Columbia College Dean James Valentini’s committee to revamp Frontiers of Science is meeting and assessing the Educational Policy and Planning Committee’s exhaustive report, which was filed in April 2013. It concluded that Frontiers ought to be changed into a more Core-like component of the Core Curriculum. Although Frontiers, like many introductory science classes, has fallen short of its mission to inspire non-science students to appreciate science, its key objectives remain valuable, and the committee ought to incorporate those values when designing a new course.
Science has a serious public relations problem in general, so it comes as no surprise that many students hold Frontiers in contempt. Evidence of the problem includes the dismal state of math and science education in American K-12 schools, and politicians’ frequent attempts to cut funding for national science programs. Attitudes toward science range from apathetic to fearful to hostile. These attitudes are not unfounded. Schools across the country condition students who do not immediately understand a math or science concept to believe that they are “bad at science,” even if they are perfectly capable of reasoning through complex philosophical arguments or drafting a thoughtful, reasoned literary critique. Science is viewed as an entirely different pedagogical entity. As a result, many non-science students approach Frontiers convinced that they will gain nothing from the experience, or worse, be made to look stupid in front of their peers.
Given these greater systemic problems, the challenges that any science class designed for everyone, from the student whose last math class was Algebra I in ninth grade to the student who co-authored a Nature paper before receiving a high school diploma, must contend with are numerous and enormous.
Some posit that it cannot be done, that the idea of a Core science class should be abandoned in favor of a tiered system that teaches students based on their previous science background. Never mind that we do not segregate Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization, they say. Science is different.
For the sake of science education at every educational level, I argue that we should reject that assumption. I enrolled at Columbia because I wanted to explore literature, philosophy, and the arts through the Core while still getting an excellent science education. It is disheartening that we have yet to find a solution that will do the same for my non-scientific peers: give them an extraordinary taste of the fascinating questions that scientists explore, even if they have no interest in science careers themselves.
The EPPC recommends we do this by discarding Frontiers’ lectures in favor of a twice-weekly seminar. By shifting Frontiers from a lecture-and-content-based class to a reading-and-discussion-based one, we could engage more non-science students in the wonders and mysteries that science probes. A seminar would promote discussion and inquiry that would stimulate and challenge even those who took every Advanced Placement science class the College Board offers. More focus would be placed on primary literature and philosophical examination. If students were assigned readings that they would have to discuss in class, just as they are in other Core courses, then they could be exposed to both foundational texts and ideas, such as a well-written popular science paper that summarizes the discovery and history of gravity, evolution, or the Big Bang, as well a corresponding recent study that highlights contemporary work in a peer-reviewed journal.
Even with a more philosophical bent, the new Core science class should not neglect the importance of quantitative reasoning. Back-of-the-envelope calculations should stay since they require logic and a bit of thought, which are both useful to anyone no matter what a student may study after the first year. So, too, should the lesson that compares “scientific journalism” to actual scientific papers. Too many of my friends still post links to faux science articles for me to be satisfied with the state of the public’s understanding of what constitutes scientific literature.
Frontiers’ designers created the class with several valuable objectives in mind. One was to expose students to contemporary research, the “frontiers” of modern science. This is not commended often enough. The second was to provide basic training in skills like estimation and interpretation of data. Although many students do not like this part, quantitative and reasoning skills are practical and necessary. They should be a component of any new science Core, even if it takes a different form from the current one. Frontiers has yet to achieve the third and potentially most revolutionary aim: to provide a single, uniform science course that would inspire and cohere with the rest of the Core Curriculum. A seminar science course, if crafted thoughtfully, could do just that. The status quo in science education has not succeeded in producing a scientifically literate or appreciative population. It is time for a bold new innovation—dare I say a new “frontier” in science education?
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in environmental biology: ecology and evolution.
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