I knew Frontiers of Science was never going to be one of those classes that I could not wait to attend. As someone planning on majoring in Spanish and English, science just does not come easily for me. But I was determined to give Frontiers a chance. During the first seminar, I remember sighing in boredom as my professor taught us about significant figures and how to measure accurately with rulers.
As the class progressed, the lectures did get more interesting, although the number of students attending them decreased from week to week. Although the subject matter has been attention-grabbing, there seems to be something that is not right about this class. While learning about active fields that are truly “frontiers” of science, many first-year students still find themselves falling asleep in class and dreading the course.
The lack of interest in this relatively new core class appears to stem from the dumbing down of material for the non-science majors. This is done to such an extreme that in some inconceivable way, the material is actually confusing for many non-science majors and some students pursuing the sciences as well. This confusion was illustrated well by this semester’s midterm—although the majority of grades have not yet been released, a common feeling upon handing in the test was one of despair and confusion.
The truth is, every student registered for the class has a decent background in science and is, overall, an intelligent individual. There is absolutely no reason that class needs to be taught as if it is the first science class that Columbia College students have ever taken. The vast majority of the Columbia College student body could in fact handle a more intensive, more straight-forward introductory science course. At the moment, Frontiers provides students with a basic overview of several subfields of science. While this is useful, I believe that the course should adopt a slightly different approach in addition to introductory information in a variety of subfields.
Perhaps a better approach to the teaching style of Frontiers would be to treat it as a science policy course. Instead of asking how scientists research a given field, the major question should be why. Why are scientists interested in this topic? How do discoveries in this field affect our society today, and how can we improve society by applying this knowledge? This approach can be applied to the same topics that are currently on this semester’s syllabus. With regards to Earth Science, a science policy approach could focus less on paleoclimatology (how scientists learn about the past climate in order to understand what is occurring today) and more on what society can do today with the facts that have already been determined. The major question that should be approached here is: How can we prevent further global warming given what has been learned already?
Overall, science is an important part of any education, and all students need to have at least an introductory exposure level to the discipline. But this introduction should by no means scare students away from science in general, which is sadly what Frontiers of Science currently does to many students. Judging from the popular Facebook group “Frontiers of Science Makes Me Not Believe In Science,” for example, the opinion that something needs to change is widespread. The intention behind the course is good, and the general idea provides a strong basis, but Frontiers is overdue for a change.
Frontiers has already taken steps towards becoming a better course. This year, there has been an incorporation of weekly meetings with professors as well as more group work within discussion sections. The weekly meetings are definitely key to uniting the large number of students taking the course and to ensuring that all sections are learning the same material and being graded on the same scale. These meetings are also a great place for professors to share concerns that their students have about the material or about the course in general. However, the addition of group work this semester is not as successful. While the group work does ensure a break from the mundane weekly individual assignments, it is still busywork and overall is too simple for many students.
An important change that will be occurring next year is the splitting of the lecture into two sections, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The lectures will also be held in classrooms. This change will have advantages. Two sections will allow students to incorporate Frontiers into their schedules with greater ease, and the new classroom location will add a more academic atmosphere to the course. There will no longer be the urge to grab a seat in the rear of Miller Theatre in the hopes of a short nap during lecture.
While Frontiers is taking active steps to create a better course, I still believe that the science policy approach would add a new dimension to Frontiers and make the course more applicable to non-science majors. Sometimes, all it takes to completely transform something is a small step in a different direction. It is time that Frontiers begins to reinstall a genuine interest in science in the students of Columbia. It is time that the course begins to make those who have sadly “stopped believing” realize how necessary science truly is to society. With a science policy approach, the original goals of the course can finally be achieved.
The author is a Columbia College first-year.