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David Layzer: Teaching Science Through Prose or Poetry, But Not Equations

By Philip M. Rubin

About a month ago, Menzel Professor of Astrophysics David R. Layzer '47 phoned Lou LaRocca '92 and asked the Cabot House resident to meet him at his office in the Harvard Observatory.

Thinking he would soon be inside the warm confines of the professor's office, LaRocca threw on a sweater and strolled to the the office. When he got there, Layzer--already donning a ski jacket--suggested that the two go for a stroll.

They went off towards the Square, discussing a computer project on which the two had been working for a couple of years. Throughout the walk, Layzer interspersed the conversation with observations and historical anecdotes about the various Cambridge landmarks they passed.

"It was freezing, so I thought I'd be clever and direct him back toward the Quad," LaRocca says. "But when we got there, he said that we should keep walking. We ended up near Alewife."

A Progressive Approach

That kind of student-faculty interaction may seem a bit unusual for a tenured Harvard professor. But for Layzer, who has spent much of his career developing progressive methods of teaching, talking with students is as much a part of his daily routine as a professor as is anything else.

The results of Layzer's educational experiments are embodied in his two Core courses. For more than a decade, Layzer has taught Science A-18, "Space, Time and Motion," and more recently he has taught Science A-22, "Chance, Necessity and Order."

You'll never see any blue books in these courses: there aren't any exams. For that matter, there aren't any lectures.

Instead, the courses consist of students meeting twice a week in small sections, each time preparing a brief paper about the day's assigned reading. Two section leaders--a graduate student and an undergraduate who has already taken the course--lead discussions and comment on the papers, but they don't grade them. There are no grades here, except for a final evaluation at the end of the term.

There's even a twist to the papers. Although prose is welcome, fiction and poetry are equally valid genres in Layzer's courses. One student this past semester wrote a story about a cookie-making contest, whose participants included Albert Einstein and other famous physicists.

Clearly, this isn't the traditional approach to dispensing wisdom about the subtle workings of nature. But Layzer says he is frustrated with such conventional methods, which he says encourage a rather narrow perception of science.

"Virtually all of the difficulty comes from the fact that science and math are atrociously taught in school," Layzer says. "Most people come to Harvard with a view of science that is completely distorted. It is as if science has to do only with memorizing formulas. This is as if people were taught about art by painting by numbers, so that you've taken away spatial organization and made it a mindless assembly."

"Science is the outgrowth of questions about the world: it's about why some things are smooth, rough and hard, and others melt," Layzer continues. "The way it is taught today turns off many creative people who are best equipped to be serious students of science."

No More Lectures

Despite this fundamental problem, Layzer claims he has a solution, although his remedy might come as a shock to the average secondary school chemistry or physics instructor.

"I would make the teaching of science and math illegal in school, but not make the learning of science and math illegal," Layzer says. "Instead, I would encourage [the study of science] with great libraries and eager instructors ready to answer questions."

"Lectures can be inspiring and entertaining, but I think there is no substitute for writing," he adds. "Writing and feedback should be a greater part of the undergraduate experience than it is."

Layzer's utilization of two section leaders is intended precisely to strengthen this notion of the classroom as a place of idea exchange, not lecture.

"It acts as a check on each of the discussion leaders, prevents one from lecturing and encourages listening, both on the part of the students and the other section leader," Layzer explains.

His grading system, Layzer says, is likewise calculated to give students as much freedom of thought in the class discussions as as possible. He cites one case in which a student wrote a paper heavily criticizing the professor's book Cosmogenesis.

Layzer says he feels that had the student expected a grade, he would have felt far less at liberty to tear into the professor's theory. "It has a chilling effect on a student if he knows it will be graded," he says.

No Gimmicks

Layzer, who says he started becoming especially interested in teaching courses for non-scientists upon his return from a sabbatical in Sweden two decades ago, insists his methods aren't designed to popularize or sensationalize what he teaches.

Rather, he says, through his courses he tries to fulfill a vision of a world in which scientists and non-scientists alike can discuss scientific matters in a sophisticated, if not technical manner.

"As [Jean] Piaget said, it's a matter of modifying the mental structures in order to enable you to make sense of what you hear or read," Layzer says. "It's exactly the same in music and art, or even bird-watching. A birdwatcher looks into a tree and sees the bird's sex, kind, etc. I look and see a fuzzy little shape."

This kind of approach isn't just a gimmick designed to attract non-scientists, either. Layzer brings that same philosophy even to a course largely geared to those who plan to go on to careers in science.

Last year, Layzer and Baird Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach teamed up to pioneer Chemistry 8 and 9, "Fundamentals of Physics and Chemistry," a full-year sequence designed to supplement the usual introductory fare pre-medical students are required to take.

Both courses follow the same format as Layzer's two Core courses. Unlike the technically oriented Chemistry 10, "Foundations of Chemistry," Chemistry 8 and 9 emphasize writing, and especially revisions of the twice-weekly papers. Hardly the "pre-med hack philosophy," LaRocca, one of Layzer's undergraduate teaching fellows, says.

Although Layzer's methods don't generally conform with those of his more conventional colleagues, other professors who know him say they don't think any less of him for it.

"He's got a very highly regarded course, which stresses an innovative approach to teaching," says Senior Lecturer on Astronomy David W. Latham. "He deserves recognition."

No Taking It Easy

Despite the fact that Layzer doesn't actually lecture in his two Core classes, one could hardly accuse him of taking it easy.

Contrary to the practice of some professors who teach science courses, Layzer meticulously plans out all of the course assignments--about 20 of them, for example, in "Space Time and Motion." In addition, he writes lengthy chapter introductions to each of the sections in his syllabi.

But Layzer isn't merely a distant planner. In fact, he visits each section of each course he teaches as many as three times during the semester. Upon entering a class, Layzer typically asks one of the section leaders for a map of the room, complete with the name of every student in the class.

Such practices, students say, go a long way towards making the professor seem much less intimidating than most others.

"I remember the first time he came and sat in our class, the second he walked into the class everyone directed [their] attention to him," says Carrie Amestoy '93. "We were all quiet and then he says, 'By the way, can you pass the cookies,' and we all thought, 'Oh, my God, he eats.'"

Traditional Background

Despite the fact that he employs an unconventional approach, Layzer can hardly claim an unconventional background. The professor is a Harvard man through and through, having spent his entire undergraduate, graduate and professional years here.

Still, such surroundings hardly seem to hinder his progress. His office at the Harvard Observatory, which commands a sweeping view of the campus, encourages one to sit back and contemplate the larger issues Layzer which thinks about in the course of his work about the universe.

Currently, Layzer is in the process of reworking some of the theories of nature he expounded in Cosmogenesis, a task he says is going quite smoothly.

"After thinking for some months about the problem [an error in his explanation of universal structure] I think I've found the correct idea," Layzer says. "It's like trying to put together a lot of pieces that don't fit together, but if you believe that everything will fit into a picture, then the more pieces you have, the better off you are."

Despite that rather weighty academic challenge occupying much of his professional scrutiny, Layzer hardly confines his attention to his work. In fact, he seems to take equal enjoyment in listing his hobbies, which include playing violin in a chamber music ensemble and playing squash. Recently, he even flew to France to do some biking.

That kind of passion, which Layzer extends throughout all aspects of his life, is hardly lost on his students.

"It's as if [Layzer is] a kid in a candy store," LaRocca says. "He's a little bit of the absentminded professor, which makes him endearing."

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