Teaching Science to the `Unteachable'

Article excerpt

IF scientific knowledge is being spread more widely around college campuses today, at least part of the credit goes to Zafra Lerman.

Professor Lerman teaches at a relatively obscure institution with an open-admissions policy. Columbia College in Chicago serves a largely minority urban population and specializes in the arts and communication. She joined the faculty in the late 1970s, after stints as a research chemist at Cornell, Northwestern, and other major universities.

She decided, she says, to "change careers and help out in teaching." Columbia College had never offered science courses before, and "everybody looked at me as if I had just landed in a UFO," Lerman says.

But she soon devised ways of connecting chemistry to things in her students' everyday lives - from food ingredients to headlines about nuclear accidents. Before long, her classes had no shortage of takers. Since 1991, she has been head of Columbia College's Institute for Science Education and Science Communication.

Also since that year, Lerman and fellow chemists from Princeton and Indiana University have been building a "common curriculum" for undergraduate nonscience majors at their very diverse schools.

Tom Spiro, a professor of chemistry at Princeton, had already developed a curriculum based on current environmental concerns, and his ideas were employed to launch a course now being taught at all three institutions - "From Ozone to Oil Spills: Chemistry, the Environment, and You."

Dr. Spiro says he teaches the course to between 30 and 40 students a term at Princeton. While his students have different backgrounds than those at Columbia College, and his teaching style may be quite different from Dr. Lerman's, the course's content is the same.

Measured by student enthusiasm and the quality of the projects presented at a yearly symposium that brings students from the three schools together, the goal of engaging nonscience majors in the study of science is being met. You might think kids from Columbia College would be a little intimidated by a visit to Princeton, says Lerman. "But when they sit in classes at Princeton and do their demonstrations, they feel second to none."

Her students have been particularly adept at merging their artistic and communicative talents with scientific knowledge. One group of students, for example, created a dance to illustrate the depletion of the atmosphere's ozone layer. Their instructor emphasizes, however, that there's nothing depleted about the course material. …