Opinion | Columns

A science education worthy of the Core

Frontiers of Science is under review this year, but we should be reassessing the entire science requirement. Failing to challenge students, the current science requirement coddles Columbians and closes intellectual doors.

The contrast between the science and humanities requirements is striking. While not without their flaws, CC and the three Hums do a remarkable job of introducing students to the classics, while giving them a healthy academic butt-kicking. Columbia College can take pride that its math and science students are put through the same rigors as its readers and writers.

When it comes to science, though, Columbia College has less to be proud of. To start, while Frontiers of Science has seriously evolved in response to course evaluations, its educational value is still hotly debated. Most introductory science education is about acquiring the intellectual building blocks to take more advanced classes. As FroSci’s co-chair, Professor Nicholas Christie-Blick, said in an email to me, the course’s goals are to “instill skills or habits characteristic of the scientific approach to inquiry” and to produce “graduates able to evaluate claims that they will encounter in everyday life.” While these are admirable goals, my impression is that students view it as academically flimsy when it is actually put into practice.

Next, students can fulfill the remainder of their science requirement with classes specially designed to be unchallenging. Of the science requirement courses, Christie-Blick said that “a subset might be regarded as not sufficiently challenging,” and “that this would be a good time for the Columbia faculty and the College to revisit the intent of the science requirement.” According to Christie-Blick, the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences offers “courses at the 1000 level designed to fulfill the requirement.” Last fall, I was scheduled to take five classes, but still needed to fulfill the requirement. Willing to forfeit learning for an easy A, I scanned CULPA and signed up for one of the Earth and Environmental Sciences classes “designed” for the requirement. It more than met my expectations. Before the exams, the professor distributed a list of questions and matching answers. A quarter of them would appear on the exams. Not having touched the textbook, I uploaded the provided file onto a flashcard website and spent the nights before the exams cramming. Despite not having learned a thing, I got an A.

But what about students who do step outside of their comfort zone and seek a real challenge? Unfortunately, an English major in an introductory chemistry class is not in the same position as a chemistry major in Lit Hum. Part of the reason is that unlike most of our peer schools, Columbia has a separate school for engineering, with a separate application process. However, SEAS’ technical requirements in math, physics and chemistry are actually fulfilled in departments affiliated with the college. Working alongside those gifted classmates shouldn’t be a problem unto itself. But this fact, combined with the implicit encouragement of non-science students to take unserious science classes, makes taking an introductory chemistry or physics course a very big gamble for a right-brain student who is eager to challenge herself. Likewise, professors in introductory math and science classes aren’t available to give the sort of guidance Core class professors do, and the help rooms can be less than ideal. In my experience, the calculus room has almost always been understaffed, the student proctors often weren’t fully engaged, and at times none of the scheduled proctors even showed up.

The result of these three problems is that, while math and science students are challenged by the humanities core, reading and writing students don’t get a comparable challenge with the science requirement. It isn’t that students are on average incapable. Many who are destined for majors outside math and science have taken college level calculus, chemistry, and the like in high school. Columbia College’s entire philosophy is that there are certain things any student should study. Serious science should be one of those.

An ideal science core would maintain the ethos of Frontiers of Science—more scientific method than rote memorization—while providing a rigorous experience. I suggest that FroSci be replaced with a one-year sequence of four half-semester courses. Each course should be capped at 25 students to parallel the attention given in the humanities core. The four-class sequence would require a baseline math and science education—half a semester of calculus, half a semester of statistics, half a semester of physics, chemistry, or biology, and half a semester where students select from a narrow range of serious science electives. Students who wish to take the full-semester of one of the required half-semester courses during their first year would substitute the half-course with one of the electives. These courses could be designed to accomplish the higher-level goals of FroSci—how to think scientifically, to show the exciting “frontiers” of the disciplines—and to reassure the science-averse while actually challenging students in a small class setting where they could receive support if they needed it.

Additionally, two full-length, serious science classes should be required, increasing the number of required semesters to four. This would allow students to build on their first year with a full semester extension of one of the required courses from freshman year, or to select full semester courses in a different scientific field.

Although my idea might not be the silver bullet, the science requirement at Columbia needs to be fixed. Any real solution would require that those responsible for the science requirement be given the administrative power and funding necessary to recruit good teachers and to ensure this problem isn’t lost in the shuffle of University politics.

Columbia students will rise to the challenges put before us—which, in the sciences, doesn’t mean having to go very far. Columbia College can’t take pride in a liberal arts education that provides challenges in the arts and ignores challenges in the sciences.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that SEAS students complete computer science requirements in a department affiliated with Columbia College. In fact, the computer science department is within the engineering school. Spectator regrets the error.

Alex Merchant is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Hispanic studies. Atomized to the Core runs alternate Thursdays.

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

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Anonymous posted on

Alex,
If a student has already taken college level calculus and chemistry in high school and proven their proficiency via AP tests or the like, why should they be required to meet a science requirement at all?

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Anonymous posted on

It is the same reason why a prospective Physics or Math major has to take LitHum regardless of their proven proficiency in an AP/IB/A-Level type exam. What the author is arguing here is simply that the science part of the core is deficient at providing the same level of knowledge and methods of thinking as its humanities counterparts. In a world increasingly reliant on STEM fields, it seems only natural that Columbia keep up with the times and not treat the science component of the core as a necessary evil, but rather as an integral part of general education in the 21st century.

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Anonymous posted on

*I meant to say a rigorous exam in English and/or Literature

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Anonymous posted on

It seems that the author is not arguing for a rehashing for the first two semesters of calculus, but rather a review of some baseline material in these half semester courses that would allow students in this four class sequence to full appreciate the beauty and think critically about the selected math and science topics in the fourth class of the sequence. Basically the first three courses would serve as a place where non science, math, and engineering majors could be exposed to the material in a "safe space" without people who are already extremely proficient in the material being taught.
If students feel confident in their proficiency of these subjects maybe there should be a way they could test out of the "review" part of the sequences and skip straight to the final course of the sequence.

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Anonymous posted on

Although there are many studies that are valuable in the form of popularized science (I always think of Brian Green on PBS talking about string theory) at Columbia the focus should be placed on rigorous training. For my money, the study of evolutionary biology and genetics is the most essential for all students. That knowledge will provide tremendous payback for a lifetime and the most common ground upon which to build theories and ideas about ourselves and how we should live.

Love and Peace

Joe Brown

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Anonymous posted on

Ask that Kazakh kid how he did it.

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