Frontiers of Science received its highest student evaluation score ever for the Fall 2018 semester, according to course administrators who cited incremental changes that have better catered to the breadth of student academic backgrounds with increased opportunities for interactive engagement.
Historically, students have significantly criticized the course, which is required for all Columbia College first-years and covers four broad areas of science, for its lack of coherence. An early report in 2013 by the Educational Policy and Planning Committee called for a major overhaul of the course, and in 2015, Columbia College Dean James Valentini even formed the Committee on Science in the Core to create an alternate seminar-only course, The Rough Guide to the Universe.
In 2016, a report released by the Committee on Science Instruction criticized the course for not being “Core-like” enough, suggesting that it eliminate the large lecture for seminars like Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, though progress on the alternate course stalled and eventually, it was cancelled altogether.
However, over the past 15 years, the rating of the course based on student evaluations has increased from two and a half to three and a half out of five in Fall 2018, a “really remarkable” improvement, according to Director of Frontiers Ivana Hughes. Fall 2018 saw a 75 percent response rate in course evaluations—also the highest ever, according to David Helfand, co-founder and chair of Frontiers of Science and astronomy professor
“I'm absolutely delighted that it's high; it's at a level I feel really comfortable and happy about. I also don't think it is the be-all-end-all of what the course is doing,” Hughes said.
Helfand added that course instructors currently have an average rating of 4.4 out of five. By nature of the turnover and collaborative input from Frontiers fellows, the course constantly changes its structure based on student and faculty feedback. Frontiers fellow Azadeh Keivani, whose first semester teaching Frontiers was this past fall, attributed the course’s improvement in part to its collaborative nature behind the scenes.
Hughes attributed some of the evaluation increase to learning games in seminars. Last semester saw more varied opportunities for students to engage with the material, including the introduction of the Science Spotlight Lecture Series, which attracted on average above 100 attendees, according to Hughes.
Hunter Holland, CC ’22, who plans to major in astrophysics, enjoyed the course due to the breadth of the topics covered.
“It was a wonderful idea from David Helfand to create a course to give everybody, no matter their major, an introduction to science in general. They chose topics that were timely in today’s culture and significant in terms of who we are as humans,” Holland said.
Despite the breadth of activities and subjects addressed in the course, Krishi Korrapati, CC ’21, who attended a STEM-focused high school and is majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and Economics and Philosophy, described Frontiers as “OK but a little unnecessary” due to a lack of overall direction and purpose.
“There were a lot of menial tasks that we were required to do on the side, like Smart Sparrow,” Korrapati said.
Dustin Rubenstein, an E3B associate professor on his third year lecturing biodiversity for the course, acknowledged this potential for improvement, and said a major goal for the Frontiers leadership moving forward is creating more coherency in the curriculum.
“One of the things we’re going to work towards in the next few years is to make stronger links between the four lecture units. There’s material that comes up in one unit that could be reinforced with a slightly different perspective in another unit,” Rubenstein said.
Going forward, course administrators said they aim to better connect the different units, topics that will continue to change as lecturers cycle through the course. Due to changes in Frontiers lecturers, the four sections of the course—which are currently neuroscience, astrophysics, biodiversity, and earth science—will also likely shift focus to different science units, though they have not currently been decided, according to Helfand.
Helfand also spoke about plans for this spring and the summer to introduce an e-portfolio for the course, which schools including Boston University and Clemson University use to track learning progress.
Outside educational evaluation group Center of Inquiry at Wabash College, which evaluated Lit Hum and CC three years ago, will also provide course instructors with feedback on learning strategies. Their report, commissioned by the Office of the Core Curriculum, is scheduled for release to the Core Committee within the month.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Krishi Korrapati’s major. Spectator regrets this error.