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.
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