Frontiers of Science and the Core Curriculum of Columbia College

By Kelley, Darcy | Peer Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Frontiers of Science and the Core Curriculum of Columbia College


Kelley, Darcy, Peer Review


The usual approach to undergraduate science education is to segregate "science" from "non-science" students. Actual and potential science majors are pushed into departmental programs to fulfill major requirements; non-science students make do with distribution requirements. Recently, however, science educators have envisaged courses that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. For example, the National Research Councils report Bio2010 (2003) imagines "a truly interdisciplinary course used as an introductory first-year seminar with relatively few details and no prerequisites." This course is designed to "introduce students to many disciplines in their first year, and to hold the interest of first-year students who are taking disciplinary prerequisites." Similarly, the National Research Council's 1999 Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology promotes introductory courses that explore fundamental and unifying concepts and emphasize evolving processes of scientific thought and inquiry.

Most students ("science" and "non-science" alike) enter college having written essays and poems, solved equations, and analyzed historical issues. Very few have actually planned, carried out, and analyzed an actual scientific experiment, in part because what scientists really do is not included in most secondary school curricula. Students view science as a collage of facts to be regurgitated on demand. In reality, however, science is a way of thinking about and making sense of the world. Real science is not what is known but what is to be known. In addition, while the push to interdisciplinary science courses is usually focused on students already within a science trajectory. This perspective is equally important for new students who do not see themselves as connected to science. Frontiers of Science-Columbia's new core curriculum science course-is designed to address both of these issues.

The Challenges of Connecting All Students to Science

Founded in 1754 as King's College, Columbia College is an undergraduate liberal arts college of Columbia University. In 1919, the college began the development of a set of courses that introduces students to essential ideas of music, art, literature, philosophy, and political thought. To foster active intellectual engagement, courses in the core curriculum are taught as small seminars beginning in the first year. As of 2003, the core (specific courses taken by all students) included Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, Art Humanities, Music Humanities, and University Writing. The core curriculum is the hallmark of a Columbia College education.

From the inception of the core, the omission of a science course in the curriculum evoked comment. In 1933, Herbert Hawkes, then dean of the college, stated, "Ever since the course in Contemporary Civilization was offered fourteen years ago, the perennial question of the relation of the sciences to this kind of course has been discussed." It took close to ninety vears, however, for those debates to bear fruit. Frontiers of Science entered the core curriculum as a five-year experiment in fall 2004.

Why did it take so long? Dean Hawkes outlined several goals for a core science course in the 1933 annual report: "Meeting the need of all students for a fund of knowledge and a set of intellectual tools that would be applicable in all of their thinking and that would better them as persons" (58). Faculty fights over the new science course erupted right away. Content was a major issue: What constitutes a real core of knowledge in the seiences? Which areas should be included? What about mathematics? Should "science" students be educated together with "non-science" students? Since agreement on content could not be reached, the faculty put together a roster of four courses, half from the physical sciences and half from the life sciences. All were intended for non-science students, none were required, and all courses abruptly ended in 1941 as the war began. …

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