Helping Gen Z Do Science: Cultivating the Written Word

I remember as a college freshman seeing a cartoon taped on the door of one of the physics labs in Cornelia Hall at Iona College. It showed a student complaining to his professor, saying, “I really understand the material, I just can’t do the problems.”

It’s not rocket science to understand why GenZers are struggling to do science. It’s as simple as a #2 pencil and a pile of scrap paper—two old-school learning tools that are anathema to the young people now in my chemistry classroom who were born into the Age of the Screen.

In an article from Second Wave Learning, “Has Gen Z Lost Critical Thinking Skills?” the author asks us to imagine we are 21 years old and we’ve always had an app that can tell us the weather, help park the car, discover music we’ve never heard but might like, count our steps, or beep when it’s time to meditate. … “Research suggests that this onslaught of technology is re-wiring the brains of Gen Z.”

And making matters worse, Covid reinforced this phenomenon among many first and second-year college students who spent much of their junior and senior years in high school staring at screens while attempting to do science virtually.

One cannot learn science through osmosis. Magic happens when the brain, eyes, and hand all come together in beautiful synaptic choreography, guiding a pencil across a sheet of paper.

Being blessed with a vivid memory and humorous story-telling skills, I always manage to share with every class the time I was in a Friday night bowling league with my mother. Between frames, I scurried back to my seat to balance a page of very difficult redox reactions my college general chemistry professor had assigned over a weekend. No one is capable of mastering these equations by staring at them.

And now, when I teach this topic to my general chemistry students, I still have to review the process with – yes – a #2 pencil and scrap paper.

[Related: “Teaching Science Students to Think Critically About EVs and to Peek Behind the Curtain”]

This past semester, I recorded the lowest grades ever in an Introductory General Chemistry course—5 Fs, 3 Ds, a bunch of Cs, a few Bs, and only one A. And this was after I had advised several students earlier in the semester to drop the course and take a W because clearly, they weren’t going to survive.

I’m sure they’re sick of me reminding them that when I went to college last century—which always gets a laugh since they think I am exaggerating (I’m not)—we had no internet. There were no laptops and of course no cellphones. Handheld calculators had just been invented and they cost a small fortune. If we needed to look up a physical constant, we had the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, a tome that required two hands and a healthy back to lift.

And we had lots of #2 pencils and scrap paper—and we were all the better for it.1

So how do I approach a fresh group of incoming 21st-century GenZ-techies with an old-school approach that amounts to “stone knives and bearskins” to quote Mr. Spock from an old Star Trek episode? I remember when my college alma mater, mentioned in the first paragraph, made news in Westchester County, New York as being the first college with campus-wide Wi-Fi.  I had long since graduated but the news report captured my interest nonetheless. There was the chairman of the chemistry department, being interviewed on television. Unimpressed, he commented, “Aristotle taught with a stick in the sand…”

From my informal research based on four years of lecture classes coupled with success stories from engaged students, learning science is certainly about students’ attitudes towards learning in general and staying self-motivated and very little about the utilization of technology as teaching aids. Additionally, it comes as no surprise that the students who do the best in my classes take hand-written notes in paper notebooks (or electronic notepads).

The point is: They are writing stuff down.

The concept of copying with precision and accuracy is an old and important one. It brings to mind the scribes who were tasked with copying the manuscripts that have preserved God’s Word. They were the “official scholars of the oral and written law and the instructors and interpreters of it.”2

[Related: “When a Chemistry Journal Publishes a Sociologist on Climate and Energy”]

If there had not been copyists and interpreters, there would have been no transmission of the biblical text. Those who did the work very quickly became authorities on the text. Most of them were probably priests, or linked with priestly groups. With so many complicated materials involved with the transmission of the holy writings, professional, well-trained scribes were absolutely essential.3

I’m not against technology. I utilize Power Points in both lecture and lab classes but I interrupt my lectures to reinforce important concepts by solving problems on a whiteboard or a blackboard (for which I am very thankful we still have here at Palm Beach Atlantic University). In short—I write stuff down.

And although my homework assignments are delivered in an online format that accompanies the textbook, I require that my students solve their homework on paper using a pencil before clicking the correct answer on the screen.

God instructed his leaders, again and again, to write things down: To Isaiah, He said, “Go now, write it on a tablet,” (Isaiah 30:8), and to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered” (Exodus 17:14).  God instructs the Israelites to write the law on their doorframes and gates (Dt. 10:2) Proverbs 3:3 and 7:3 tell us that virtue formation and law remembering involve following God’s admonition to write them on one’s heart.

Remembering and learning something in any field, but especially in science, is best accomplished by writing it down!


1 Gregory J. Rummo, “Why GenZ Can’t Do Science,” The Sun Sentinel, June 22, 2022.

2 “Who Were the Scribes in the Bible,” org

3 “The Scribes,” org


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Christian Scholar’s Review on August 3, 2022 and is crossposted here with permission.

Image: smolaw11, Adobe Stock

Gregory J. Rummo

Gregory J. Rummo is Lecturer of Chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences at Palm Beach Atlantic University, former CEO of New Chemic (US), Inc., and a Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

6 thoughts on “Helping Gen Z Do Science: Cultivating the Written Word

  1. I used to write out stuff on white paper during the lectures (in a STEM field). A document camera then displayed it for the class on a large screen display. After class I would scan what I had written down during lecture and posted in on the course website. The students just sat there during the lecture because, in effect, I was providing the students with their lecture notes.

    No more. I now lecture strictly using a white board. Students have to take their own lecture notes. I think they are better off for it.

    1. I feel for you and the course evals. I found that even posting lecture notes AFTER the lecture instead of before would see students downgrade teaching evals and even complain to the department chair.

      1. I have tenure. Although I take teaching seriously, and regularly update my lecture notes, I don’t care about course evals.

        Course evals are just popularity contests anyway. I have found that professors who go easy on assignments, allow for lots of extra credit, provide students with prior exams as study guides (and only slightly modify the exam they will give next week) and grade easy consistently get high course evals and teaching awards.

        And yes, you are correct. Students have asked if I can post the lecture notes BEFORE the lecture. Some also want to know if the lectures are recorded so they don’t have to show up for class.

  2. “I recorded the lowest grades ever in an Introductory General Chemistry course—5 Fs, 3 Ds, a bunch of Cs, a few Bs, and only one A. And this was after I had advised several students earlier in the semester to drop the course and take a W because clearly, they weren’t going to survive.”

    Sounds grim, Professor Rummo, but a little vague. Are there NUMBERS of Cs, Bs? And how many of those notorious Ws? I’m wondering what the actual numerical distribution was.

    But really sounds bad, even for Intro Chem! Maybe they need to tighten up admissions standards at your university.

    I would be careful, you might be out of an Instructor position if you keep this up!

    1. When I was a chemistry undergrad at Purdue in the late 1980s, the grades were generally bell curved around a C. Our introductory mechanics class in Physics had 60% of the students drop or fail. My senior year, I was interviewing with a major pharmaceutical firm and was a bit embarrassed over my 2.47 undergrad GPA. The interviewer told me not to worry – it was better than his undergrad GPA at Purdue! Understand, I had honors level GPAs for my MPA and Public Health PHD, and my GRE scores were well over the 90th percentile – perfect 800 on the analytical section.

      A “C” is SUPPOSED to be the average grade – “average performance” is how it is usually described. From my old Organic Chemistry professor, I learned how to calibrate an exam so that the average exam grade would be in the high “C” range – and would explain how I did so in the opening session of my undergrad classes as well as go over it with the score distributions after each exam. For the most part – except for one semester when the chair intervened with students to try to drive scores down – I received excellent teaching evaluations, and almost always top scores for fairness. Expectations were made clear to students, the reasons for having a mechanism that discriminated on performance was explained, I transparently reviewed both their performance AND my exam performance, and was very open to helping struggling students improve. If you do that, students generally accept even tough grading.

    2. This past semester was by far the worst showing for this course which I have taught now six times. I started with 18-21 students. My colleague who also teaches another section of the same course experienced similar results. I’m convinced this is the result of Covid-caused virtual learning environments in the immediate prior semesters, or at least during their experience with high school chemistry. I’m not worried. Feel free to check me out on RateMyProfessor.com

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