News | Academics

Frontiers of Science still a work in progress

It’s been seven years since Frontiers of Science officially became part of the Core Curriculum, but students and faculty members are still tinkering with the structure of the course and thinking about how it fits into the humanities-based Core.

The Columbia College Student Council sponsored a town hall Sunday night for students to discuss Frontiers, which has been widely criticized by both science-oriented and humanities-oriented students. The town hall was held amid a renewed push by the Frontiers faculty to update the course based on student feedback and better integrate it into the Core.

Student representatives from the Committee on the Core, the Committee on Instruction, and the newly formed Educational Policy and Planning Committee attended the event and plan to convey student opinions to professors and administrators. Simon Jerome, CC ’13 and the Columbia College representative on the EPPC, said that the committee expects “to take a majority of the year” to review Frontiers.

“EPPC has asked us to solicit feedback from the student body, particularly on this issue,” Jerome said. “We’ll be taking this information and then bringing it to EPPC meetings.”

As Frontiers of Science is still a relatively new addition to the Core, faculty members adjust the course materials every semester, following a review process based on students’ evaluations of the course. Frontiers currently features four distinct units that deal with different fields of scientific inquiry, each of them taught by a different guest lecturer.

Earth and environmental sciences professor Nicholas Christie-Blick, co-chair of Frontiers of Science, said that the course material is constantly changing because the guest lecturers change each time it’s taught.

“There’s lots of motion between the semesters,” Christie-Blick said. “It’s healthy that it evolves. It’s always being upgraded.”

The Core requires that students complete Frontiers of Science and two other science courses. Christie-Blick said that Frontiers helps students develop important tools for scientific analysis, including interpreting statistics, designing experiments, and analyzing data.

“The main point isn’t to feed them lots of stuff—it’s to get them to think like scientists,” he said.

But many students still aren’t satisfied by what Frontiers has to offer. Matthew Chupack, CC ’15 and a CCSC member, said that while Core classes are supposed to help students discuss intellectual topics outside of class, Frontiers has done little to enrich his day-to-day interactions.

“The only conversation outside of the class is, ‘God, I hate Frontiers,’ or, ‘Are you going to lecture?’” Chupack said. “I didn’t enjoy the class very much, and I couldn’t even talk about what went on in the class because it was either cursory and shallow, or the other semester had a different set of sciences.”

Steele Sternberg, CC ’13, a member of Spectator’s editorial board, and an associate opinion editor, said that professors and administrators should define the goal of Frontiers more clearly.

“I think the purpose of Frontiers has been very poorly articulated, and that leads to a lot of confusion because it is part of the Core Curriculum,” he said. “I think that we need to come up with a purpose that is not so much trying to square the circle and trying to fit science into something that the Core was designed to do in 1919.”

Some students majoring in the natural sciences say that Frontiers doesn't have much to offer them. Margaret Chou, CC ’16, said that as a prospective biology major, she does “not expect to experience revelations in this class.”

Other students, though, have found Frontiers to be worthwhile. Douglas Kronaizl, CC ’15, said he thinks that it “fits in very well with the Core.”

“It requires you to learn about things you most likely never would have chosen to take a class in. That’s the essence of the Core—expanding your academic experience,” Kronaizl said.

Liam Bland, CC ’15 and a CCSC member, said in an email that the course helped him develop “science literacy.”

“There are certain things to know about the nature of the universe that are fundamental to understanding the human experience, and the ‘habits of the mind’ provide an important context in which to place all of the knowledge contained within the rest of the Core,” he said.

Jeremy Budd contributed reporting.

news@columbiaspectator.com

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