Columbia College’s Core Curriculum experienced a major revision in 2004 with the addition of Frontiers of Science as a required class for first-year students. The course was created, according to its Web site, in an effort to introduce Columbia undergraduates to the study of Western science and scientific modes of thought. Though reforms are under way—including splitting the course’s large lecture into two smaller sections—Frontiers still falls short of providing first-year students with a foundational understanding of scientific thinking. Columbia should make the course more cohesive and more rigorous to fulfill its stated purpose.
Frontiers of Science was designed to fill what its architects viewed as a gap in the Core: despite a general science requirement, no single science course was required of all Columbia College students. Ideally, Frontiers would do for science what the other Core requirements do for Western literature, philosophy, art, and music. These courses aim to teach students how to think in ways to which they are not accustomed. Scientific thinking has much to commend itself, but students will gain an appreciation for it only if they are adequately challenged. Because Frontiers caters to students with varying degrees of technical proficiency, it eschews depth and rigor for a largely qualitative look at several scientific disciplines. And whereas other Core classes trace ideas through a chronological or conceptual progression, the Frontiers structure—in which the semester is divided by topic into discrete modules—gives no real sense of cohesion to the class.
Introducing students to both the methods of scientific thinking and the cutting edge of scientific research in the space of a single semester is no light undertaking. Nonetheless, improving Frontiers is not a lost cause. Instead of providing students with a cursory understanding of several scientific fields, Frontiers should seek to help first-years develop more thorough quantitative reasoning skills. The syllabus should focus more on ideas and methods common to all scientific disciplines, rather than offering students a superficial understanding of a medley of scientific fields. The course can be made more rigorous by assigning problems that require more precise scientific reasoning. Similarly, the required readings should be more substantial than survey material extracted from popular science magazines—articles that, while they inspire and inform, do little to improve reasoning skills.
That Columbia has provisionally approved the inclusion of Frontiers of Science in the Core Curriculum and continues to try to improve the course speaks volumes about the University’s interest in increasing the Core’s emphasis on science. The course has set ambitious goals for itself, but in its current form it benefits neither science majors, who are turned off by its light treatment, nor humanities majors, who are not pushed to think critically about scientific methods. A shift from qualitative discussion to quantitative problem solving, coupled with a more cohesive and integrated course structure, would better align Frontiers with the broader goals of the Core.