31 July 2009

Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic: Gen Bio classes and informed citizens

Science magazine has an article (password protected), “Universities Begin to Rethink First-Year Biology Courses,” that starts out thus:

Introductory biology courses are often the last academic exposure nonscience majors at U.S. colleges have to science. Unfortunately, say science educators, the courses too often leave a bad taste in the mouths of students who spend more time in lectures than on experiential learning and in regurgitating facts rather than understanding the concepts behind them. As voters, those graduates apply their misconceptions of science to shape national policies on everything from evolution to stem cell research.

Okay, I’ll accept those premises, but I disagree with the conclusion:

So improving introductory biology is seen as a critical step toward raising the nation's scientific literacy.

Sigh. Don’t waste your time.

If the goal is to give university students a wide view of scientific knowledge that will make them better and more informed citizens, then make courses that do that.

Instead of bemoaning that many university students only take one science course in their first year and trying to sex up that one class, do something different. Change the curriculum so that all students take an integrative capstone class in science in their last year of study. Require them to take more science classes; make students take not just an introductory class, but an advanced class.

I’m not saying this would be easy. I know full well how constrained the degree plans at many institutions are.

But introductory courses cannot, and should not, bear the weight of the whole broad academic fields. Introductory courses are meant to provide students with an introduction to a particular discipline. A single general biology courses is not going to create an informed and scientifically literate citizenry who also appreciates chemistry, physics, social sciences, and mathematics, and so on.

Nobody would ever say, “We want the general public to have a better appreciation of design and art and craft, so let’s really pump up those Gothic literature courses.” Not that there’s anything wrong with Gothic literature, but I doubt it would greatly inform my understanding of painting or drama or sculpture or dance.

If we want university graduates to have advanced knowledge in an area, they must take advanced classes.


AK said...

During a long career in info systems, I used the scientific method (appropriately adapted) many times in solving problems, especially pinning down the reason that certain programs weren't giving the expected results. IMO similar adaptations of the basic scientific method can be used in many disciplines.

Rather than trying to give people an understanding of science by telling them all about what science has found out, why not teach people the fundamentals of how the scientific method works, along with adaptations to whatever field they are studying? Once people understand the scientific method, in principle, they will find it much easier to understand its application to any specific field.

Zen Faulkes said...

That’s closer to the sort of idea I have in mind. But the number one complaint I hear when a grad student does poorly is that the student didn’t know factual information, like, “He didn’t know the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes.”

At the university level, instructors still are placing huge emphasis on mastering terminology and facts. It’s easy to evaluate. And, I should say, it is very useful for the student in that discipline, too.

The big picture question is, “What do we want students to learn, not just in our class, or in our major, but through their entire undergraduate degree?”

Mickey Schafer said...

You can achieve lasting results and discipline-specific training in an intro class, but it takes a lot of work on part of the prof. I taught general intro linguistics courses with an anthology (vs. a textbook) and with mini-linguistics projects -- students had to collect and analyze data the way a linguist does. It was more work for everyone, but also a lot of fun. Students commented again and again how much they felt changed by the class; they could feel their brains worked differently. Very satisfying, but only possible b/c classes were capped at 25 students. I have no idea how to take the same kind of experience into a class of 200 (typical of lots of the gen ed bio classes).