The Science of General Education

Four semesters since the College rolled out the Gen Ed program, some science courses struggle to innovate

The smell of frying tuna steak wafted through the Science Center C lecture hall while cheesecake baked in an oven.

As Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics Michael P. Brenner measured the temperature of the two foods as a function of time, he knew he had his audience hooked.

Finally, after he calculated the heat diffusion constant of water with only 10 percent error, a few hungry audience members ate the demonstration.

“I walked out thinking, this is the greatest lecture I have ever given in my life,” Brenner said somewhat playfully of his lesson on heat transfer during Physical Universe 27: “Science and Cooking”—a course designed for the College’s General Education program.

Creative, innovative, and explicitly connected to the real world, it was a moment that embodied everything that the Gen Ed program stands for.


But when students in the course sat down to do that week’s problem set, many were unable to answer a question based on Brenner’s demonstration.

“I didn’t explain in enough detail why certain steps were true,” he reflected on his lecture. “And if you don’t think this way as a matter of custom, like I do, then it really led to a lot of confusion.”

For many science professors teaching Gen Ed courses, the question of how best to teach scientific concepts to non-science concentrators has no easy answers.

This particular lecture seems to be more of a minor hiccup than indicative of a broader failure of the course, as many administrators and students praised the course’s innovative teaching methods.

“It has taken something students are interested in (food) and used it to teach them some basic scientific principles,” Director of General Education Stephanie H. Kenen wrote in an emailed statement. “If you want to describe what Gen Ed is about, that’s a good course to point to.”

While “Science of Cooking” has been able to draw praise from students and administrators alike, collectively Gen Ed science classes have been less successful at teaching rigorous science within a creative framework, according to some faculty members.

“I worry that too many students are coming through Gen Ed and not achieving the scientific literacy we want them to have,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said. “Students can still graduate from here pretty ignorant in the world of science and that shouldn’t be.”

In  this struggle to teach science to often-reluctant non-science concentrators, a pedagogical divide has emerged.

While some science professors are embracing Gen Ed by using innovative teaching methods, other faculty members have kept their courses—holdovers from the nearly defunct Core Curriculum—virtually unchanged, making only the necessary tweaks to get approval from the Gen Ed committee.