Science and the Educated American: A Core Component of Liberal Education


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Jerrold Meinwald and John G. Hildebrand
Science in the Liberal Arts Curriculum

An idea for a new approach to science teaching unexpectedly grew out of my experience at several small faculty dinner parties. More than once, I found myself responding to “and what do you do?” by explaining that my research, at the interface between chemistry and biology, was largely focused on exploring how various organisms (mostly insects and other arthropods) use chemistry to defend themselves and to communicate with the outside world.

A simple example I might cite was our discovery that a handsome local millipede (Apheloria corrugata) defends itself by secreting a mixture of deadly hydrogen cyanide and benzaldehyde when disturbed. In a short time, this topic might be followed by a somewhat lengthier explanation of how a female Florida Queen butterfly relies on a chemical signal provided by a courting male in selecting a mate. Her choice of a partner, it turns out, is based on the male’s ability to provide chemical protection for her eggs (rendering them unpalatable to egg predators such as lady bugs). The male obtains this protective chemical from toxic plants (Crotalaria spp.) and incorporates it into a spermataphore, which is transferred to the female during mating. In courtship, the male “informs” the female of his defender status by applying a courtship pheromone, which he produces from the toxin itself, to her antennae. If a male lacks the toxin, he cannot synthesize the courtship pheromone, and the female will most likely evade his advances. Most listeners are intrigued by this example of chemical communication in nature.

What struck me about these interchanges was that I was actually explaining the first recognized example of Darwin’s sexual selection based on a chemical signal to a thoroughly engaged audience whose primary interests were in subjects as diverse as music, economics, or ancient history. Without the benefit of a blackboard, slides, or props of any sort, my fellow diners became truly interested in this narration, and they came away with a new understanding of some previously unsuspected roles of chemistry in nature.

That a group of humanists and social scientists expressed interest in chemistry during casual conversation over a glass of wine provided a clue as to how we might teach chemistry and biology to a large body of undergraduate students whose own primary interests are not necessarily in science. These considerations led me to develop an unconventional chemistry course at Cornell University, with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as well as the Henry and Camille Dreyfus Foundation and the National Science Foundation. I called the course “The Language of Chemistry,” a phrase used by Arthur Kornberg in his 1989 autobiography, For the Love of Enzymes. Designed as a lecture course with a built-in writing requirement—with no prerequisites or laboratory component —it could nevertheless be used to fulfill part of the science requirement for students in the Cornell College of Arts and Sciences. “The Language of Chemistry” made no attempt to survey the entire field. Instead, it demonstrated, via carefully selected case studies, exactly how chemists have studied a variety of biological phenomena and have ultimately attained a deep understanding of these phenomena at the molecular level. Students came to appreciate why molecular structures are important and learned how those structures can be determined. As part of the course, they also studied an area of chemistry/biology on their own and wrote an essay explaining this body of science to a lay reader.1

During a subsequent sabbatical leave, which I spent as a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I explored further the general question of what sort of scientific education our country’s college undergraduates actually receive. In August 2007, a workshop was held at the House of the Academy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A group of roughly forty participants, comprising physical and biological scientists as well as college and university administrators, met to discuss the importance to our society of incorporating a substantial science component in the “liberal arts” curriculum, and to learn about some highly original approaches to science teaching that several of our faculty participants, from a variety of institutions of higher learning, were pursuing. At an early stage in preparing for this exercise, I had asked my good friend John G. Hildebrand (Regents Professor of Neurobiology with joint appointments in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Entomology, and Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson) to join me in organizing the workshop. Following the workshop, we solicited and edited the essays collected in this volume, some of which describe and expand on material presented at the meeting, and some of which were written by nonparticipants whose expertise we sought to broaden the scope of the volume.

Our hope is that these essays will stimulate and perhaps even inspire colleagues involved in undergraduate education to devise courses and curricula that are particularly suited to developing science literacy in all their students. We look forward to a widespread reexamination and reevaluation of the contents as well as the methods of presentation employed in science courses designed to be of interest and value to all. Clearly, we need offerings that students will enjoy rather than dread. We need to provide undergraduates with insights and understanding of the scientific enterprise that will serve them well throughout their lives. Ideally, we would like to help our institutions of higher learning produce successive generations of students who see science for what it is: a creative, exciting, adventurous, and at the same time, profoundly useful human endeavor!

Jerrold Meinwald
Goldwin Smith Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, Cornell University
Cochair, American Academy Project on Science in the Liberal Arts Curriculum


1. For a detailed account of the course, which also incorporated a significant writing component, see Stacey Lowery Bretz and Jerrold Meinwald, “The Language of Chemistry: Using Case Studies to Teach on a ‘Need-to-Know’ Basis,” Journal of College Science Teaching 31 (4) (2002): 220–224.