Last weekend, student representatives from the Educational Planning and Policy Committee, the Committee on Instruction, and the Committee on the Core held a town hall to discuss Frontiers of Science. In light of the renewed interest in discussing one of the most contentious components of the Core, we want to offer some of our thoughts on how the science component of the Core may be improved.
To begin, we should examine its purpose. Frontiers currently exists as a series of lectures and recitations focusing on a wide variety of scientific disciplines, with greater emphasis on breadth and abstraction than on deep inquiry into any particular field. At the same time, it seems that Frontiers aims to provide exposure to topical subjects within the sciences and a basic toolset for scientific literacy. Students may come from a range of scientific backgrounds, but after Frontiers, each student should know how to use such basic concepts as stoichiometry and significant figures.
This dual mission—literacy and exposure—seems to work for other Core classes. Students without significant background in literature or philosophy can still muster strong arguments in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization and succeed, gaining a deeper understanding of the literary canon and Western philosophical tracts while covering a range of time periods, genres, and ideas.
But Frontiers may fail because it is modeled after a small humanities seminar. Frontiers tries to combine exposure and literacy in one class, in a way that’s possible for literary and philosophical studies—but the combination has not worked. Frontiers is not successful.
There’s a simple explanation for this. Learning in the sciences fundamentally differs from learning in the humanities. Scientific knowledge requires a grasp of certain fundamental concepts before there can be any “meaningful discussion” (the kind we experience in Lit Hum and CC, and the kind Frontiers aims to create in its recitations and assessments). Simply put, while one can understand the Iliad’s plot without being a classics major, one cannot hope to understand fully and meaningfully engage with Professor Brian Greene’s lecture on quantum mechanics if one is not fully versed in quantum mechanics.
As students, we’re left with two options: exposure to the breadth of scientific subjects, or depth of understanding of fewer topics. Administrators must decide the appropriate vision for the Columbia College science requirement, so that it can be implemented effectively. Reconsidering the kind of education Frontiers ought to provide is a broad and daunting question, but an essential one to ask at a time when the administration is seemingly open to revising the curriculum.
If Frontiers is intended to provide exposure to a range of scientific ideas, it’s falling short. Judging from the amount of complaints we have informally heard about Frontiers, it appears to us that a good portion of students—if not the majority—feel that the Frontiers recitation sections and class assessments stray from lecture material and lapse into weekly worksheets that do little to engage students. Refocusing the curriculum so that it focuses on lecture topics (as opposed to the disparities we currently see between lecture, recitation, and assessment) will go a long way toward addressing student frustration and making the course more appealing, and would provide adequate, in-depth exposure to a variety of scientific subjects.
On the other hand, if the goal of Frontiers is scientific literacy, we should consider eliminating Frontiers altogether, and narrow the breadth of the science requirement so that it requires students to take courses in the lab sciences. Frontiers attempts to provide students with some familiarity with the scientific method and process, but it falls well short of achieving the conceptual familiarity that an introductory course in chemistry, biology, or physics does. Even with a two-course science requirement meant to supplement Frontiers, the many available course options—including courses specifically designed for non-science majors—easily allow students to circumvent any sort of thorough engagement with the sciences. Instead of taking Frontiers, students should be required to work deeply within a “core” science: biology, chemistry, physics, or even computer science.
If we decide that the purpose of the science requirement is to achieve scientific literacy, then we choose real engagement with the core sciences and eliminate Frontiers. If we find value in a course that seeks to expose students to a range of scientific topics, then we keep Frontiers, but have recitations and assessments focus on lecture material, not on basic science skills. Either way, the Frontiers of Science curriculum, and the science requirement as a whole, needs serious evaluation, and its purpose in the Core must be articulated before these changes can be made.
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