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

"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."