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

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.