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


Back to table of contents
Jerrold Meinwald and John G. Hildebrand
Science in the Liberal Arts Curriculum

Jerrold Meinwald and John G. Hildebrand

In his inaugural address and subsequently, President Barack Obama has called attention to the importance of science for our nation’s future. Our twenty-first-century democratic society depends on broadly distributed scientific understanding to guide its progress. Yet science hardly occupies center stage in American culture. Roughly one-third of recent graduates from America’s colleges and universities majored in the sciences or engineering during their undergraduate years.1 At the graduate level, about 40 percent of doctoral candidates in the sciences and engineering in the United States are from abroad, and many of these students will return to their countries of origin after receiving Ph.D.s.2 While the declining preparation of professional research scientists in the United States is certainly a concern, we face an equally serious problem with respect to the scientific literacy of the entire undergraduate population.

Consider, for example, the findings documented in the revealing and award-winning 1988 film A Private Universe.3 Asked what causes Earth’s seasons and the phases of the moon, twenty-one of the twenty-three randomly selected students, faculty members, and alumni of Harvard University exhibited misconceptions. Ninth-grade students at a nearby inner-city school expressed similar misunderstanding. This film and other studies underscore the need for K-16 education in the United States to do a better job of demystifying and stimulating curiosity about the world around us.

How are we to secure a proper place in our society for science, as President Obama has called for us to do? Reaching this goal will require a massive, extended, multilevel educational effort; notably, it will include strengthening the contribution of science to undergraduate liberal arts curricula. This volume aims to examine some of the reasons why science education for all students is a significant educational objective; to present some views of what we mean by scientific literacy; to describe several imaginative approaches to teaching science for students majoring in any discipline; and to recommend steps that will help faculties and administrators devise undergraduate liberal arts curricula that will equip future generations of graduates to recognize and appreciate the beauty, value, and utility of scientific thought, investigation, and knowledge.

We begin with two essays that make the case for strengthening science education for everyone. Don M. Randel (Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), whose personal scholarly training was in musicology, examines the place of science in the liberal arts curriculum from the point of view of a broadly experienced humanist. His discussion, which stresses the fact that science and the humanities have much more in common than is generally appreciated, sets the stage for the essays that follow and illuminates some of the deepest education all issues facing us today. The essay by Frank H.T. Rhodes (Cornell University) explores the reasons for pursuing scientific literacy from the viewpoint of a scientist (geologist) with exceptionally rich educational experience. He exam ines the evolution of the concept of “liberal arts” and reflects on the five broad areas of concern for undergraduate education: faculty commitment, content, methods, outcomes, and context. His essay underscores two important messages: that a meaningful education must include topics that are relevant to society; and that we should continuously seek ways to improve teaching and learning. These two essays make it abundantly clear that twenty-first-century citizens cannot be considered well educated if they have not acquired a sense that science is key to full participation in and enjoyment of contemporary life.

One objective of science teaching must be to give students examples (and, whenever possible, tangible experience) of how science progresses. In the early stages of any field of science, careful observation and description play a dominant role. Technological discoveries that expanded our ability to observe and describe the world around us have enabled enormous leaps of scientific progress. Dramatic examples include Galileo’s use of the telescope to observe and even to measure the height of mountains on the moon and to observe the multiple moons associated with Jupiter. The invention of the microscope revolutionized our understanding of living things not only by enabling the observation of previously undetected microorganisms, but also by revealing the cellular nature of all organisms. Twentieth-century inventions, such as the radio-telescope and microwave technology, have led directly to the discovery of formerly unimagined astronomical objects, including pulsars and quasars, and provided strong support for the “Big Bang” cosmological theory of the birth of our universe.  The development of advanced deep-sea exploration and collection modules allows us to bring forth new species whose life histories reveal entirely new modes of living. Much of this kind of science has the character of exploration rather than problem-solving. It is often forgotten that science frequently progresses on the basis of discoveries that were not, and could not have been, anticipated.

Driven by curiosity about how a natural phenomenon occurs, and what rules govern it, scientists often follow up on initial discoveries by making further observations of the phenomenon itself. They consider various possible explanations of puzzling observations, testing hypotheses with additional observations or experiments designed to discriminate among the possibilities.  A hypothesis that is not contradicted by any of the known, relevant observations, and especially one that can successfully predict the outcome of thoughtfully designed new experiments, provides a satisfying feeling that the original natural phenomenon is “understood.” In some cases, this knowledge can then be put to use in some valued area of human endeavor. Remember that the pursuit of “useful knowledge” was an important, explicit motivation for the founding of both the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the eighteenth century.

The more we learn about the natural world, the more we realize that much of what we might like to understand remains unknown, waiting to be discovered. Of course, many areas of astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, and biology are well understood. Nevertheless, questions such as why all known living organisms utilize only the same twenty “left-handed” amino acids to make proteins, or how the human brain records, stores, and accesses memories, or what is the nature of the “dark matter” and “dark energy” that constitute the bulk of our universe await elucidation by future investigators. How many undergraduates realize that contemporary scientists are not so much the keepers of vast stores of factual knowledge as they are seekers of a clearer and deeper understanding of how the world around us works? Many pressing questions of worldwide relevance involving applied science—how to control nuclear fusion for sustainable energy production, for example, or how to replenish the world’s supply of fresh water—still need answers.

While there has been extensive discussion of the value of “scientific literacy,” the term has different meanings for different scholars. Eugene H. Levy (Rice University) elaborates on the idea of general education and argues that appropriate core-curriculum science courses are as important for students in the sciences and engineering as they are for future humanists and social scientists. The two essays following Levy’s present distinct approaches to teaching science: one supports a canon of fundamental scientific concepts essential to scientific literacy; the other underscores the importance of teaching goals that lack specificity regarding content. James Trefil (George Mason University) and Robert M. Hazen (Carnegie Institution for Science and George Mason University) make a strong case for imparting to our college population a specific body of knowledge that encompasses the chief intellectual content of the physical and biological sciences. They put forward a carefully assembled list of “twenty great ideas of science” with which they would like all students at institutions of higher learning to be familiar. Not surprisingly, other scientists with different backgrounds favor a somewhat different set of great ideas. Chris Impey (University of Arizona) reflects on some of the challenges and opportunities of teaching science to non-science majors. He emphasizes the importance of teaching the methods of science and the excitement of science through a “learner-centered” environment and inquiry-based teaching practices.

Next, several scientists describe imaginative courses they have designed for general education students. These courses have proved to be successful with their students, and we hope that they may serve as possible models for teachers seeking new approaches to general education instruction.

Richard A. Muller (University of California, Berkeley) offers a course intriguingly titled “Physics for Future Presidents.” He describes a physics curriculum based on his own understanding of aspects of physics that are directly relevant to contemporary, everyday life. While he has also included material on relativity and quantum mechanics, he nevertheless has devised a syllabus that can be taught in a general education context. It is particularly encouraging that this course has turned out to be extremely popular with Berkeley undergraduates, even though it requires students to acquire and work with a large amount of specific, factual material.

Martha P. Haynes (Cornell University) has developed a class that provides its students with a sense of the scientific method and the process of discovery, as well as with a basic set of scientific facts. Through creative writing assignments, students explore, explain, and sometimes defend (in a memo to a senator, for example) how scientific discovery leads to scientific understanding while also learning about concrete astronomical concepts.

 An entirely different, essentially orthogonal view of scientific literacy also has its strong supporters. After all, the case can be made that it may be overly optimistic to expect students majoring in subjects such as English, music, or economics to master even the most basic facts and principles of the physical and biological sciences. It would be fair to admit that even professional scientists are relatively naive about the details in areas of science distant from their particular expertise. Most physicists cannot read with comprehension the primary scientific literature in fields such as molecular biology, immunology, or organic chemistry, each of which utilizes its own highly specialized vocabulary and concepts. Unless science courses were to occupy a major portion of the entire liberal arts curriculum, a broad and deep science canon cannot be transmitted to all undergraduates.

Does this mean that we cannot teach science effectively within a liberal arts curriculum? Not at all! But rather than trying to fill students’ minds with an encyclopedic body of knowledge that they cannot possibly long retain, we can give them a sense of how great (and small) scientific ideas have been, and continue to be, discovered. The National Public Radio classical music program Composer’s Datebook reminds us, “All music was once new.” In the same vein, all our knowledge of the world around us had to be discovered by someone or some group driven by curiosity to find answers to questions that interested them. How do we know, for example, the diameter of Earth, or that Earth revolves about the sun, or that its magnetic field reverses direction periodically, or that it is about 4.5 billion years old? How did we determine the three dimensional molecular structure of disparlure, the remarkable pheromone that attracts a male gypsy moth to a “calling” virgin female gypsy moth from a distance of a kilometer? Or even more simply, how do we know that it is a chemical signal rather than sight, sound, or magnetism that is responsible for this behavioral interaction? Are there similar chemically attractive forces operating between men and women? (The answer to this question is that no one knows with certainty.) Scientific knowledge does not come to us as revealed truth, nor can it be acquired simply by thinking very hard about a problem. Rather, the process of solving scientific problems is often akin to the process by which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes approaches crime mysteries. Careful examination of seemingly disparate clues plays a key role, as does Holmes’s imaginative speculation about the possible significance of these clues. Holmes then constructs and tests his hypotheses by making additional observations or performing carefully designed experiments. The process itself is exciting, intriguing, often frustrating, but ultimately enormously satisfying. In the case of the mystery story, every reader knows this to be the case. After all, we read mysteries or watch them on television or film for recreation! But how many undergraduates realize that this same spirit of curiosity and inquiry is what motivates the astrophysicist, the polymer chemist, or the tropical ecologist when he or she goes into the laboratory or the field each day?

Thus, perhaps we as educators should strive to illustrate how and why scientists may become curious about a particular problem and examine it in great detail, construct and test possible solutions to the problem, and make and then correct mistakes along the way, until finally arriving at a satisfactory answer to the original question. Part of the fun can be the realization that some “evidence” was actually irrelevant, incorrect, or misleading—or that one’s predecessors or competitors arrived at a wrong answer! In any case, a student who has experienced the joy of solving a scientific problem will not soon forget the resulting profound satisfaction.

We could reasonably argue, then, that an understanding of how and why scientists pursue their studies is what we most want students to take away from science courses. That knowledge will help instill a lasting, positive attitude toward the entire endeavor. How might this goal be achieved? One traditional approach depends on an examination and analysis of some historically important discoveries. Many students, however, find this sort of course content to be unappealing, not to say deadly dull. What else might one do?

A highly imaginative general education course in biology, devised and described by Sally G. Hoskins (City College, City University of New York), provides an intriguing example of how students can be guided through the process of contemporary scientific discovery. Her course is based on close examination of both popular accounts of current research and, in select cases, careful reading of the primary scientific literature itself. While most of the contemporary scientific literature would be largely incomprehensible and off-putting to non-science majors, Hoskins has identified examples of research topics that college freshmen can read, understand, analyze, and enjoy. Although students do not emerge from the kind of course she describes with a comprehensive overview of biology, they do gain insight into the character of the scientific world and the actual activities of the men and women who populate it. Many science majors do not attain this depth of understanding of their field until late in their academic careers.

Organic chemistry, the dreaded “orgo” of generations of premedical students, would hardly seem a likely candidate for a general education course. Yet Brian N. Tse (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services), Jon Clardy (Harvard Medical School), and David R. Liu (Harvard University) have cre ated such a course, “Molecules of Life,” a hybrid of organic chemistry, biology, and medicine that aims to demystify the molecular basis of selected life processes. Most important, this team supplements lectures and reading material with genuine (and purposefully low-technology), hands-on laboratory experiences (described as “activities”). With only the simplest facilities, the Harvard students in this course are able to observe an insect sex pheromone (bombykol) in action and to isolate and hold in their hands the DNA from strawberries! Through such activities, words and concepts that may seem abstract and dis tant in readings or lectures take on a direct, concrete meaning. The students gain hands-on experience with materials used by real chemists. Of course, students in a course such as this would hardly be able to devise a synthesis of testosterone or insulin. However, they would know what is involved in isolating and characterizing biologically and medically important compounds from an organismal source, and they would recognize that this sort of chemistry is not learned solely by memorizing hundreds of structures and reactions.

Each of the classes described above typically focuses on a defined scientific subject area. A multidisciplinary introductory course is rare. However, as Darcy B. Kelley (Columbia University) explains, a group of faculty at Columbia has developed such a course that is now a requirement for all incoming freshmen. “Frontiers of Science” was created to develop the critical thinking skills arguably necessary to be scientifically literate, as well as to kindle interest in the latest discoveries in a variety of fields. Without a single theme, this course challenges faculty to teach across disciplines, while demonstrating to the students the analytical skills that are relevant to all fields.

Finally, we acknowledge the difficulty of assessing the success of any educational endeavor. All teachers want to know, “Am I doing this right?” Students certainly can demonstrate what they have learned, and what problems they can solve, in a final examination. Students can be asked to write a term paper that would reflect their ability to read, evaluate critically, and present in coherent, well-organized prose information on some scientific topic, either assigned by their teacher or of their own choosing. Institutions strive to teach scientific reasoning yet often do not assess whether graduates have acquired these skills. Diane Ebert-May (Michigan State University), Elena Bray Speth (Saint Louis University), and Jennifer L. Momsen (North Dakota State University) draw attention to the gap between teaching goals and assessments and what actually occurs in the classroom. Using the goals, outcomes, and assessment tools developed at Michigan State, they demonstrate through their own course how a variety of teaching techniques can be used to align what universities expect students to know with how teachers teach.

Several of our authors present encouraging evidence of what their students have learned as a consequence of taking their courses, and how the students’ views of science have grown more positive. It will take time to ascertain objectively the long-range benefit of an educational endeavor. For example, Impey’s essay examines a host of developing educational tools and points to techniques that should enhance educational success. It is true that many science faculty members, especially those at research universities, have not taken advantage of what can be learned from colleagues in the field of education who are experts in teaching techniques and learning skills. In designing courses for twenty-first-century curricula, faculty members would do well to familiarize themselves with current pedagogical research.

Another question that might be asked is how much scientific knowledge is retained five or ten years after graduation? Jon D. Miller (University of Michigan) presents some interesting facts (some sobering, some encouraging) about what he describes as civic scientific literacy. He emphasizes the importance of developing a set of measures that reflect the acquisition of basic scientific constructs that are likely to be useful to students and adults over the course of a lifetime. He then presents data on how science courses may have impacted civic scientific literacy and explores other factors as well. Miller’s data point to some provocative results, including an apparent contradiction between the idea that “scientific literacy is about acquiring the tools to make sense of science and technology in the future” and the idea that “acquiring a core vocabulary of basic scientific constructs can confer a distinct advantage on adults who use emerging information technologies to become and remain informed about scientific matters.” Miller argues that advancing scientific literacy is necessary to preserve our society.


In his Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley describes three contrasting pathways to religious enlightenment and suggests that depending on one’s body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), one of these three pathways is more likely to function effectively. The various approaches explored in this volume make clear that there is also no single path to attaining an appreciation and understanding of science. Each approach has its particular strengths (and weaknesses), and individual students will respond best to different approaches. Furthermore, there is no one, unique “scientific method” by which we gain understanding of the universe. (In most fields, exploration, description, and discovery precede hypothesis-driven research.) Nor, for that matter, is there one, universally accepted definition of “scientific literacy.” Different modes of teaching (emphasizing lectures, group discussions, problem-solving sessions, actual or virtual laboratory experimentation, reading the primary scientific literature, writing about science, and so on) may be preferred, depending on student interest, motivation, and ability, as well as on a school’s educational philosophy, facilities, faculty time and motivation, and costs, among other factors.

What has become absolutely clear to us is that:

(1) There is widespread interest in and beyond the academic community in strengthening science education at the college level; and

(2) Many genuinely novel approaches to science teaching (some of which are described in this volume) have been devised by dedicated teachers and are being successfully pursued.

Consequently, we can be optimistic about making realistic recommendations that could contribute significantly to the science literacy of American citizens.

To start, we recommend two one-semester courses of the Trefil/Hazen persuasion to provide students with basic grounding in the fundamentals of physical and biological scientific knowledge. These courses need to be very carefully planned; they are not simply the introductory biology or chemistry courses designed to prepare students for further studies in these specific disciplines. Two additional one-semester courses emphasizing how scientific knowledge has been successfully gained in the past, and how much more remains to be discovered, should suffice to give students an appreciation of the opportunities as well as the intellectual and practical rewards that can be expected to follow from the ongoing pursuit of scientific research. Assuming that a typical four-year college curriculum consists of thirty-two one-semester courses, our recommendation would devote just less than 15 percent of a student’s efforts (four courses), taken during the first two years of an undergraduate curriculum, to studying the sciences. We believe that expecting anything less of students attending a typical college of arts and sciences borders on educational irresponsibility. If properly planned and taught, a curriculum enriched by a set of science courses that have been designed for all liberal arts students, independent of their major interests, would go a long way toward producing the scientifically literate, well-educated population that is essential for America to retain the leadership position it has enjoyed in the past.


1. Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 (Arlington, Va.: National Science Board, 2008).

2. This figure includes both temporary and permanent resident visas; see Science and Engineering Indicators 2008.

3. Matthew H. Schneps and Philip M. Sadler, A Private Universe (Pyramid Films, 1988).