Frontiers of Science is unique and demanding. The course samples the full range of modern science in a single semester-to students with very different science backgrounds-in sufficient depth to be meaningful, in a stimulating, comprehensive, coherent, and understandable way. Taking Frontiers can be frustrating and teaching Frontiers is hard. It is encouraging that the Columbia College Student Council has put together a group of six first-year students to provide feedback on Frontiers: we are committed to a continual and collaborative process of development and refinement of the course with them and with all our students.
Columbia College embarked on the formation of the Core Curriculum-the set of required courses that introduces students to essential ideas of music, art, literature, philosophy, and political thought-in 1919. While Natural Philosophy was central to the education of a civilized person, its successor, science, was left out of the Core. Columbia scientists, steeped in the guild-like tradition of the sequence of courses required to master any particular scientific discipline, were unwilling or unable to deviate from their approach to scientific education in order to develop a course reflecting the broader goals of the Core.
The explosion of science is one of the defining aspects of the 20th century. In abandoning the attempt to include science in the Core, Columbia scientists walked away from providing students with a key set of intellectual tools for making sense of the universe: the tools of scientific thought.
Before Frontiers, if a student arrived at Columbia with curiosity about any specific area of science-how the brain handles language, for example-he or she faced an extensive series of "foundation courses": two years of chemistry, and a year each of physics, math, biology, and psychology before learning anything about neuroscience. These requirements were an unreasonable burden to impose on students who simply wanted to know whether something was as stimulating as they thought it might be. Rather than encouraging interest in questions at the current frontiers of science, we extinguished interest by demanding a series of introductory pre-requisites.
In 2001, members of the science faculty began to design Frontiers. We have two goals: the inculcation of scientific habits of thought and a substantive introduction to cool, current science. Contemporary science is very different from the classical subjects entering students may have mastered; for one thing, it is highly interdisciplinary: biophysics, geochemistry, neuroscience, and so on. All scientists use a common tool kit (graphs, statistics, etc.) to ask their questions and measure their answers, and the powerful internal logic of mathematics is an important model for figuring out what is going on. Each semester, both the physical and the life sciences are included in Frontiers, together with weekly seminars applying scientific analytical tools to the lecture topics and readings. Because all students must take at least two more science courses after Frontiers, the inclusion of both life and physical sciences exposes everyone to choices such as environmental sciences, astronomy, and so on, well beyond most students' previous experiences.
We are conditioned to identify ourselves using mutually exclusive categories; for instance, male/female, scientist/non-scientist, and musical/tone-deaf. The scientist/non-scientist category reflects the way our culture works, not the way your brain works. Individual decisions on many levels, ranging from buying a car to deciding whether to have a mastectomy, demand informed participation. Because a Frontiers seminar may include future physicists, senators, religious leaders, and painters, there is a collective responsibility to ensure that the group understands how to think about scientific problems. The importance of collective responsibility means we do not segregate "science" and "non-science" students, because doing so exacerbates the divide. Neither students nor our society can afford to perpetuate a world divided by two cultures.
The most recent Spectator items about Frontiers ("CCSC Prepares Frontiers Report," Feb. 14 and the staff editorial "Pursuing New Frontiers," Feb. 21) voice two main concerns: the diversity of science backgrounds of the students in seminars, and a sense of disconnect between "solid grounding in the basic tenets of science" and "the scientific method" in a course covering such a wide range of materials. Clearly if you teach anything (Faulkner, Bach, quantum mechanics, Freud) to 1,100 students, some will be bored and some completely confused. It is, after all, a Core Curriculum.
Compared to traditional Core topics, Frontiers is particularly difficult because the way science is actually done is quite different from the traditional teaching of those "basic tenets" as a coherent body of knowledge. Real science is questions not facts; living with uncertainty is the hallmark of the best and most exciting science. Uncertainty is unsettling for students until they learn to ask the kinds of questions that propel actual research as opposed to cookbook exercises. Columbia students need to break the bounds of what they think they know and the way they think about it to understand what they do not know but can find out. The intellectual attraction of science today is that it is unfolding before us. Hard to master, hard to teach, but fascinating, deeply rewarding, and essential to understanding our world.
Frontiers is already the most closely evaluated course at Columbia; we have short-tem evaluations to help us shape the way we teach and long-term evaluations on the impact of Frontiers. These evaluations are all designed to cover the large numbers and entire spectrum of students taking the course. Good ideas on teaching Frontiers are precious and we especially welcome the efforts of our students, individually and collectively. We look forward to hearing from you.
The author is a Professor of Biological Sciences and the Co-chair of Frontiers of Science./