Science in the Weave – A Proposal. By Robert S. Prezant

An opinion article in the New York Times by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (Professor of Sociology and Education at NYU and Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Virginia respectively; New York Times15 May 2011) paints a very bleak picture of our higher education system.  The authors, who also wrote Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011) cast serious “doubts about the quality of undergraduate learning in the United States.”  These doubts reflect remarkably poor performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment tests that show a large percentage of students making little progress in college.  The authors focus their blame on too many adjuncts, excess interest in non-critical college accessories (i.e. “deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers, and expensive gyms”), a diminution of teacher authority, and the growth of the students as “clients” approach.  Their solutions include a refocus on course rigor with rewards for quality teaching, a move away from valuing “institutional rankings and fiscal concerns” in line with a move to hold administrators “accountable for assessing and improving learning,” and a plea for parents and students to ignore the superficial and focus on “educational substance” when considering what college to attend.

These are all sound recommendations, in some cases a bit more easily said than done. No doubt the focus, above all else, needs to be on rigorous and serious (deep) learning and we know enough about how students learn to also know that a strong, interwoven curriculum that helps students understand how to learn, how to question, how to put pieces of a shrinking-earth puzzle together, will be of equal and perhaps greater importance in the long run.  So, how to achieve a goal that creates a curriculum that at once is made from an array of disciplines and yet teaches our students to actually learn? How do we weave whole cloth from an array of disciplinary threads?  Here I argue that science can act as the unifier across our curriculum and across our disciplines  –a sort of e pluribus unum of college education.

Between 1984 and 1990 biologist John A. Moore wrote and edited a series of essays for American Zoologist entitled “Science as a Way of Knowing.”  In this series, covering a range of biological disciplines, Moore pinpoints a critical, in fact, essential, notion: “rationality was not forever the hallmark of human thought.”  Indeed throughout human history people have been quite creative in seeking explanations to understand the world about them, a world of otherwise mysterious sights, sounds, and beasts.  These explanations have leant themselves to the wealth of oral traditions and written literature reflected in mythology, xenophobic social and anthropological works, and a good deal of religion. All of this makes for outstanding, important and interesting literature but when learned (or taught) outside of a deep understanding of how to interpret this bounty of text, can also lead to a superficial or erroneous way of knowing. Is it not what we think we know that in turn begets our behavior?  These weakly mined approaches can lead to a domino-effect of misconceptions in all that follows, can lead to shallow or misdirected or, even worse, unyielding views with little room for digesting reality.

In recent years, although hardly a new phenomenon, bitter politics have emerged in parallel with an abundance of divisive issues.  We’ve seen arguments, sometimes outright falsehoods, concerning climate change, global warming, evolution, the economy, and health care that bear little relevance to reality and yet are accepted by an alarming number of citizens including our students. How can such large numbers of an otherwise educated populace accept so readily things so far from the truth or views based on premises that are so evidently flawed?  Can this be a reflection of the continued emphasis on discrete, non-overlapping course work and programs in our educational system?  Are we doing a disservice to our students when we continue to offer a “general education” or “liberal studies” program that in essence is just a lasso that tries to ensnare a number of diverse silos?  Just where are we modeling or teaching the long sought chalice, the holy grail of critical thinking blended with interdisciplinarity?

It seems we might be graduating students who remain locked into Meno’s Paradox.  If we know what we are looking for, there is no need for inquiry. If we don’t know what we seek, how can we inquire?  Thus, there is no need for inquiry and in fact inquiry might not be possible.  The error of this logic (equivocation) is quickly discerned but if we contemplate even for a moment the disciplines that truly make such illogic impossible we turn immediately to the sciences.  Inquiry is the heart of science.  In fact if we cannot ask a question (aka hypothesis) then the topic cannot be science. If we cannot test a concept, it is not science.  If we cannot design an appropriate experiment that will help gather data to either lend support or not to that hypothesis, it is not science.  Think for a moment what this mindset would mean to those who doubt literally world changing issues if they understand what science is, how it functions, and, perhaps most importantly, the neutrality of it.  Science does not take sides, science has no prejudice, no bias, no preconceived notions. What would it mean to have a feel for science, a basic understanding of why a science mindset could help in seeking the “truth” in all of our disciplines?

We’ve seen two major fronts in the ongoing debate about what is truly best in terms of reaching our students and offering them the fullest measure of learning possible:  General Education (aka Liberal Studies) and Interdisciplinary Studies. General Education, having long been fodder for academic discussions, is most typically an approach that entails multiple disciplines in social sciences, arts, humanities, and the sciences designed to effectively expose students to the array of ways of looking at the world and secondarily to open diverse paths for future studies or careers. Interdisciplinary studies, on the other hand, are considered a “twenty first-century imperative” by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Project Kaleidoscope (AACU 2011).

Efforts are frequently made to create an interdisciplinary component that all too often is little more than multiple disciplinary efforts, usually taught by separate faculty members with relevant but separate expertise, to focus on some broadly defined unifying topic.  Examples from actual courses (using real titles but without institutions noted) blending and listed as “interdisciplinary” include:  “Medical Science” (for health profession majors and integrating life science, mathematics, social studies, language arts, arts, humanities, vocational studies, and health); “Seasons of Life” (a study of human development from biosocial, psycho social, and cognitive views); “Victorian Garbage: Disgust and Desire in British Literature and Culture” (a review of Victorian garbage as revealed in literature; review of notions as they pertain to gender, social class and economics, relevance to physiological and conceptual parameters, and
history; “HIV/AIDS: Cultural, Social, and Scientific Aspects of the Pandemic” (survey of HIV pandemic from perspective of biology, therapy, epidemiology, social costs and issues, behavior, artistic visualizations); and “Life in the Universe” (introduction to astrobiology and the search for life outside of earth; cultural, science, and philosophical aspects).

There’s a common link in each of these interdisciplinary courses, a backbone that links and holds erect the topics that all emerge from a basic platform.  Medical Science, Seasons of Life, Victorian Garbage, HIV/AIDS, and Life in the Universe are all rooted in science.  Science emerges though cultural and social responses to a virus, to the notion that there is life on another planet, to the diseases that have their origins in human and other waste, to questions about infinity.  Be it religion or social values, pigments found in the paint on the tip of an artist’s brush or in the paint used by tribal warriors to intimidate enemies, or in the concept of a vengeful deity conceived to “understand” many disasters, each and every such product or event is thoroughly rooted in science. In each discipline are we not continually asking where an event or object fit into our understandings?  How much deeper will learning be if content is linked with insuring that students have a solid underpinning in the process of science?  We understand what happens when individuals ignore the reality of science, when what science is and how it functions and yes, its’ limitations, are ignored, misconstrued or purposefully twisted.  We see this as the populace buys into false arguments and views and we see the consequences in ongoing global environmental disasters and the economic and cultural turmoil that results (see Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Steel and Germs: The Fate of Human Societies” (1997) for a sobering look at what happens when we ignore science or the clues nature has to offer).  Can we help our students better understand history, economics, business, sociology, music, art, politics, and linguistics if there is an ever-questioning approach that mimics scientific inquiry? I suspect after some introspection many teachers will recognize that this is in part a pedagogical approach they already broach. So, how do we move science and science methodology across our curriculum?  This is really an effort to instill what John Moore would have called rational inquiry.  We can best insure a deep and long lasting learning if our students can understand from whence knowledge emerged.  How are discoveries made?  What is the process of science and how does it parallel discoveries in all fields?  Is knowledge of the scientific method the game plan for innovation and creativity or vice versa?  Just what is it in the human brain that brought us to this point in our evolutionary history where we can use science and a deep understanding of how science plays a role in searching for truth?

In science there is no effort to judge, no good and no bad, not even a right and wrong.  There just “is”.  Our search for the latter drives research and inquiry.  And research and inquiry moves all of our disciplines forward.  The question is do we gain by moving our disparate disciplines forward in parallel, asymptotically, do we blend them via interdisciplinary efforts, or can we bring a better appreciation to the array of fields we all study by bringing a bit of science or scientific method into every discussion?  Is the occasional interdisciplinary course that attempts to blend science with other disciplines sufficient?  Can the power of scientific inquiry be infused within curricula across the university to allow for deeper learning?  The National Academy of Sciences has argued that universities must take an approach that is more comprehensive in blending disciplines.  I agree.  However, the required but still multidisciplinary (not interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary) course does not set a student on a path to critical thinking where the thread of science can help fine tune their learning.  Nor is this an argument to enhance “scientific literacy”.  The enhancement of scientific literacy is critical and the past decade saw a push by major scientific and United Nation agencies in encouraging a curriculum that better serves this goal (see Hodson, 2006).  However most of these efforts resulted in  independent courses that focused on the fundamental ideas of science,  how science is done and how STEM disciplines interweave with society.  This is exactly the goal sought here but the idea that a course  in Scientific Literacy will make “the” difference is at best a gamble and  at worst delusional.  As the next generation attempts to consider  history so as not to repeat mistakes, as they consider the next tones of  music or the cerebral dwellings of philosophy, it might be beneficial to  bring a scientific approach to their thought processes and entwine the  thread of science into their own cognitive evaluations within their  entire curriculum.

There’s a reason we hear so much about the need for more and  improved STEM education and it’s not just about creating more scientists.  It is likely that citizens of this country, and I suspect globally, might be well served by a basic understanding of scientific  tenets that can better inform political decisions.  The rhetoric and false  arguments might dissolve under the light of science.  Let’s agree, even without a complete makeover of our curriculum, to at least put a little more science into our courses, our majors, and our student’s way of thinking and learning.

AACU Summary Report 2011. What Works in Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning in Science and Mathematics. Association of American College and Universities and Project Kaleidoscope. AAC&U Publications, Washington, D.C. 20pp.

Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.  W.W. Norton & Company

Hodson, D. 2006. Why we should prioritize learning about science. Canadian Journal of  Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. 6(3):293-311.

Robert Prezant is Dean of the College of Science and  Mathematics and Professor of Biology and Molecular Biology.  He maintains an active research laboratory  that focuses on environmental perturbations of reproductive ecology in aquatic invertebrates.  Well published in journals that range from the The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology to Science, Dr. Prezant has also been the lead on numerous research grants as well as grants that focus on student learning and scholarship. He served as Editor-in-Chief of a major malacological journal for ten years, is University Professor from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the New Jersey R&D Council, N.J. Sea Grant Consortium, and is on the Advisory Council on Science Teaching and Learning for the Liberty Science Center.

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