Op-Ed: Intro Science Courses Require Revision

Chip Williams

Imagine that a group of people have taken it upon themselves to design the curriculum of a new liberal arts college. These people are totally ignorant of the course offerings and distribution requirements in effect at existing liberal arts colleges, but they have access to what such schools say about their missions and purposes. They would see that these institutions claim that all of their graduates, regardless of major, are broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences, and instilled with the skills of “critical thinking.”

When the curriculum-designers turned to the problem of designing first-year course offerings in the sciences, it would become clear to them that there would be two general classes of students that they would need to consider: those who would major in one of the natural sciences, and would thus require the background necessary for upper level work in their chosen discipline, and those who would not be majoring in the sciences, but would need to acquire a solid science background to ensure the breadth of their education. Imagine the designers split into two groups, the first designing science courses for the former group of students, the second for the latter. What are the chances that, when the groups reconvened, they would discover that they had designed exactly the same courses; the standard two-semester intros to biology, chemistry and physics? The idea that the needs of a student who will take one year of science to satisfy a distribution requirement and those of one who is beginning a major in science are best met by the same kind of class seems far-fetched.

While the question of whether the standard intro classes are actually the best preparation for further work in science is interesting, I want to focus on how such courses make no sense for non-majors, especially those who will only take two semesters of science in their undergraduate careers. A college claiming to offer a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences should ensure, as best it can, that its graduates have both a solid understanding of the general picture of the world that contemporary science presents to us, and a good working knowledge of the methods by which this picture has been developed. Unfortunately, the standard two-semester intro sequences of biology, chemistry and physics are poorly positioned to offer either. Introductory courses in biology (or neuroscience, for that matter) are primarily rote memorization, while those in chemistry and physics might as well be applied math courses, as they mainly revolve around problem sets. The labs of intro science courses are largely pointless, except to prepare students for future lab work, and perhaps to give participants and onlookers the sense that something science-y is being done. (“Looks like that one turned magenta, better record the data in my lab notebook!”) While labs involving dissection or the demonstration of some particular physical phenomenon probably have some pedagogical value for non-majors, it’s hard to imagine that they have anything to offer someone who doesn’t plan on future lab work.

So what would be better? While giving a detailed description of an alternate science curriculum is beyond the scope of this article, I’ll give a general outline of what strikes me as the right direction. Students would graduate with both a better appreciation of how science works and a better general science education if, instead of the traditional intro courses, they took a course (or series of courses) in the history and philosophy of science. It’s important to clarify that what I have in mind is not a course in “science appreciation” for non-science majors, of the “physics for poets” variety. Such courses, frankly, usually seem to operate under the unspoken assumption that the students taking them are simply less smart than science majors, hence the avoidance of any math above the seventh grade level. The classes I have in mind could incorporate, for example, the same sorts of problems assigned in traditional introductory courses in classical mechanics, but in the context of a detailed discussion of Newton’s discovery of calculus and development of the theory of universal gravitation. This would be a fairly radical departure from the way science is normally taught, and in a future article I will discuss some potential objections to the sorts of changes I have suggested.