Beyond “The Mitochondrion is the Powerhouse of the Cell”

In the past few months, several states have considered or passed legislation aimed at undermining science education. These efforts are part of a growing misunderstanding of science—including the value of science education—in the public sphere. Scientific thinking is about much more than crunching p-values or lone-wolf theorizing; it is a means of thinking critically that contextualizes findings with the contributions of centuries of collective experience. Like all of us, scientists may be motivated by personal interests, but a scientific thinker instinctively doubts their results. A fundamental emphasis on rigor, evidenced by a culture of constructive criticism, elevates the pursuit of truth to a higher standard.

Above all, scientific thinking is not a distant abstraction. It is immediately relevant in day-to-day decision-making, owing to the fact that we are often called on to reach conclusions or make decisions with limited information—how to spend our days, plan outings and trips, steer the direction of our educations and careers, pursue or halt hobbies, among many others—all with an incomplete picture of the future. Scientific thinking lends itself to weighing evidence and arriving at reasonable conclusions that we can count on ourselves to make time and time again. It is valuable in its own right.

STEM students at Harvard are well-acquainted to this vision of science education. A remarkable degree of attention to the science curriculum has resulted in introductory science courses that rarely present science as a series of facts to know. Instead, these classes routinely and extensively deal with sophisticated scientific thinking. In their problem sets, lectures, and labs, they present research narratives—histories of scientific thinkers overcoming intellectual and technical obstacles in the pursuit of truth.

STEM students at Harvard are better off for knowing these histories of scientific inquiry, but the problem is that it is all too easy to attend Harvard for four years without taking a single science class of this caliber, even with the General Education program. Courses specifically fulfilling the STEM Gen Ed categories are not always taken as seriously as introductory STEM classes. Indeed, it seems students seeking to fulfill science Gen Ed requirements rarely view them as more than pesky chores, as Q Guide comments for science Gen Eds sometimes validate such classes on the basis of the effort necessary to do well.

Addressing society’s rejection of science begins at Harvard by genuinely committing to science literacy for every graduate. One way to approach this goal is to incorporate science-minded skill objectives into the Writing Program’s Expos curriculum, including instruction on reading and writing scientific manuscripts, designing and interpreting experiments, and weighing scientific evidence.

While some Expos sections are roughly scientific in subject matter, the ultimate goal is the same for all sections: learn to think like a humanist. Since Harvard’s mandatory course in expository writing is ostensibly a primer for rigorous scholarly thought, learning to think like a scientist should be an equally estimable goal in the course. This is critical if Harvard is to demonstrate its dedication to science education.

With this approach, there is an obvious need for a second instructor, a scientist, to be involved at some point in the course. This collaboration of instructors would have the added benefit of fostering collaboration and breaking down barriers between the humanities and sciences. For those who bypass the Expos requirement, like students who take a year of Humanities 10, there should be a dedicated science writing class that touches on some of these skills. Currently, the lack of science writing classes is a glaring omission in the course catalog.

Regardless of the approach, Harvard should draw inspiration from peer institutions that have championed science education. For example, MIT’s Gen Ed analog, General Institution Requirements, features a communication requirement within each major, including STEM, humanities, and the social sciences. While this falls short of a universal science writing requirement, it demonstrates a commitment to science education that goes beyond Harvard’s.

Furthermore, MIT’s graduate program in science writing, focusing on the effective presentation of science and technology to the public, is precisely the dedication to science education for which Harvard should aim. Of course, MIT’s heightened emphasis on science education is in line with its mission as a STEM-focused institution, but Harvard is also a liberal arts institution seeking to offer a well-rounded education that sculpts future leaders at a time when STEM is both increasingly relevant and under fire.

Harvard should take steps to prioritize undergraduate science learning, especially given the current political climate. The Writing Program is well-positioned to take on this challenge given its goal to establish a strong foundation for undergraduate scholarship. Proficiency in scientific thinking, which goes hand-in-hand with clear science writing, is valuable in its own right as a powerful means of critical thinking. And fostering powerful critical thinking is vital to the College’s mission to prepare its students to be leaders in the future.

Siavash Zamirpour ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Pforzheimer House.


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