Frontiers of Science may be in for an overhaul.
After a year reviewing the course, the Educational Policy and Planning Committee has issued a report detailing its findings and outlining potential ways to make the oft-maligned course more effective. The EPPC’s report, a copy of which was obtained by Spectator, suggests eliminating the lecture portion of the course in favor of small seminars with a standardized curriculum, mirroring other courses in the Core Curriculum.
“We recommend that the course be built around the seminar. This would require replacing many lecture sessions with seminar sessions, identifying relevant readings, and developing a culture of discussion based learning,” the report reads. “Rethinking Frontiers as primarily a seminar course could begin by examining principles intrinsic to other seminar based core courses.”
Columbia College Dean James Valentini, the Committee on Instruction, the Committee on Science Instruction, and the Committee on the Core received the report—which can be read in its entirety here—in April. They will consider the EPPC’s recommendation’s before deciding on any changes, which likely would not be implemented until fall 2014.
‘Less than the sum of the parts’
Columbia College students are required to take three science courses: Frontiers and two other courses chosen by each student. The EPPC—a committee of professors, administrators, and students—argues in its report that Frontiers’ structure needs to be reworked if it is to establish itself as a strong science course within the humanities-centric Core.
“A Science Core course should be designed from the start with a focus on the distinctive qualities of small-group instruction,” the report reads.
The report praises some aspects of the course as it is currently structured, including the inter-departmental nature of its faculty, the “well crafted, engaging, and informative” lectures, and the Science Fellows program, which financially supports the research of some postdoctoral students who teach Frontiers sections. The report also notes that in recent years, students have given high marks to Frontiers lecturers and seminar leaders on course evaluations.
But despite these strengths, the committee wrote, Frontiers “continues to suffer problems of coherence.”
“The whole is less than the sum of the parts,” the report reads. “We feel, in particular, that the combination of a unit based structure and the priority given to lectures (in themselves excellent) has diminished the seminar component, burdened the seminar instructors, pushed aside the need to identify good readings, and made it impossible to institutionalize the course properly.”
The committee recommended addressing those issues by eliminating the lecture component of the course and shifting its focus to seminar-based instruction, in the vein of Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization. A faculty group should be appointed to develop “what one might call FoS II” to be ready for the 2014-15 academic year, the EPPC wrote.
“In the seminars as implemented by FoS, recitation of basic science taught in the lecture has come to dominate too many seminars, to the exclusion of the habits of mind and discussion alike,” the report reads. “Giving seminar leaders greater autonomy in organizing the blend of direct instruction, practice, and discussion would better allow them to make the difficult choices required to facilitate informed instruction and the habits necessary for it.”
A seminar structure, the committee wrote, would resolve some of Frontiers’ other issues by reducing the number of units to better engage students and instructors, fully integrating the scientific “habits of mind”—skills ranging from back-of-the-envelope calculations to data analysis—into the course, and making the course more accessible to students regardless of their scientific backgrounds.
Last summer, at the request of Valentini, the EPPC formed an eight-member subcommittee—co-chaired by history professor Susan Pedersen and biology professor Stuart Firestein, a former Frontiers instructor—to examine the structure, content, and role of Frontiers as an undergraduate science course.
A group of four science professors from peer institutions were chosen to help the committee complete its review. Over the course of the school year, the reviewers interviewed professors and administrators involved with Frontiers, spoke with students and alumni who took the course, and attended lectures and seminar sections.
Their report, submitted to Valentini in April, said that Frontiers has the components of a successful and integral part of the Core, but that its current structure—a weekly lecture and seminar meeting—limits its effectiveness.
While students “find the material interesting,” the report reads, “this does not seem to be particularly because it is at the ‘frontier’ of some field or another so much as the content is well-taught and intrinsically interesting.”
“We think it regrettable that FoS has chosen to deliver so much of its content through this lecture format,” the report continues.
The report also emphasizes the talent of the course’s faculty, some of whom were brought to Columbia through the Science Fellows program. But these strengths, it says, have been limited by Frontiers’ “inability to routinize the syllabus and content, the lack of attention paid to readings, the recitation-like quality of the sections, the overburdening of seminar instructors.”
Unlike other Core courses, Frontiers meets for a 90-minute course-wide lecture and 110-minute sections each week. The course is based around four units, each one focused on a different scientific discipline, which are supposed to expose students to essential knowledge while also teaching them the scientific habits of mind, tools for analyzing scientific data, and theories.
The reviewers “found the lectures excellent, but not so exceptional as to justify the heroic level of preparation required.”
The committee also wrote that classroom discussion of the scientific habits of mind felt disconnected from the rest of the course’s content, and that the course often failed to engage students with varying scientific backgrounds and abilities.
Points of tension
Since Frontiers became a part of the Core in 2005, it has been a source of constant controversy, with many students criticizing the course both for alienating humanities-oriented students and for being too cursory to interest science-oriented students.
Students have also argued that the course lacks clearly defined goals and fails to instill scientific habits of mind. Some professors, meanwhile, have said that the course has improved over time, and that old students’ negative reviews have made incoming first-years predisposed to dislike Frontiers. The course has been subject to town hall discussions, input from students and faculty, and numerous Spectator editorials—both supportive and critical.
“Our greatest concern, in conducting this review, has been to discover the depth of polarization and the level of strong feelings the course has generated,” the report reads. “This conflictual attitude is unworthy of us, damaging to our students, and at odds with the values of deliberation and collective purpose at the heart of the core.”
Ivana Hughes, the course’s associate director and a chemistry lecturer, believes that the Frontiers faculty has already made improvements to the course over the last few years.
“In the early years of the course, there was a perceived disconnect between lectures and seminars, in that lectures dealt with specific content, while seminars dealt with the scientific habits of mind,” Hughes said in an interview at the end of the spring semester, before Spectator had obtained a copy of the EPPC report. “What we have done more recently is to make sure that there is better integration between the two pieces.”
Other revisions to the course have included more challenging homework assignments, assignments related to lecture content and the scientific habits of mind, a term paper assignment that helps students learn to analyze scientific articles, and a trip to the American Museum of Natural History, which is now mandatory for most sections.
Additionally, professors have modified the activities they do in seminar, making them more challenging to help students build critical reasoning skills and learn to evaluate scientific evidence.
“I think one of the really wonderful things about the seminar environment in our classes is that they’re very student-centered,” Hughes said. “Students answer and ask questions, and they spend time discussing topics in small groups.”
Hughes believes that these changes have begun to improve student opinions of the course.
“Many of the things that we have done are working,” she said. “We just had our best academic year yet, as judged by student evaluations, by a long shot.”
Last fall—the most recent semester for which course evaluations were reviewed in the EPPC report—students gave Frontiers an “overall quality” rating of 3.28, the highest rating the course had ever received. Still, it was significantly lower than the “overall quality” ratings typically received by Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, which have ranged between 4.0 and 4.4 over the last few years.
On the whole, Frontiers’ “overall quality” rating has improved over time, from an average of 2.68 between fall 2004 and fall 2008 to an average of 2.95 between spring 2009 and fall 2012. Student ratings for “seminar leader effectiveness,” meanwhile, have gone up more consistently, from 3.54 in fall 2004 to 4.33 in fall 2012, and lecturer ratings have generally improved as well.
A full breakdown of the Frontiers course evaluation data appears in Appendix 5 of the EPPC report.
“Students value both the lecture and the seminar component of the course, and we find that they give us very high marks for many specific items, such as homework assignments, clarity of expectations, integration of lectures and seminars,” Hughes said.
Frontiers faculty, hoping to measure the success of the changes they have implemented, administered a survey on basic analytic concepts—including statistics, probability, and graph comprehension—to 966 first-years during New Student Orientation Program in the fall of 2012. Students averaged a score of 28 percent on this test.
The survey was then administered again, at the end of the fall semester, to students who had taken Frontiers. This time, the average grade was 76 percent.
Spectator removed a copy of the survey questions and answers from the EPPC report before publication, because the Frontiers faculty plans to re-administer the survey to students when they are seniors, to test for retention of Frontiers material.
“This type of research always has its limitations,” the Frontiers of Science Executive Committee said in an email to first-years in March. “However, the results with and without FoS are so different that the conclusion is inescapable. The scientific habits and knowledge that FoS imparts are new to, and effectively learned by, first year students after one semester of intense study.”
But statistics professor Andrew Gelman, who has not taught Frontiers and was not part of the committee that prepared the report, wasn’t convinced by that conclusion.
While he respected the Frontiers faculty’s effort to measure what students had learned in the course—which, he said, not many professors even attempt—he questioned the survey’s effectiveness in a post on his website last month. Gelman noted that students took the survey during their final exam, meaning both that they had spent time studying and that they were allowed to use their exam cheat sheets.
“It certainly looks like great evidence, but the conditions under which the experiment is done can have large effects,” Gelman said in an interview.
Gelman recommended adding more questions to the survey and using an outside evaluator to create and moderate it in the future.
“The point, especially for a Core class, is to give students new ways of thinking,” Gelman said. “You wouldn’t want the instructors to know what was on the exam, so then you wouldn’t have to worry that they would teach to it.”
“It’s better than doing nothing,” he added. “But I think you really have to be careful about claiming that the students in this program have been a stunning success.”
Whatever changes come to Frontiers, the EPPC and the Frontiers faculty agree that science should continue to play an important role in the Core Curriculum.
“We feel strongly that for students to be exposed to this is just as important as them being exposed to literature, philosophy, art, or music,” Hughes said. “The critical reasoning skills they learn in Frontiers will serve them well in their lives and future careers.”
The EPPC, too, emphasized the importance of keeping Frontiers in the Core—as long as it is structured more like other Core classes.
“So long as Columbia College preserves a distinct core curriculum of seminar courses, we should strive to include a similarly structured science course within that core,” the report says.
It remains unclear just how Frontiers will be reworked, as the EPPC’s recommendations will now reviewed by Valentini, the Committee on Instruction, the Committee on Science Instruction, and the Committee on the Core. The EPPC report advises Valentini to form a working group, made up of Frontiers faculty and faculty from other science departments, which would refine Frontiers and solidify its place in the Core.
“As faculty consider how to make the course more ‘core-like,’ they should also bear in mind the relationship of any specific seminar-based science core course to the science requirement as a whole, asking which aspects of the goals of the science requirement are met through lecture courses and which might be best achieved through a course taught in the seminar format central to the Columbia core experience,” the committee wrote.