Increasing Scientific Literacy in Undergraduate Education: a Case Study from“Frontiers of Science” at Columbia University
P. Timon McPhearson, Stuart P.D. Gill, Robert Pollack, and Julia E. Sable
General undergraduate education intends to broaden a student's perspective, to advance alternative ways of thinking, and to develop empathy for other worldviews. Yet the physical sciences can be quite peripheral or even absent from a student’s general undergraduate education. While colleges and universities have ballooned with science courses in recent years, they do not often teach the scientific process nor cover the breadth of interesting, contemporary science content. There are many barriers that prevent undergraduates from learning science content and process. When science is not well integrated into a core education curriculum, students may choose not to take elective science courses because they view them as too difficult or worse, unnecessary for their future lives. The subsequent science illiteracy is a detriment to functioning in modern society. Columbia University has endeavored to repair this problem locally by creating a new required undergraduate course that makes science a chief component of a solid core curriculum; one that is collaborative and multidisciplinary and offers students an opportunity to debate and discuss the philosophical, historical and methodological contexts of current research. This course also allows the faculty to create a forum for open discourse among the diverse student population where nearly eighty percent of students are humanities majors. Teaching science to all entering students in a context where the humanities have historically dominated is our laboratory for the development of a curriculum that shows how science can be made accessible to people of all backgrounds.