Bridging the Two Cultures: A Comprehensive Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching and Learning Science in a Societal Context

By Eisen, Arri; Laderman, Gary | Journal of College Science Teaching, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Two Cultures: A Comprehensive Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching and Learning Science in a Societal Context


Eisen, Arri, Laderman, Gary, Journal of College Science Teaching


Twentieth-century novelist and physicist C.P. Snow famously stated that solving the world's complex problems requires collaboration between humanists and scientists. We agree with Snow and illustrate one integrated educational approach that bridges the two cultures of science and religion to transform the learning and teaching of science.

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A brief glance at the headlines provides numerous examples--global warming, stem cell research, and emerging diseases--of societal issues that show why, now more than ever, we must take scientist/humanist C.P. Snow's advice and bridge the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities (Snow 1993). George Ellis, the renowned humanitarian and physicist, refines and enhances Snow's vision, describing the need for three integrated and equally important kinds of experts required to address contemporary complex issues. These are focused basic researchers, generalists who take a broad view, and synthesizers who integrate the two (Ellis 1994). We believe there are approaches to enhancing science education and developing learners of all three types Ellis identifies.

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To identify such approaches, we first asked how people learn most effectively. This question is exactly the kind that requires interdisciplinary collaboration among all three types of scholars. We were not the first to note the importance of such collaboration; in fact, it is the goal of How People Learn (NRC 2000). The mountains of data synthesized in this report strongly support the following points:

* In-depth knowledge requires an understanding of the basic information underlying an issue.

* People understand those facts best when they learn them within a rich context; people learn differently, so education should involve diverse methodologies.

* And, successful learning allows the effective transfer of knowledge to new problems.

Ironically, attempts to create a scientifically literate, critically thinking public are discouraged by our university educational system. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, and especially in the sciences, this system often primarily emphasizes publication in focused research only (Boyer 1990), marginalizing Ellis' other two equally important categories of scholars. Science professors generally receive little preparation in learning their own science in context, much less in how to teach that science (Druger 1999/2000; Wyckoff 2001). Similarly, scholars in the humanities are rarely exposed to the scientific perspectives and impacts on their discipline.

In many institutions, undergraduate science curricula are shaped by "what they need to know for medical school" instead of best practices in education. Nonscience students are understandably intimidated by science courses taught from this perspective and are left to take required nonmajors science courses with other students who "hate science." Thus, we are left with a worst-case scenario--nonscientists understanding little of science and science students understanding little but science.

University educators have approached this problem primarily from three angles--broadening the context of information presented in majors science courses; adding rigor to nonmajors courses; and developing science studies programs to analyze science sociologically. Here, we present an example of a fourth, less-common approach--developing a new course, linked to extracurricular supporting activities--that integrates the other three strategies.

A multilevel approach

Our goal is to bring together diverse groups of students, scholars, and community members to inspire rethinking of issues across a broad spectrum of disciplines and, in so doing, to teach nonscientists the science in a rich context and to teach scientists the context of the science. Simultaneously, bridges are built across disciplines, strengthening and reshaping students' research, teaching, and critical-thinking skills. …

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