Opinion | Columns

Imparting scientific appreciation

As a lecturer in the Frontiers of Science program, I am glad to share my excitement about science with incoming students. But the Frontiers program is not just another opportunity to teach science in the usual way, and that’s a good thing. Frontiers is Columbia’s answer to a long-standing problem in education with the way science is delivered to the general student population and ultimately to the public at large.

Science deals with our best explanations of the nature of the physical world, and these explanations are often radically counterintuitive, a message that has failed to get across. So much of modern science is astonishing, though you wouldn’t know this from a glimpse of the homework of a typical high school student or that of a college student attempting to satisfy a core science requirement. The ideas of science span a wide range: Science teaches us that we all share a common relative or ancestor with a piece of fruit, that our experience of being is merely neurons in action, that the events of our past are not gone, but are as real as those of our present and those of our future, that the flow of time may be an illusion, that planet Earth drags space itself around with it, that there may be other exact versions of you living out different but parallel lives, that cats may be both dead and alive at the same time, and that my genes are convinced without knowing it that they are more important than me because they have lived for eons.

I doubt that any of these ideas would register as part of science with the average person, or even with the average college student—who I suspect considers science as unexciting as the chore of making his bed, as uninspiring as the long-term contemplation of a neatly folded handkerchief, as tedious as doing her laundry, or as something that just gets in the way of the fun stuff. But this is a misconception, a misrepresentation of what science is, how science works, and what science tells us about the world.

The problem seems to be that we educators have convinced ourselves that a proper understanding of the broader context requires a painstaking process of putting together the little pieces to construct the whole. There’s a difference between the level of detailed understanding required to do science and the level needed to appreciate the ideas of science. And that’s where Frontiers comes in. However, it is still work in progress and the faculty is struggling to get the right balance between the global picture and the details.

The course is structured in four units of three lectures each. This fall, for example, the first unit is brain and behavior, the second is physics, the third involves topics in biochemistry and biology, and the fourth is earth science. There are four faculty members that deliver the lectures to all students while others are engaged in the seminar activities that explore each topic in greater depth. In order to emphasize the importance of the big ideas—as opposed to the details on which they are built—seminar faculty that are proficient in only one of the four disciplines nonetheless conduct seminars for all four units. Part of their effort is to emphasize the cross-disciplinary character of the scientific process.

But we still want students to come away with an appreciation for the way science is done, for the way the big ideas emerge from the facts or data, and for the rigorous nature of the entire process. In order to accomplish this, some basic experiments or observations are presented in all the units so that students are offered a glimpse into the scientific process of model building, the search for explanations that fit the data. It’s a tall order and a new experiment in education, but it may mark the beginning of more successful approaches in producing a scientifically literate society.

The author is a lecturer in Columbia’s physics department. He received his Ph.D from the University of Maryland.

To respond to this professor column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Comments

Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Your username will not be displayed if checked
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.
Anonymous posted on

You can not "produc[e] a scientifically literate society" if the students you are teaching do not have an understanding of the basic vocabulary of science. The purpose of the Core is (or should be) to introduce students to foundational knowledge, not 'wow' them with fun scientific facts. At the end of the day, many students may end up feeling informed about science when in fact they are not.

+1
0
-1
Anonymous posted on

Frontiers would be better conceived of as a one semester 'history of science' course.

+1
0
-1
Anonymous posted on

The purpose of the Core is to produce
cultural literacy across a range of disciplines and science fits
beautifully into that framework without forcing students to solve the
Schrodinger equation, the Lorentz Transformations, or the details of
the Ptolemaic model of the Universe. Science literacy produces an
appreciation - not a detailed understanding - of the rigorous
quantitative nature of scientific explanations which makes us more
immune to the bad ideas of the world such as that
peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches are useful in
preventing autism or other absurdities that make it into mainstream
culture. And if the ideas of science are exciting and they make us
go 'wow', all the better. But perhaps I am underestimating how much
you caught up on sleep during your science classes and the extent to
which you love peanut-butter-and-jelly.

+1
0
-1
Anonymous posted on

THIS IS FALSE PARALLELISM

+1
0
-1
Anonymous posted on

really spec? log in to downvote? wow.

+1
0
-1