I understand not wanting to answer poorly thought out questions, but I wonder how much of a difference repsonses from “stars” in the fields of science, math, politics, etc. could have on students and their trajectory. I often tell students that composers are not marble busts, but living working artists and that they can be contacted, respectfully. I am thrilled when preservice or young teachers contact me and ask for advice or help. I do see the difference in a specific sense, but again wonder how much an email from a renowned scientist could do for the morale of a young budding scientist out there.

  92. I was inspired to write a blog entry n response to this:

    [CZ: Here is the comment I left on Tim’s post:

    Dear Tim:

    Thank you for your response. I have to say your reasoning doesn’t make any sense to me.

    After granting that the emails from students I described were probably lazy and spammy, you inform me that I have a responsibility to reply to them. Apparently this has something to do with the invention of email.

    You are aware, I assume, that before email, we authors sometimes received things called letters, delivered by human beings. I fail to see why the technology people use to communicate to authors has anything to do with how an author should respond.

    And, as a matter of fact, I did respond to many of the snail-mail letters I got when I started publishing articles and books in the 1990s. I continue to respond to some of the emails I get today—not to mention responding to comments left on my blog, to questions people post via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. I like discussing the science I write about in these venues. I particularly like interacting with students (I Skype into classes a few times a year, when I can find the time.) And there are a lot of writers and scientists who feel the same way.

    But you seem to think that, thanks to the Internet, my job description now requires responses to every message I get. You may feel this way, but that doesn’t make it so. There’s not a note on the title page of my books saying, “With the purchase of this book, you get round-the-clock concierge access to the author!” And to suggest that an author who doesn’t reply to every email he or she gets is equivalent to a used car salesman is ridiculous and offensive.

    When a student finds my email on the Internet, you declare, “Good for him for being able to locate you.” You are aware that I’m not hiding in a bomb-proof bunker, right? If you go to Google and type in my name, the top hit is my web site. There’s a big button on my web site that says “Contact.” If that seems like high-end Internet sleuthing, I think you need to raise your standards. Doing research on the Internet is a skill, just like doing research in a library. Finding people’s emails and then asking for “information,” or for an explanation of a book someone hasn’t read, does not develop that skill. It is an exercise in cut and paste. And if a student decides to contact a creationist as an expert on evolution, I would hope that the teacher would explain that that’s not good scholarship.

    As I explained in my post, there are fruitful ways for students and teachers to interact with writers and scientists. I enjoy working with science teachers who are using Google Hangouts and other technologies to find new ways to do so. But blizzards of emails are a bad idea all around.

    Your final question about an email from E.O. Wilson is a truly hysterical close to your post. I am trying to imagine one of the most prominent biologists in the world sending me an email saying, “Hey, I haven’t bothered to read your book. Can you explain it to me?” It could only happen on another planet—the same planet where your definitions of authors are law.]

  93. A nice piece of writing,depicts the trauma inflicted upon young generations by the teachers. It is, as I understand, more a fault of teachers than students, for I feel teachers lack that depth and intellect which they show bluntly on face. They have no patience for concept building. They are a lot in hurry and so are their students. And where they both end is to search for someone who is free and patient enough to do their thinking for them! and usually they think that people with good scientific excellence and contributions usually do free thinking for others! and te author is a fine example of this.
    God bless the science!!!

  94. I’ve been a primary/middle school teacher, and now I’m a Master’s student with research of my own.

    While researching via the internet is often required in schools, actually teaching internet research is still a growing area.

    In my first year of teaching, working under an adopted and shared curriculum, I sent some kids off to do a project that was supposed to be largely done outside of class. We did have time in class with the book I could find, but the majority of the time was supposed to be spent at home, as homework. Being inexperienced, I gave them a little structure, but not very much. What I got back from the majority of my 11-year-olds was plagiarised material copied verbatim, often still with blue links, off the internet.

    We make a huge error when we don’t teach kids to research, and we also make a huge error when we don’t teach kids to look in books rather than the internet. Teachers like inexperienced me think, “there’s tons on the internet, no problem”. The internet, however, is for adults. It is written for adults, arranged for adults. It requires all kinds of skills– decent spelling, persistence, fast/skim reading, tools like searching for a word on a page etc. that most of us who are adults now acquired as adults or teenagers. And importantly, we worked from the school library books, or Encarta. These were books designed and written for people our age, or to be approachable by a student. As fourteen year olds, our research horizons were much, much more manageable. First we learned to research– to understand the structure of a childrens’ picture book, to use the index in our encyclopedia, to scan a page looking for picture or word clues. To follow a link or use the search function. To track down a journal article in a library. To read a chapter of a textbook or a book recommended by our teacher (the teacher above who describes providing supported reading for her lower reading students so they could access the correct book would be an example of excellent teaching practice, but I don’t think his/her approach is widespread) Our internet research ability isn’t because we Older People have greater persistence. I think it’s because we (if we were lucky) were taught to research in a more accessible way.

    I think part of the reason questions like this get asked is simple accessibility via email. The other reason is that showing a kid the internet who hasn’t done even a significant amount of research at his or her reading level in books designed to be read by kids. The reaction is complete collapse in terms of ability. There are too many skills at once. It’s like asking someone who hasn’t mastered walking to join the ballet. We learned the ballet by osmosis over yeaaars, but we still have to teach most kids. We have to teach kids to find books and read them, choose appropriate search terms, to choose appropriate sources, to use Wikipedia carefully not because it’s necessarily unreliable but because it’s sometimes written at a very high level. As researcher-happy adults, we can find the introductory page that explains things in terms we understand. Kids don’t know this, necessarily. I think kids’ early experiences with research (like my 11-year-olds) contribute to their willingness to skip the trauma and email the dude who wrote the book.

    When it comes to emailing experts, I was told as a Master’s student that I am encouraged to contact relavent people if I had a question about my dissertation. It was stressed that my contactee probably wouldn’t respond to low-ball questions about sources (which I think we can safely add “and be annoyed”).

  95. Well, I do agree your viewpoints. However, I think the root cause of the problem is NOT the students themselves. In fact, the nowadays education systems and teachers are the producers. “It is rather to teach a person how to fish than just give him a fish!!” How many teachers wish to spend tons of time to guide their students through every single step to solve a problem? Particularly under those exam-oriented education systems. And please remember, not everybody is a genius. The most important responsibility of a teacher is to “Teach”.

  96. Even sadder when this attitude of being a passive learner extends into college – for God’s sake, you’re paying for these classes! The least you could do is try rather than wait fro someone to explain everything to you.

  97. As an author I’ve had students contact me for the solution to the cases in my text (and I’ve found them posted to Slideshare, too). I think what we’re seeing here is an indication of the Internet’s 2 greatest flaws – it gives people the illusion that we’re all connected in real time, and it gives the illusion that all information is available instantaneously. The consequences of this are that students don’t feel the need to actually learn anything anymore, and therefore, without any assimilated facts as a base, are unable to engage in critical thinking, or at least independent thinking. Knowledge that is free and easily available must be worth exactly what was paid for it – it just makes sense that students can figure that relationship out in their own minds.

  98. I am not surprised that much considering I receive requests to explain via instant message, thr courses I teach which actually require participation and hands on experience. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  99. Hey Carl! I’m a student and I have a book to write about character of advanced animals as complex biologic amalgams evolving over time into unitary cooperative entities…maybe it should be called “Collective I: Endosymbiosis, the Eukaryotic Revolution and the Nature of Multi-celluar Life”. On second thought, maybe you should write it…..

    Just kidding…enjoyed the column. Best wishes!

  100. I work for a scientific organisation and I receive so many of these requests! It’s infuriating and we can’t just say ‘we’re not doing your homework for you’. I wish I could send them this link (and every school teacher on Earth). As a response, we’ve put together a ‘how to search our website’ document and have set up a system where a teacher (not individual students) can contact certain people with generic questions. The sad part is, we would LOVE to be able to answer all the questions we get but no actual science would ever get done. I wish it wasn’t so hard for teachers to see that.

  101. Use the library! And the librarian can be quite helpful in your locating appropriate sources. The librarian is quite a bit smarter than Google.

  102. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments that students are not learning how to synthesize information properly and that the internet has made it too easy for the laggards to beg for help. I can’t help but offer a devil’s advocate interjection, however.

    Not all students are going to grow up to be scientists. I didn’t (although I realize now that I should have). Instead, I took a normal corporate job. I’m now considered an expert in excel because I am the only person who ever thinks to google an answer. Every one of my coworkers (all significantly older than me) relies on her personal network almost exclusively to get information. In a business where just about everything is internal information, asking is the fastest (and usually, only) solution. But even if the answers were out there, they wouldn’t look because they are the people your students are growing up to be.

    My experience coming from the world outside of academia is that no one reads, and no one really thinks critically. Scientists are actually partially shielded from the annoyance of having to deal with stupid questions because the field itself weeds out those who either can’t or won’t learn. Thus, they aren’t saddled with coworkers or worse, a boss, who has absolutely no understanding of critical thinking. Until the advent of the internet, scientists were comfortably shielded from the less inquisitive denizens of the world. Now they can harass you over email like they do to the rest of us.

    Students need to learn how to network and how to get information properly. Teachers need to figure out how to teach those skills in a more respectful way. But there will always be the laggards who don’t care to learn. As a scientist, get as many of the smart, curious kids to follow your career path. Dealing with the 3-5 emails a week from people who can’t find information seems a lot less soul crushing than sitting with them day after day explaining how to attach a file in an email.

  103. Evidence suggests that this problem is much older than the internet, and likely has little to do with “kids these days.” For example, noted author Evelyn Waugh’s advice for dealing with fan letters of various sorts:

    “(h) American students of “Creative Writing” who are writing theses about one & want one, virtually, to write their theses for them. Printed refusal.”

  104. As a student, I wasn’t EVER told to do this. But this may be because I had a historian as a history teacher, a doctor for my science teacher and an author of some sort as my English teacher. I was always taught, if you have questions, Google is, or ask your teachers. I was told to use my resources, and not to bother others. Probably the only people I bothered were my teachers and my dad, and possibly his co-workers (he’s in the Air Force… great people for test subjects). I am very sad that these students can’t figure out how to use phones, computers or iPods!

  105. I’m 24 years old, and have spent some time tutoring students both older and younger by myself. I’d propose a few things:

    1) Many textbooks have more errors, are more poorly written, and are more poorly organized than Wikipedia or the first few hits on Google. K-12 textbooks are often produced on a tight timeline by the lowest bidder, and under the influence of various inconsistent teaching fads and political pressures. Getting decent information from a book really requires a student to:

    a) Recognize books that are incomplete, or simply rubbish.

    b) Be able to find better information in a library.

    c) Have the reading comprehension necessary to get information from a good source. This means sufficient background in a subject, including vocabulary.

    d) Be able to use shortcuts when searching for very specific information, skimming a text for keywords, or using an index.

    Item a) is an absolutely critical skill that is largely ignored by public schools. Many students don’t like reading textbooks in part because many textbooks are not very good, and they are not taught to recognize this fact. They get the impression that either all such reference books are difficult and tedious, or that they themselves are simply too stupid or lazy to understand these books.

    Items b) and d) are skills that one has to already have before one can use printed reference material as effectively as online references.

    2) Plenty of older students want instant gratification; they just are more likely to recognize when it’s not possible to get it. Energetic, naive, easily bored older people take at least as many shortcuts as energetic, naive, easily bored younger people.

    3) However, younger people are less likely to have the experience or maturity to understand demands they are placing on other people’s time. More frequently, they may be able to understand this, but not realize on their own without being prompted.

    Young children simply do not have this awareness all. Teenagers are more perceptive and often more opinionated, but they are still learning about what is and is not socially acceptable to request of others, and under what circumstances. So it’s no surprise that, when their teachers and parents ask them to send these emails, many believe that what they are doing is perfectly acceptable.

    4) Many students see education as a process of memorizing facts, rules, and simple procedures by rote. When they have to learn *why* something is the case, or *how we know* that it’s the case, they usually either haven’t thought about it, or have memorized a pat answer to these questions. Part of the reason for this is that rote memorization has always been a big part of education, and part of the reason is that it’s much easier to grade students based on whether they are able to repeat a certain number of facts than whether they are able to demonstrate a more abstract skill, and both are easier than trying to measure a student’s broad understanding of a topic and/or their ability to investigate further. Over-reliance on standardized testing is part of the problem, but not all of it. A lack of manpower is another part of the problem; the more students a teacher has, the less individual attention each one gets, and the more homework and tests will be written to be easy to grade, rather than actually revealling students’ knowledge.

    Treating education as memorization can actually get a student quite far; in some cases well into college. But there are two problems:

    a) Any subject will eventually contain material that can’t simply be memorized. For example, in an undergraduate physics degree, it shouldn’t be enough to memorize Coulomb’s law and plug numbers into it. You have to be able to actually apply Maxwell’s equations to novel arrangements of charges and currents, which is more of a complex skill than a rote procedure.

    b) You simply don’t learn as much. Someone who views education as memorization may see it as acceptable to simply copy ideas word-for-word from an outside source, as long as they memorize it first. Or they may realize that they have to put it in their own words, but only because that means that they’ve actually paid enough attention to grasp the basic meaning of various sentences.

    I’ve found that when some people want tutoring, they want me to simply tell them exactly what to do or write, doing their homework for them, but through their hands. I think that this happens in part because some people simply don’t *have* the idea that there’s a different way of doing things, an actual process for generating, rather than copying, knowledge.

    One sad consequence of this is that many students struggle because they have managed to pass classes without understanding the underlying material. They’ve memorized procedures to solve a dozen common problems in their homework or tests, but they never the developed the one underlying skill that all that work was intended to teach. They know how to write persuasive essays in a particular formula, but not how to write anything else in a structured way. They know indefinite integrals for a dozen simple functions, but still don’t have a very clear grasp of what that integral means.

    I don’t really have a bumper sticker slogan that explains what I think should be done, but I think that what’s missing from public education is the idea, to be planted in students minds, that education is about skills and worldview, not about lists of specific facts. Everyone gives lip service to this idea, but nonetheless, a lot of homework can be summarized thusly:

    “Skim a chapter of the textbook for information on these questions, and copy some sentence fragments that look like the answers.”


    “Here’s a math problem. Look for an example in the textbook that looks similar, and copy down exactly the same things, only with different numbers so that you have to use a calculator.”

  106. Like Rosa suggested, asking an expert questions does not have to be a negative if the teacher approaches such an activity with clear learning objectives: there is an opportunity to change the “question asking” into a guided learning experience.

    For example, Rosa suggested that the teacher contact a willing expert. Beyond that first step, the teacher could direct the class to hand-in a short assignment in which they write down five questions based on the material (read/synthesized the previous week). Then, the teacher will go over the questions and offer critique on which questions work well and which do not (e.g. “this is an insightful question and this is the reason why…” or “this question might be difficult for someone to answer because it’s too general…” and offer an example about how to improve such a question). Then the students are allowed (and encouraged) to send their “best” question to the teacher-contacted-expert for a response. Further, you could then build a reference lesson into this assignment and ask the students to use the expert response by citing it appropriately in a short paper based-on the original material. The entire process therefore becomes a learning initiative. Students learn how to ask appropriate questions, gain insights through such questions, and integrate the resulting information into their own work. There are so many opportunities here for addressing various issues, even “how to communicate professionally through email” when leading up to sending their question to the expert!

    I think it’s easy to take for granted that students don’t need precise guidance, that they should guide their own learning. But there is no harm in helping students progress through a series of exercises in order to teach them a methodology (e.g. of conducting research) that will (hopefully) stay with them beyond high school.

  107. This is in response to SusyS who said:
    “When I come across a student blatantly fishing for homework answers on Yahoo Answers or WikiAnswers, I respond with incorrect, but official sounding, answers. If the student can not be bothered to do their own work, they were never going to get an A anyway, so perhaps earning a low grade by cheating will teach them to go back to the good old days of doing his/her own work. ”

    I think this is a really awful thing to do. It’s one thing to lament about students “being lazy” and quite another to go out of your way to help them fail. I’m also amazed that you think they are learning anything from this so-called lesson you’re trying to teach them as you sit on your superior throne of wisdom when I wonder how many of them just think they are asking for help (and not cheating).

    It’s not always possible for students to ask their teachers for help. There is not a lot of time in each period and asking questions takes time away from all the material that needs to be covered. And, unlike in college, high school teachers don’t have office hours (at least not in my experience).

    Sure, going online to Yahoo Answers might be because they are lazy, OR it might be because they just do not understand and do not know what to ask except for the thing they need to know. Sometimes the internet is the only tutor some students have. And giving them wrong answers on purpose to teach them some kind of messed up lesson just doesn’t sit right with me. Who are you to make that call when you know nothing about their lives?

    Also, there is enough bad information out there without you consciously adding more to it.

  108. Pezzini:

    I’m now considered an expert in excel because I am the only person who ever thinks to google an answer.

    Once upon a long time ago I worked for a large multinational engineering company. It had its own in house graphing program, before there were graphics user interfaces.

    It was powerful enough to make lovely graphs if, and only if, you placed the commands precisely in a specific form before the data. This was all clearly explained in the very thin manual.

    I had this thing down to an art, and made some very lovely and useful plots (it involved two computers and some batch code).

    A co-worker asked for my help on how to get certain labels. So I told him to read the command instructions on page such and such. He refused, and asked again. Again I pointed him to the one page that would answer his question.

    He yelled at me he did not have time to read the page. So I told him I did not work for him, I had my own job and did not have time to read that page to him, and I left.

    I then used another graphics program and made a sign for that computer room that said: “When in doubt, read the manual.”

  109. I am a science teacher and I just hope that in the future there is some modeling for these students so that they understand how to go about this in an appropriate manner. They are learning these skills, we have to give them examples and explain our thinking in getting to our own ideas. We don’t want to keep them from asking questions, but we need to make sure they know what it means to ask real questions.

  110. This is a problem that we sometimes get on – it used to be a bigger problem, but we put up a disclaimer saying that we don’t answer homework questions and added a box for the scientific contributors to the site to tick when they came across any homework questions – this automatically flags the question as homework and deletes it within a given time period. The problem doesn’t seem to be as bad now as it once was and it leaves our biologists free to answer genuine questions.

  111. I’m glad to see you wised up and took my brilliant advice by starting this page:

    I read your response and I can understand why you didn’t take my valid criticisms well–it’s tough to accept when someone points out your embarrassing public missteps, but it was big of you to take positive action as opposed to wasting even more effort on useless online venting.

    This is an excellent first step. Hopefully you’ll continue working on this for your own peace of mind and for the well-being of the students who contact you. You’ll not only help them out, but improve your own emotional maturity as well.

    [CZ: What a sweet way of calling me emotionally immature. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I developed the idea of a new web site page as I was composing my blog post, well before you got involved.]

  112. Carl:
    I get wildly general “send me information” requests all the time when everything they need to get started is in my books.
    I get snail mail with no return address. I get the “honors project” script that you describe.
    Rarely has a student thought through what they really mean to ask. They have no respect for authority nor any sense that they basically get one shot at approaching an expert. They don’t understand that they have to make it count.
    In medical school I wrote, by hand, to famous scientists, in French or German if need be. I vetted the letters with my professors, and then waited weeks for an answer. I still have those replies and treasure them.
    There is something seriously missing in pedagogy today. Millennials are even more challenging. We had a faculty development speaker address the generational divide and what many dismayed as their profound sense of entitlement.
    Thank you for addressing this.

  113. Oh Carl. If that’s what you need to tell people to save face, then I’ll let the matter drop. I’m just happy to see you correcting course and doing the right thing. What’s best for all the young minds is what’s really important. When you start sending out the automated emails, you have my permission to tell people that was your idea as well. Out of respect for the fact that this is your forum, I’ll go ahead and let you get the last word in.

  114. I am a returning college student in my late 30s interacting with younger students half my age.

    I don’t have disdain or disrespect for any of these younger students. But I agree with Rebecca Skloot that many of them have never been taught to dissect or annotate work, to really absorb it deeply.

    I don’t believe it’s a matter of willful ignorance or stupidity. This is a generation whose interactions are often direct and aren’t layered or nuanced. Video games, for example, generally involve reaching a goal in order to move to the next level. For some students, this is their understanding of the work assigned to them: hit the mark and move on.

    I was originally frustrated when I first attended classes with these younger students, but it was a science professor who shared an epiphany with me: the younger generation has been conditioned, repeatedly, to ‘move time.’ They DVR everything. Their most-likely-divorced-parents have scheduled their lives in increments. They expect learning to happen in the same way – at their convenience.

    I also think the corporate influence on education has played a role in reinforcing that hit-the-mark, get-the-test-score mentality.

    Encouraging questions and dialogue is a good thing, but it really needs to happen at a local, guided level, and most teachers would be happy to help, provided they see initiative and a foundation of work showing what the kid has invested.

    However, the worst-case scenarios described here aren’t those students. It’s the vending machine student – I want the info, so I am pressing the button – and the lack of work in THOSE students should be reflected in an accurate (and poor) grade.

  115. I cringe when students take the webquest or learning sheet or other assignment by simply typing in the questions in Google, or Wolphram-Alpha, copy down and move one. I have had students flunk math tests cheating using Wolfram-Alpha. As soon as I see this behavior, I go back to paper copies of what I want them to read, peruse and think over.
    Students have quit asking me for “help” and tell me they are going to finish their assignments “at home” to avoid my scrutiny of their work, resources etc. So I have ended that as well.
    Labs? Those too are problems since they have to actually do those in class without knowing the answers or where to look them up.

  116. This discussion is gold for me. I work for a disease-focused nonprofit and have been thinking about ways to engage with students of all ages to a) help us out as problem-solvers and b) to raise awareness about the disease. This conversation does an excellent job of raising and addressing issues that we will want to keep in mind as we consider bringing students into our research program. My thanks to all of you.

  117. Excellent article.

    I’m active on a rather large internet-based Q/A site for professional IT system administrators. We have noticed a shift over the latest years where we are literally drowning in questions from amateurs, juniors and students. They all share a common pattern:

    – They always ask us to do their work for them
    – They never provide enough information to get any actual help
    – They -never- read the documentation for the product they are using
    – They get extremely disappointed when their question gets closed because of the above reasons

    I’m starting to believe there is a generation shift going on. It’s like all the youths out there actually believe that everything will be served on a golden platter, either when in school or when they start working.

  118. I am a science teacher and never, ever would assign a ‘contact a scientist’ task! I have little tolerance for plagiarism, relying on others (including parents) doing their work for them, and other forms of academic dishonesty or laziness.
    For example, a student last term submitted an essay that was so obviously written by his mother. I spoke to the father and asked him (politely and cheerfully) to pass on my congratulations to his wife for her 100% grade on the essay!
    I’d rather receive an original inferior piece of work (that can be then revised and edited by the student using my feedback) than copied text.
    On another note, this article inspired me to go to my local library’s website to place holds on two of Carl Zimmer’s books (Science Ink and Evolution). I also found out we were both born in the same year (1966)!

  119. I think a lot of this is the focus on schools to get good grades for points and funding instead of teaching how to learn. It’s not about learning so much as it is about “winning the game.” It reminds me of the story Richard Feynman told about his trip to schools in Brazil:

    After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

    And as these students were taught to memorize, today’s students are pushed to achieve without know the purpose behind “good grades,” and many teachers are at a loss on how to actually motivate learning as opposed to “get an A, move on.” I would assume that teachers who have in their lesson plan, “ask a professor” mean well, but without any sort of… deeper drive to understand, they are just looking for answers to put that puzzle piece in, finish the puzzle, and move onto the next puzzle without having any sort of love or understanding of the picture the puzzle was supposed to show.

  120. Little has been said about students that have contacted scientists, read their published articles and worked on projects with them. I can tell you that these student are the very students you want in your labs , your college classes and to lead the country. Yes, teachers should address this problem of over contacting authors and waiting their time. I will tell you that time spent with those students that are truly motivated to do work is worth your time and input.

    [CZ: We agree on that. But this post is about something else.]

  121. Ugh, I hated assignments like this in high school. I remember one time for religion we had to interview a priest or a nun. A good 50% or more of my classmates never went to church. I cold-emailed I think three priests and all were too busy to answer my questions (I ended up interviewing my Grandad, who’s an acolyte). Which is totally understandable because adults are busy people, they don’t have time to answer basic questions from fourteen year olds. I know for a fact many of my friends just made up answers because they couldn’t find anyone to interview. It was

    These kinds of assignments just DO NOT work. I’m a science teacher myself now, and I wouldn’t dream of setting an assignment like this, because the kids just wouldn’t learn anything from it – except how annoying it is to be rejected.

    I don’t think it’s simply a product of ‘kids today’ wanting immediate answers either – my generation was exactly the same. The internet existed but the answers weren’t on it. It’s mainly the fact that work is difficult, and if you’re not interested in the topic, that homework is also boring. Who wants to spend more time than necessary doing boring, difficult work? Not me that’s for sure. So I can totally see where kids are coming from, but it is lazy. And it’s rude to ask a scientist your homework questions straight out of the blue! That’s what teachers are there for – who also have email addresses, and are you know, actually PAID to answer student questions.

  122. Please, instead of sending these kids to websites, send them to libraries! We are still here, we still exist. Our job is to help kids find appropriate material for their projects.

  123. Many students use the internet as ‘the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’. Traditionally, written essays are taken to be evidence of learning (or the lack thereof).. I think that intelligent editing could be assessed for learning just as well as writing. What is the purpose of an educational activity? A level of understanding in some domain; and or writing; editing? Part of the reason students are bothering professional authors may be the need to properly source claims.

  124. I could read all the comments. I was instantly stopped in the article by your analysis of the problem. The word “pedagogy” this is the problem. It is the foundation of how teachers approach students in schools, even colleges. Teaching needs a self-critical examination, and I didn’t see it anywhere in the comments posted. They point to other causes.

    Students (not all) have changed their approach to learning and many of the institutions have not understood the shift. They are becoming self-aware earlier, gaining logic based argument soon, due to computers and maturing sooner, and need the andragogy approach to learning in middle schools now. But, change is hard and some students and educators don’t understand it. I guess you could go back to the saying, “garbage in, garbage out.” It is disappointing but it applies.

  125. Informative comments . I was enlightened by the details , Does anyone know where I might get ahold of a blank IRS 1099-MISC version to use ?

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