The Public Humanist

Re-imagining a liberal art: science

Although the plight of the humanities occupies the ever fretful academy, the sciences also face a dilemma. Are the sciences just technical training, or are they intended to broaden students intellectual horizons? In my experience, current practice in most undergraduate science curricula does neither. The natural sciences are generally described as practical disciplines. But the scientific curriculum is not a technical or professional course of study in the mold of a marketing degree. As currently designed, it also does little to broaden students minds. I wish to argue that the faculties of the natural sciences need to alter their approach to pedagogy if they wish to retain relevance. The teaching of the natural sciences can broaden minds like the humanities. It can also give graduates professional skills. Accomplishing these goals would require a thorough reassessment of budgetary priorities, teaching and the role of research funding.

Most commonly, science instruction today consists of the delivery of information in the form of lectures accompanied by dry power point presentations in a darkened room. In many of these lecture halls the students stare at their laptops ostensibly taking notes, but often, well, losing focus. The current model of education presents science as a fait accompli, a litany of facts to be memorized. The student then regurgitates the professor's recitation on periodic multiple choice or short-answer examinations. This accomplishes nothing, though it lets the student claim to have taken "advanced molecular cell biology" without having isolated DNA or investigated a single question. This charade passes as science instruction.

A terrible irony of the current pedagogical model is its failure even to achieve the goal of technical education: preparing students for the professional work force. Memorizing taxonomies and the steps of glycolysis do not prepare a student to work in a pharmaceutical company. What prepares her is working with a pipette, making solutions, performing polymerase chain reactions, and running gel electrophoresis. This practical, hands-on work takes place in teaching labs. Though students do lab work today, it is far less than is needed to attain proficiency with the tools of science. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer classes can offer real lab experience.

A good model for science pedagogy exists in the humanities. Martha Nussbaum describes the humanities as fostering the ability to debate, developing a sensitivity to others, and helping to bridge cultural divides (http://harpers.org/archive/2010/06/hbc-90007141). Essentially she sees the study of the humanities as producing well-rounded citizens. A properly designed science curriculum can achieve many of these goals. Science is a practice of inquiry: a habit of mind that can change a student’s life. But to guide students in this direction classes must include a great deal of questioning, data analysis, thought experiments, reading and discussion. Students must engage with each other and their professors. After learning laboratory basics, the student researcher can ask questions about the world around her and answer them in the lab. A science curriculum of this design would prepare students for the the work force and help them develop intellectually.

This sort of model does exist in the universities, but is relegated to the research laboratory. Graduate students participate and undergraduates can choose to, but it doesn't play a role in the general education of undergraduate students; it should.

Today's science faculties are not prepared for intense teaching. Science professors teach very few classes per semester -- often one. They spend their time managing graduate students doing grant funded research in the lab. This is their primary job. The university needs the revenue it gains from the overhead tax placed on grants: nearly fifty percent of grant funds are passed on to the university. In 2008, UMass drew 13% of its income from grants. A recent study on science and engineering faculty showed that they spend only about 30% of their time on teaching, including preparation (Link et al; A time allocation study of university faculty in Economics of Education Review 2008). This perforce means massive classes, often of several hundred. Even upper level classes can have fifty students. Not surprisingly, budgetary issues have created this state of affairs.

Pedagogy using the model I'm proposing would require a radical reallocation of budgetary resources. Professor salaries have grown (in the sciences) while departments have shrunk and public support has withered. Most families cannot afford tuition at the current rates and student loans burden young workers making it hard to get started in the workforce; tuition should not rise. To teach smaller classes with more laboratory work would take more faculty and a reallocation of facilities from research to teaching.

Within the current system there just isn't enough money to fund a shift to small classes and more teaching in science, with another funding model there could be. If the academy does not redirect scientific pedagogy towards real education, we as a nation will continue to slip internationally. Worse, our "practical" scientific education will fail to enlarge the world view of students and fail to create well-rounded citizens. Government grant funding of the sciences is just a way of indirectly paying for public education. Right now the vast majority goes towards basic research. Perhaps some federal money should be directed towards more teaching faculty. This would make it possible to teach smaller classes and more labs. Better teaching and more capable graduates could ultimately help the economy, more than amply providing a return on the investment.

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