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

Chapter 2: Science as a Liberal Art

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

Frank H.T. Rhodes


To our forebears, the goals of a university education were simple and succinct. Its purpose was, in the words of John Henry Newman in the mid-nineteenth century, to prepare a man (inevitably so in those days) “to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.” Newman concluded:

Such an education should include the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, so that it produces an inward endowment, a habit of mind of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom. (Newman, 1996; 126)

The task of the nineteenth-century faculty member was equally clear: to produce “not a book, but a man” (Pattison, 1892; 435). To Newman, the task was “training good members for society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world” (Newman, 1996; 125).

Newman’s university offered no place, no provision, and scant respect for the professions. Science, though it existed, survived on sufferance and was present on, but peripheral to, the campus. The arts—liberal, traditional, scholarly—were not only a part of the university, they were the university. The arts formed and shaped the gentleman, and the gentleman—informed, humane, reflective, enlightened—defined, shaped, and embodied the professions.


The university has become far more complex since Newman’s day, far more inclusive in its membership, far more comprehensive in its component programs, and far more engaged in contemporary society. The university now has not only many more students, departments, sponsors, and patrons but also many more goals and many more demands on its services. It also has many more critics.

We live today at a time of less conviction and less clarity than did Newman in the mid-nineteenth century, and nowhere is that lack of clarity and conviction more apparent than in the contemporary university. Drew Gilpin Faust,president of Harvard, recently reflected on the university’s struggle “to meet almost irreconcilable demands: to be practical as well as transcendent; to assist immediate material needs and to pursue knowledge for its own sake; to both add value and question values.” Noting the steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and the corresponding increase in preprofessional majors—especially business, which accounts for twice as many bachelor’s degrees as any other field—Faust urged universities to respond to the need of individuals and societies for “meaning, understanding and perspective as wellas jobs” (Faust, 2009; 1–2).

Faust is not alone in her criticism. Derek Bok, a previous Harvard president, has been equally forceful. The title of one of his recent books is Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Bok, 2006). Bok concludes that undergraduate education is less good than it could be, especially in such areas as writing, critical thinking, quantitative skills, and moral reasoning. Some of the very areas in which many colleges tend to celebrate their success—cultural appreciation and preparation for effective citizenship, for example—are areas where a substantial majority of graduating seniors feel that they have made little progress during their college years. And all this at a time when more and more courses are piled onto the curriculum and less and less attention is devoted to effective learning.

Nor are these two distinguished educational leaders alone in their concerns. A spate of books published over the last two decades reflects a wide range of concerns. (See the following for a sampling from varying viewpoints: Anderson, 1992; Barba, 1995; Bowen, Chingos & McPherson, 2009; Bowen & Shapiro, 1998; D’Souza, 1991; Ehrenberg, 1997, 2006; Hersh & Merrow, 2005; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005; Rhodes, 2001, 2010; Smith, 1990; Sykes,1988.) The tone of most of these reviews is critical, most constructively so. The danger of such studies, however, is that criticism of undergraduate teaching and learning is liable to be so preoccupied with imperfection and the need for improvement that it overlooks or undervalues much that is already good. In countless institutions across the country—community colleges, technical institutes, liberal arts colleges, universities of all sizes and kinds, both public and private —one can find much that is good and some that is admirable. Devoted instructors—from graduate teaching assistants and part-time lecturers to the most senior chaired professors—provide not only conscientious teaching but also inspired learning for vast numbers of the nation’s students. To raise concerns is not to criticize what is: it is rather to ask if what is already good could be better.

Though most discussions within the academy tend to focus largely on courses and their content, the criticisms of the more knowledgeable writers about the undergraduate learning experience tend to reflect wider public concerns that involve five broad areas of undergraduate education:

  • The commitment of faculty members to teaching and learning;
  • The content of teaching and learning, especially the overall curriculum;
  • The methods of teaching and learning;
  • The context of teaching and learning; and
  • The outcome of teaching and learning.

Some of these concerns arise chiefly in the case of student experience at so-called research universities, but most exist also in other institutions.

Faculty Commitment to Teaching and Learning

The concern that faculty are less than fully committed to active participation in effective undergraduate education is widespread and is expressed in several forms. All such critiques, however, deplore the neglect of personal engagement and the dwindling participation by significant numbers of faculty members, many of whom are viewed as regarding research and graduate teaching as more significant and more rewarding than undergraduate teaching. This dwindling commitment is reflected in several ways:

  • Large and impersonal introductory courses, especially in such “gateway” preprofessional areas as chemistry;
  • The widespread use of “unskilled” graduate student teaching assistants or part-time lecturers for much formal instruction;
  • The quality of both lecture presentations and lab exercises;
  • The “impersonality” of the classroom, together with the absence of meaningful opportunity for student-faculty interaction;
  • The lack of adequate office hours for student advising, guidance, and career counseling; and
  • The sharp line of separation between “the classroom experience” and every other aspect of student campus life.

Some of these concerns are related to campus size—many liberal arts colleges provide better integration of living and learning than do larger institutions— but, in one form or another, the concerns listed are widespread.

The Content of Teaching and Learning: The Character of the Curriculum

Although the form and content of the curriculum differ from institution to institution, few seem satisfied with the curriculum as it now stands. Perhaps few ever were, but present concerns are deeply felt and range widely. Overall, critics are frustrated by a lack of cohesion and articulation and by what is seen as a failure to consider and explore meaningful relationships and implications between the disciplines or even, sometimes, between courses within a single discipline. Graduation requirements, the critics assert, have come to represent the passive accumulation of 120 credit hours of almost randomly selected or required courses, each existing in silo-like isolation from all the rest. Nor is this fragmented pattern of learning confined to so-called general education, because even within a chosen major discipline students complain of a narrow disciplinary territorialism among some faculty members, leading them to promote and defend their own particular scholarly niche with little regard for its context and relationships.

A gap is growing, some critics argue, between the lofty rhetoric of the college catalog and the dreary reality of the student experience. Far from being a bold map for the joint exploration of unknown terrain, the curriculum has become, so some critics assert, a battleground for subdisciplinary imperialism. Nowhere do these concerns run deeper than in the humanities and social sciences, where criticism of “political correctness” is widespread. Rightly or wrongly, the university’s sternest critics see the university as having become a place of narrow indoctrination, required cultural relativism, and fashionable inconclusiveness.

Perhaps one of the most startling findings of some criticism is how little is known of the relative merits of different concepts of the curriculum and its content. For faculties devoted to inquiry and discovery, this is a remarkable but discouraging gap. Conclusions on the outcome of curriculum selection remain largely speculative.

Methods of Teaching and Learning

If what is taught has become a matter of concern, the question of how learning takes place has become an even more widespread and urgent concern. Though more is known about effective pedagogy than about the results of curriculum choice, numbers of writers conclude that the existing faculty emphasis on undergraduate teaching, such as it is, is misplaced and that more attention should be devoted to student learning rather than teaching. The goal and outcome of a successful undergraduate experience, the critics argue, should be learning, to which teaching makes a major contribution. But teaching is the means, not the end, of education. Learning is the product of education and teaching is but one means—though a significant one. To devote faculty time to tinkering with course requirements, to the neglect, some argue, of the learning outcomes associated with them, may be as inappropriate as the preoccupation and reimbursement of hospitals for length of patient stay rather than the beneficial results of patient care. The emphasis on teaching as an end in itself, rather than a means of learning, reflects a wider neglect of interest in pedagogy. The heavy reliance on the conventional lecture format—representing, some critics argue, almost everything that is the antithesis of what we know about the best methods of effective learning—is an unhappy example.

The work of my colleague Stephen L. Sass, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Cornell, provides a striking example of the relationship between method, content, and outcome. Sass relates the following anecdote:

Spring had come to Ithaca—for the second or third time that year—with mild temperatures melting the mounds of grimy snow, snowdrops peeping through here and there, and V’s of Canada geese honking exuberantly overhead on their journey northward. I was giving a lecture to my sophomore-level materials science class at Cornell. A glance at the students told me I was losing them in the haze of an April morning. I wondered what I could do to prop open their spring-heavy eyelids. I had been talking about the heat treatment of steel. In an act of desperation and hope, I abandoned my course notes.

“Isn’t it remarkable,” I asked, “that just a sprinkle of charcoal, which we use in our backyard barbeques, changes iron into steel, and transforms a weak metal into a strong one? And isn’t it lucky that both iron and charcoal are so cheap? What form would our world take without iron and steel?”

The change in my voice caused a few eyes to open. One student replied. “Well it’s hard to imagine a Corvette without iron and steel.”

“And of course sports cars are the highest expression of civilization,” I teased the student. “In addition to your car,” I continued, “our great cities would not exist today.” (Sass, 1998; 1)

Sass’s approach to teaching, and also, I would suppose, his student’s experience in learning, was transformed on that April morning. He decided later, he told me, to “tell stories” in his class to illustrate the linkage of the material he was describing. One result of that transformation was the publication of a remarkable book, The Substance of Civilization, in which Sass explores the relationships between materials and the progress of nations. “History,” he concludes, “is an alloy of the materials we have invented or discovered, manipulated, used and abused, and each has its tale to tell” (Sass, 1998; 6).

Inevitably, some concerns about method reflect differences of opinion unsupported by meaningful data. Others, however, do not. Thus, Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson (2009), in reporting the results of a comprehensive study of two hundred thousand student records from sixty-eight public colleges and universities, conclude that only about half of those who enroll for a baccalaureate degree graduate within six years. Among the most counterintuitive aspects of the study, the authors discovered that students with comparable qualifications, such as similar high school grade point average (GPA) and SAT scores, are significantly less likely to graduate from the less selective public institutions than from the more selective. Thus, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has a graduation rate of 88 percent; Michigan State, 74 percent; Western Michigan, 54 percent; and Eastern Michigan, 39 percent for students in the same high school GPA and SAT achievement cohort (Bowen, Chingos & McPherson, 2009, as reported in Leonhardt, 2009). Nor is this concern only of “purely academic” interest. Leonhardt, in reviewing this study, suggests that public universities should be included, together with Wall Street firms, regulatory agencies, and the Big Three automakers in “the list of organizations whose failures have done the most damage to the American economy in recent years.” Leonhardt quotes Mark Schneider’s description of such universities with low graduation rates as “failure factories” (Leonhardt, 2009).

The Outcome of Teaching and Learning

Two other concerns about the outcome of undergraduate learning seem to extend across the spectrum of institutional varieties. Assessment of student performance is seen as less professional, less meaningful, and less useful than it could or should be. Grade inflation—though pervasive—is but one aspect of this. Studies show that over the last half-century the percentage of As and Bs awarded at universities and colleges has steadily increased. Thus, in 1950 about 15 percent of Harvard students received a grade of B+ or better. Today, the figure is nearly 70 percent. Merrow (2004) reported that 50 percent of grades at Harvard were either A or A-, up from 22 percent in 1966; 91 percent of Harvard’s seniors graduated with honors. Nor is Harvard alone in this. Eighty percent of grades at the University of Illinois are As and Bs. All this when over the last thirty years SAT scores of entering students have declined. Grade inflation has become so pervasive that some graduate and professional school admissions officers and corporate employers now require criteria other than (or in addition to) GPA in assessing student performance.

But beyond the grades and grade point averages is a larger concern with current student assessment practices: no clear agreement exists among, or even within, the universities as to what assessment means, what it measures, on what it is based, how it is to be judged, or how it should be used or even understood.Perhaps in no other professional area is the evaluation of both outcome and performance a matter of such ambiguity.

Another concern about outcome of undergraduate learning is also widespread: increasing numbers of recent graduates appear to lack the basic skills involved in oral and written communication and in simple analytical comparisons. In a recent survey of employers, only about one-quarter of four-year college graduates were perceived to be excellent in many of the most important skills, and more than one-quarter of four-year college graduates were perceived to be deficiently prepared in written communications (Barrington Casner-Lotto, 2006).

A comparable dissatisfaction exists among a majority of graduating seniors. Lack of student skill in such broad areas reflects a lack of faculty attention to the responsibility for the cultivation of these basic skills, which extend across departmental and disciplinary boundaries.

Alongside this particular concern for the development of student competence in these important areas is a concern for the virtual absence of any serious longitudinal study of comprehensive and cumulative learning outcomes at the undergraduate level. Even the criteria and tools of such measurement, evaluation, and comparison have yet to be agreed on and developed.

There are serious potential consequences of this institutional inattention to these aspects of professional assessment. If institutions decline to accept responsibility for such studies, other external bodies may well be tempted to do so.

One other aspect of assessment is institutions’ neglect of any published self-analyses of their own performance and results and their level of success in relation to that of their peers. Institutional “rankings” developed by external groups, though now widespread, remain generally unpopular with the institutions themselves, for reasons that vary from one institution to another. So unpopular have these rankings become with one group of institutions that they have agreed to deny external access to the institutional data on which the published rankings are based. Serious interest and analysis, such as it is, is left to U.S. News and World Report, The Times, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, all of which publish university rankings. Yet, though universities stoutly complain about the basis and value of such rankings, they equally stoutly resist any suggestion that they themselves should prepare studies that would allow some public assessment of their performance and provide some measure of public comparison and accountability.

The Context of Teaching and Learning

Universities came into existence so that scholars could enjoy the benefits of community learning, rather than study in shuttered isolation. From the first, these learning communities were international in their membership, cooperative in their learning, and heavily influenced by the leadership and choices of their students. In some of the earliest twelfth- and thirteenth-century learning communities, students jointly selected and individually compensated their instructors. Learning was a group experience, and the responsibility for the content and style of learning rested largely with the students. This history gives added poignancy to the complaint that group learning has become rare, or even absent, in the experience of many undergraduates. Group study sections, lab project teams, class community service partnerships, and undergraduate cooperative research projects tend, in some institutions, to be the exception rather than the rule. However, group learning can be used successfully in most, possibly all, courses and disciplines.

The recapture of a more active student role in learning today requires faculty leadership and support. A large gateway course in physics, for example, can be revitalized by the introduction of inquiry-based cooperative projects, but these will succeed only with faculty initiative and active engagement.

This nurture of cooperation and widening of interest can be encouraged still further by its linkage—direct or indirect—to every other aspect of campus life: by linkage to plays, movies, speakers, events, clubs, and community projects of all kinds. What is required is imaginative leadership and creative discussions between faculty and students, as well as between faculty members. Not only students will benefit from such discussions. Faculty members themselves sometimes complain about the lack of departmental support or encouragement for such “added” engagement, and they are probably correct in this. That is why, both within individual departments and between schools and colleges, someone must be given the responsibility and the resources to encourage and reward this more active community learning. Reciprocity and cooperation among students, as Chickering and Gamson (1987) noted, are among the best means of effective learning.

These educational complaints are added to the longer, more general list of “demands” that come from social critics of the university. Broadly categorized, the demands include calls for greater inclusiveness, more effective teaching, more creative learning environments, research that is more useful, more social benefits to the local community, more relevance to the job market, more public accountability, more responsiveness to social needs, and even, sometimes, more-competitive athletic teams: in fact, more of everything, except cost and price, which, all critics agree, should be reduced.

Few are satisfied with the contemporary university. Perhaps in our age that is inevitable, as the university is now suspended between Newman’s nineteenth-century ideal of reflective scholarly detachment and our twenty-first-century society’s reluctant search for sustainability and urgent pleas for social engagement.

Any discussion of the place of science in the undergraduate curriculum must be a part of the larger discussion of the concerns about and the goals of the undergraduate experience. To neglect what even the most informed and sympathetic spokespersons for universities and colleges have to say about the larger situation in undergraduate education would be to ignore the context in which science can play a role. It would ignore, too, the possibility that science can make a useful contribution to addressing at least some of the discontents these concerns represent.

Consider, for example, the concern that too much emphasis is given to teaching rather than learning, to imparting information rather than encouraging discovery. Nothing in science is “given”; each so-called fact is the fruit of a hard-won discovery that is itself the product of a personal inquiry, an individual experiment, a persistent interrogation of nature. What better medium could we have, what better context, for the spirit and style of learning we seek to cultivate?

To such concerns and demands as these the faculty may well respond that budgets are tight, that the pressures of other tasks are great, that appreciation of and support for devoted teaching is generally lacking within the university. These responses are often justified. But better teaching and improved learning are not inherently more costly than merely adequate teaching and uninspired learning, whereas the rewards, in both student success and faculty fulfillment, are great. Department chairs and college deans will appreciate and support devoted teaching if and when those in positions of senior leadership and influence—the president, provost, and especially the trustees—recognize the need and reward the response. The need and opportunity for such leadership has never been greater.


Many of the concerns over the undergraduate experience arise because of a lack, on many campuses, of any meaningful agreement on the goals of an undergraduate education. Reading the average college catalog reveals a remarkable degree of homogeneity between institutions, of bland generalizations expressed in a twenty-first-century version of Newmanesque rhetoric and exhortation but containing precious few particulars. One wonders how the average college applicant distinguishes one college from another, except for the carefully crafted fine print of graduation requirements. And sadly, it is in these requirements that the true nature of the particular university is most clearly seen.

No broad universal agenda for the goals of undergraduate education will be appropriate for every campus. Such goals must be a homegrown product, reflective of institutional character and purpose, the collective expertise and considered values of the faculty, and the available resources, facilities, and student body of the campus. But, at a minimum, a meaningful curriculum should address the need to nurture among all students:

  • A sense of curiosity and self-confidence, together with the skills to satisfy the first and justify the second;
  • A sense of proportion and context in understanding the worlds of nature and society;
  • A degree of mastery in one chosen area, together with an understanding of its modes of thought, its assumptions, and its relationships;
  • An openness to others, with a commitment to responsible membership in a diverse community; and
  • A sense of personal direction, with the self-discipline, skills, and values to pursue it.

Others will, no doubt, suggest alternative goals, and they must be considered and pursued campus by campus. But some objectives there must be, for without some goals education withers. Developing such aims, describing their relative merits, exploring the best means of achieving them: these are the demanding but critical tasks of the faculty of every institution. Not all faculties will choose to devote themselves seriously to addressing these issues. But they must, and we need the best minds of the faculty to be engaged in the task.


If, then, we accept the concept of a liberal education that enables men and women to develop the capacity to understand and evaluate competing viewpoints and ultimately to embrace a cohesive worldview, a meaningful moral code, and a reasoned openness to new knowledge and alternative viewpoints, together with the commitment and competence to contribute to society, what place does or should science have in such a scheme? What role should it play?

By science, I mean not only the physical and biological sciences and mathematics, but also the applied sciences and engineering, as well as the social sciences in their broadest sense. Science serves a liberal end to the extent that it opens to us an understanding of the universe in which we dwell, of the remarkable planet on which we live and depend, of its origin and its history, of its robustness and its fragility, of its components and resources, of its variety and its unity, of its systems and its workings, of its regularity and its unpredictability. Such science introduces us to Earth’s inhabitants and their evolution, to our ancestors and our teeming contemporaries, to the growth of communities and their interactions, to the effects of migration and isolation, to our behavior, to our prospects, to our cooperation, and to our competition.

In a unique sense, the sciences introduce us to ourselves, to our fellow inhabitants, and to our dwelling place. Far from competing with the insights we derive from the humanities, the sciences complement, supplement, and enrich the intimations and insights into our nature and our society that the humanities provide.

Nor is the particular insight that the sciences provide purely technical. At its best, science gives glimpses of rare beauty and fresh understanding. An artist painting a sunset, a traveler crossing a mountain range, a sculptor carving a figure, a musician creating a new composition, a writer describing a character, and a citizen voting in an election will each gain new perspective and richer understanding from within the contemplation the sciences provoke.

But courses like Physics for Poets, useful as they are, do not exhaust the educational value of the sciences. We need excellent courses like Physics for Poets, but we also need excellent classes like Physics for Physicists and Chemistry for Physicians, Mathematics for Architects and Sociology for Engineers. We need them because the sciences represent the essential foundation of so many areas of professional practice and modern life, from engineering to agriculture, from public health to regional planning, from manufacturing to medicine. And science is equally entwined with most areas of public policy, from opinion polls to conflict resolution, from communications to national defense. Everywhere, in every area, our lives not only intersect with the practice and fruits of science; they depend upon it.

So we need not only a sound public comprehension of science, but also a strong grounding in the sciences for the growing numbers whose professional careers involve the daily application of scientific principles. But this grounding, though it must be unsparingly rigorous, should also provide more than useful formulae and applicable equations. Much more, in fact: it should enrich the understanding of its practitioners just as the science offerings do for the non-scientist, providing just the same sense of relatedness, beauty, wonder, and enlightenment for the engineer as it does for the philosopher or the politician. The worst outcome of a division between general and professional science courses would be a separation between “soft” appreciation and “hard” but thoughtless application. Appreciation is as essential for those involved in the task of application as is the understanding of application for those seeking appreciation. A successful and sustainable society needs both.

Nor is this essential complementarity a matter only of educational significance. The practice of science at its most advanced level requires such a combination of approaches. Most fundamental research in science is undertaken not with an eye to its immediate usefulness or the benefits of its practical application, but with an eye to its value in satisfying personal curiosity and increasing individual understanding. Roald Hoffmann, for example, is a distinguished Cornell professor who was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his idea that chemical transformations could be approximately predicted from the subtle symmetries or asymmetries of electron orbitals in complex molecules. He was inspired in his work by the beauty of the resulting structures, not by their utility, but his work has subsequently enabled others to synthesize a whole range of useful compounds.

The burgeoning field of biotechnology, which has proven widely applicable (in agriculture and many other areas), was established on basic research conducted some thirty to forty years earlier and with little thought given to its wider application.

Less benign, but no less significant, the Manhattan Project, which hastened the end of World War II, depended on discoveries in basic physics made decades before.

A “liberal education” is too valuable to be limited to “liberal arts students”; it should be the experience of all students, whatever their chosen field of study. The realization of the relationship between our need for both enlightened understanding and useful application of knowledge is not new. The English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in Novum Organum in 1620:

from experience of every kind, first endeavor to discover the true cause and axioms; and seek for experiments of Light, not for experiments of Fruit. For axioms, rightly discovered and established, supply practice with its instruments, not one by one, but in clusters and draw after them trains and troops of works. (Bacon, 2005; 71)

But can a liberal approach be useful in presenting “real” science? I believe it can, though this approach should not replace or diminish either rigor or the unapologetic incorporation of the “basic facts” and “hard data.”

When I was a professor of geology at the University of Michigan, I used to take my students on one or two field excursions every year. These varied from a weekend camping trip in the Appalachians for freshmen to a six-week field-mapping camp in Wyoming for geology majors. Another field excursion involved a group of thirty or so beginning students who traveled to Britain for three weeks to explore the geology of that country, where much of the initial work was done to establish the scale of geologic time. These students formed a varied group comprising arts and science majors of every kind: premed, engineering, architecture, literature, and foreign languages. Our scientific goal was to understand something of the development of the concept of the immensity of geologic time, based on the rocks, structures, and fossils we studied in the field. We explored the ancient rocks of Scotland’s Northwest Highlands; the coalfields of England; the layered rocks of Wales, where Sedgwick and Murchison did battle; Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point, where a whole new view of Earth’s history was established; and the richly fossiliferous rocks of the Dorset coast, where the remains of prehistoric reptiles and marine invertebrates bear silent testimony to the reality of evolutionary change. In addition to each day’s fieldwork, each student was required to present during an evening group discussion a paper on the influence of geology and topography on some other major topic: the extent of the Roman invasion, the development of English scenery, the location of industry, the novels of Hardy, the poems of Wordsworth, the paintings of Turner, the sculptures of Moore, the pattern of agriculture, the location of breweries, the building stones and architecture of cathedrals, the materials of the Industrial Revolution, the development of railroads, the form of cities, and so on. The study of geology in the field was enlivened and enriched by this wider set of interests and relationships.

Any course, anywhere, offers comparable possibilities for linkage and enrichment. Experimental learning and linkage are among the most powerful and enduring methods of creating understanding.

Although reductionism is the lifeblood of science and its methodology, both the best teaching and the most fruitful application of science require a degree of integrative thinking. Here the arts in all their richness can provide fruitful stimulation and essential complementarity.


The goal of teaching science in the undergraduate curriculum should be to develop in all students a degree of interest in, broad understanding of, and insight into the world in which we live, in all its richness, variety, and fullness: physical, biological, and social. This is the goal for all students, whatever their scholarly interests or professional aspirations. And for those intending to pursue careers in science or science-based professions, the larger goal should be to provide an appropriately rigorous introduction to the practice of science, together with some understanding of its history, its methods, its assumptions, its relationships, its ambiguities, its challenges, and its social linkages.

These are ambitious objectives, far removed from the traditional Physics 101 and Chemistry 202 courses of most campuses. They are also demanding goals, not only for students, but still more for faculty members, not all of whom will be enthusiastic with the suggestion of such new breadth. But these aims will be good for education, good for our society, good for our students, and good for science. How else can we prepare our students for productive lives in a world where social and ethical questions loom so large and are so intertwined with scientific theory and technological practice?

But how does one achieve such goals? What sort of mix of courses should be offered? What should be required? What should be the content of such courses as these? What educational approach should they embody? The papers that follow in this volume provide striking and successful examples of such courses and approaches, but to propose the adoption of a uniform curriculum would be as unwise as it would be impractical. The curriculum has to be locally designed and developed. No curriculum can be one-size-fits-all. How could it be? Models developed elsewhere will be helpful, and experience in comparable situations will provide insight, but local faculties, working together, must create, refine, and provide the curriculum. The most distinctive thing about any institution should be, and generally is, the curriculum and how it is taught. The curriculum is where students’ expectations are fulfilled, students’ careers are established, and students’ lives are enriched.


The papers that follow represent a rich variety of effective methods of teaching science. Other workshop reports, teaching outlines, and discussions of the methods of teaching science to undergraduates are readily available. So, let me offer not a review of methods, but a few thoughts on obstacles to effective science teaching and some suggestions on style.

Four obstacles frequently discourage many non-science students from pursuing science courses: terminological submergence, factual inundation, mathematical intimidation, and laboratory trivialization.

Terminological submergence arises because of the avalanche of new terms and unfamiliar definitions that many introductory science courses involve. One study suggests that a first-year course in basic science can involve the mastery of more new words than does a comparable course in a modern language (Jarmul, 1996b). How can this be avoided? Can science be made accessible to non-scientists without a terminological overdose?

Factual inundation reflects a comparable but distinct hazard. Science does involve facts, and scientific comprehension requires an understanding of them. But science is much more than mere facts: what makes it meaningful is its glimpses into relationships, causes, effects, proportions, sequences, probabilities, and incongruities. Disarticulated facts, unrelated to meaningful context and unexamined in their significance, can destroy interest rather than enlarge understanding. How can we avoid this hazard?

Mathematical intimidation. The role of science is to explore or reveal the relatedness of things, and this is true not only of particular facts, but also of our larger experience. Mathematics helps us identify, quantify, and estimate such relationships. Courses in mathematics for non-scientists are frequently demanding, and mathematical intimidation is a common complaint. But can introductory science be taught without rigorous mathematical underpinnings and an accompanying mountain of facts, figures, graphs, and equations? I believe it can, though it may require a good—perhaps a great—teacher to do so.Here again, though we have no standard recipe for success, examples and illustrations can help to suggest and inspire, as do the examples described in this volume.

Laboratory trivialization. For too many non-science majors a lifelong aversion to science develops from what they come to regard as laboratory trivialization. Such students rebel against long hours spent in the lab, devoted to, for example, timing the movements of a pendulum in what many see as a pointless exercise to confirm a formula already grudgingly learned; or to titrating solutions of colored salts in order to establish what seem to them to be irrelevant concentrations of inconsequential compounds. Lab work is a part, a vital part, of all science; it reduces the immensity and complexity of the universe to manageable proportions. But it is as a method of inquiry, a particular means of comprehension, that lab work and experimentation play such a vital role in science. And lab work, conducted as meaningful inquiry, is the foundation of successful learning, especially for non-science majors.

The question here is one of substance as much as style. We should offer creative, inquiry-based labs, and examples are given in some of the papers that follow. But can we also offer an introductory science course without mathematics, without labs, without a surfeit of technical terminology? I believe this is possible, and some of the papers that follow describe successful examples.

Any discussion of teaching methods inevitably leads back to goals and purpose because effective teaching and learning involve more than course content and teaching methods. We need to ask such vital questions as how to evaluate the quality of a course itself and how to compare the relative benefits of different teaching methods, styles, and practices. We must discover how to evaluate overall student progress and performance, how to understand the particular student experience in any one course in relation to the contribution of courses in other areas of the curriculum, and to undergraduate life more broadly. All these questions and more will demand the attention of the faculty. And it is the privilege and responsibility of the faculty, individually and collectively, to address them.

A few will argue that any set of curriculum goals is too prescriptive, that free-wheeling faculty, individuality, open-mindedness, breadth of coverage, and free range of student choice are preferable to any required structure. The danger of such a view is that collective intellectual abstention and educational ambiguity so often lead to perpetual suspension of judgment on anything of consequence—a regrettable outlook to cultivate in our students. Life comes at us head on; ethical situations demand critical thinking and reasoned choice, not endlessly deferred judgment. Our society will prosper to the extent that our professionals in all science-based and science-related fields exercise their personal judgment and professional expertise based on both the “hard facts” and their broader implications. And our public life depends on an electorate that is both aware of and knowledgeable about the huge range of technical and scientific issues that confront us.


A casual view might suggest that the prominent place of science in the university is assured and that its particular contribution to the life of the academic community is increasing. After all, new labs are under construction everywhere, research support from government and industry grows, and science graduates are eagerly recruited. Student numbers continue to increase. But increasing enrollments in science and science-based courses should not lead one to assume that all is well with science teaching in the university. As good as most science teaching undoubtedly is, good is not great. We can and should aspire to do better, to offer courses worthy in quality to the high aspirations of our scientific calling. That means a deliberate attempt to think anew about the place of science in the curriculum and a determination to rescue the curriculum itself from destructive fragmentation, unexamined growth, and disciplinary constraint. Improvement will also require us to confront the reality of unguided student choice and unreformed graduation requirements. This will be demanding faculty work; it will also be divisive at times, as sacred cows are challenged, long-established customs reconsidered, and comfortable compromises reviewed. To defer such a task is always tempting: to plead the urgency of a publisher’s deadline to be met, a paper to be submitted, a joint experiment to be completed, a critical faculty vacancy to be filled. As urgent as these tasks may be, there will always be similarly pressing competing projects. Curriculum review and reform will always be next (or somewhere below next) on the list unless we recognize that its neglect year after year deprives our students of our best efforts—of any serious effort—to equip them for the changing and challenging world in which, for scientist and non-scientist alike, the role of science looms larger every day. Some 50 percent of the issues before the Supreme Court of the United States, for example, now involve some element of science.

To those faculty colleagues who argue that concern about such matters as the curriculum is “not in their job description,” I am bound to ask to whom it should be entrusted: to the dean, the provost, the president, the board of trustees? To the students? Perhaps, to some public, industry, business, or other external “user” review group, or a state educational body? To propose any such alternative is to raise the battle cry of academic freedom and faculty autonomy. But the implication of this is that the curriculum—its content, its philosophy, its implementation, its embodiment—is the business of the faculty. To neglect or ignore the responsibility is to abrogate the unique and pivotal role that faculty members are privileged to play, not only in university life, but also in the larger well-being of society and in the nurturing of future generations. Decision-making regarding public issues like climate change, energy policy, and health care, as well as regarding private issues like genetic screening and organic food, requires both a scientifically literate and informed public and a scientifically skilled professional cadre.

To the claim that “this is not my particular field of expertise,” one must observe that few, if any, of what are said to be the five hundred definable fields of knowledge are likely to include these macro-issues. Intellectual fragmentation, while enormously fruitful in addressing particular problems, deprives us of the comprehensive reflection and wise deliberation that come from a more extensive and nuanced consideration. Nowhere is this fragmentation more evident than in the balkanization of the universities’ science departments. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, was reported in 1996 to have seven hundred faculty members in the life sciences, distributed between two colleges, three schools, and thirty-seven departments (Jarmul, 1996a).

If faculty members are to assume the responsibility for this more comprehensive approach to the teaching of science, they must be encouraged, supported, recognized, and defended. They must be encouraged, especially by their department chairs and deans, to develop their teaching interests and skills. They must be supported through such things as small competitive teaching grants and adequate funding for lab supplies. They must be recognized for their contributions to departmental life. And they must be defended from narrowly based reviews and evaluations, which often equate dedication to teaching proficiency with lack of appropriate devotion to research activity. A department is best represented and students are best served by faculty members who care deeply about and are actively committed to both responsibilities.


No meaningful education can take place without recognition of the need to develop an understanding of and a concern for the overriding issues of our larger society. By this I mean not the particular news events of the moment or the current political debate, but the macro-issues that confront our larger human population: such things as sustainability, population growth, food supply, energy resources, environmental conservation, and climate change. Even to list these topics is to recognize not only their urgency, but also the extent to which our ability to confront their implications and effects will depend on our collective scientific skills, our broader comprehension, and our wise political judgment. Above the continuing indecision of our prolonged academic debate, we need the best science we can devise, offered in this broader context, in our curriculum, in our lives, and in our society. Science may well prove to be the most significant of the liberal arts.


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