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Teaching Science in a Technocracy

The Curricular Review's science proposals are some of its strongest (yet vaguest) merits

By The Crimson Staff

Science education for non-scientists is complex and controversial. In the past, Harvard has demonstrated leadership on this issue—particularly during the curricular review under University President James B. Conant ’14. At that time, in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, science education seemed essential, and consequently the field of history of science was established in order to appraise the trajectory and concerns of modern science. Nevertheless, in recent decades, the role and relevance of science in daily life has changed substantially, and Harvard has failed to respond adequately. Too often, the Harvard curriculum shirks its responsibility to prepare its non-scientists to understand the method of science and appreciate its inherent complexities. With half of the student body fulfilling requirements in courses such as Science B-57, “Dinosaurs and Their Relatives,” the College currently allows most students to escape confrontation with hard math and physics.

The recent report of the Harvard College Curricular Review (HCCR) proposes many new and exciting curricular modifications in this sphere as well a much-needed new emphasis on the importance of the sciences. The principles laid out in the report for science education, however, are still broad and ambiguous and will require much more critical thinking before they can be implemented effectively.

Increasingly, scientific literacy is an essential prerequisite to participation in contemporary society. It is indeed a necessary and realistic goal that all graduates of the College should be able to understand a journal such as Nature or Science. Increased faculty and student interaction—one of the expressed purposes of the expansion of the Faculty—will be especially instrumental in improving teaching in the many areas of the sciences. Many large and textbook-driven introductory science courses fail to inspire, much less encourage, scientific research. However, a class such as the recently-instituted Molecular and Cell Biology 100, which emulates successful counterparts at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, allows students early on in their undergraduate careers to gain practical knowledge about the realities of scientific research. Notably, this particular course is only available to science concentrators.

The realm of science for non-scientists in the revised Harvard curriculum will be dominated by the proposed Harvard College Courses. As these are described in the report, they seem both refreshingly innovative and worryingly vague. The Harvard College Courses are exciting because they offer an approach to science that is rigorous and yet designed with the non-expert in mind. The HCCR, however, seems to expect these courses to perform perhaps too many different roles for too many different types of students: They will serve both as stand-alone courses for students who do not intend further study of the subject; they will showcase for prospective concentrators the variety of research taking place in the field; and at the same time, also as a “gateway” into a particular department. It is difficult to imagine a course successfully fulfilling so many demands—providing both an interdisciplinary approach to a specific issue or topic, yet still laying the specific groundwork necessary for further work in a certain concentration. One of the primary failings of courses in the Core Curriculum is that they attempt to appeal to such a wide variety of audiences, and in the process do a mediocre job for each of them.

To be sure, many of the proposals of the HCCR’s report are thorough and well-reasoned. Quantitative analysis, a necessary skill, received appropriate attention in the report. Its teaching must be planned carefully, so that students will be successfully equipped with adequate quantitative abilities by the time they graduate. Second, by making at least a gesture toward the diminution of pre-med requirements, the report admirably strives to combat one of the major remaining impediments to the full realization of the liberal arts. Finally and most importantly, by reaffirming its dedication to faculty-student interaction, in particular through increased research opportunities as well as more imaginative teaching methods, Harvard is recommitting itself to the basic principle underlying the modern research-university. For all of these insights, the HCCR should be commended.

But the details surrounding the Harvard College Courses, which have been proposed as alternatives in a framework of broader distributional requirements, are uncomfortably unclear. Instead of drawing on traditional introductory-level courses in the different disciplines, Harvard College Courses ought to combine substantive knowledge with the big academic questions in a compelling way that competes with—rather than dumbs down—departmental offerings. These new courses should attempt to provide students with intriguing and provocative interdisciplinary, issue-based and integrative courses that do not fit within existing departments. By doing so, they will allow students to gain insight into a specific scientific issue but also to think critically about the methods employed in the natural sciences.

Designing Harvard College Courses in this fashion will set them apart from both traditional departmental (and hierarchical) courses as well as those courses which were created under the impossibly vague (and rigid) backbone of the Core’s “approaches to knowledge.” Harvard College Courses in the sciences ought to repair that hole in the curriculum—which the Core never managed to fill—reserved for courses that challenge and examine the techniques, assumptions and methods in the sciences.

Despite the difficulty foreseeable in implementing the HCCR’s recommendations, a holistic analysis of the way science is taught at Harvard could put the University at the forefront of scientific teaching, and, in the long-run, at the forefront of scientific research as well.

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