Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 3
(2006)

Download our print issue (PDF)
Faculty Involvement
Science, Diversity, and Global Learning: Untangling Complex Problems
Breaking the Pyramid: Putting Science in the Core
Geologic Science for Global Citizenship: Under the Radar, but on the Web
Science and Global Learning at Carnegie Mellon University
Campus-Community Connections
Science and Citizenship: Habits of Mind for Global Understanding
Curricular Transformation
Connecting Global Learning and Science Education in the General Education Curriculum
Science, Gender, and the Environment
Student Experience
Seeing the World Around You
Institutional Leadership
Developing a Scalable, Sustainable Campus Diversity Initiative
Resources
Resources
Resources for Science, Diversity, and Global Learning

Breaking the Pyramid: Putting Science in the Core

By Darcy Kelley, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biological Sciences, Columbia University

Editor’s Note: Darcy Kelley delivered one of the keynote addresses at the AAC&U 2006 Annual Meeting Pre-Conference Symposium, “Recentering: Science and Global Learning in the Undergraduate Curriculum.” This article is adapted from that presentation. A longer version of the article appears in the Summer 2006 issue of Peer Review.

Princeton University

Columbia University

In 1919, Columbia College of Columbia University began to develop a set of courses that introduce students to essential ideas of music, art, literature, philosophy, and political thought. The Core Curriculum is the hallmark of a Columbia education, but it lacked a science component until fall 2004, when a new course for all entering students—Frontiers of Science—began as a five-year experiment.

The Pyramid

Why was science left out of Columbia’s core curriculum for so long? Why is teaching a broad course in science so hard? One factor was the general consensus among the faculty about what a proper science education should be, a consensus adopted and reinforced by the professional schools, particularly medical schools. This consensus has been most vividly described by Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman’s metaphor comparing traditional training in science to a pyramid. In this model, students must complete a foundation of introductory science courses before they can progress to more specialized courses and more engaging scientific questions.

Let’s say, for example, that a student is interested in the way the brain handles language. What must she do to take a course on that subject? If she pursues her interest via a biology perspective, she must first take a year of chemistry, then a year of introductory biology, an introductory sequence in neuroscience, and then, finally, she is allowed to enroll in the course that interested her in the first place. However, that first year of chemistry often discourages all but the most determined, which means our hypothetical student might never make it to her original goal.

Suppose that we could break the pyramid. Suppose that it were possible to present the neurobiology of language in a rigorous and insightful way along with other topics at the frontiers of science: global climate change, the origins of the universe, quantum mechanics, molecular motors. This attempt to “break the pyramid” is a defining characteristic of Frontiers of Science. It is at the heart of faculty excitement about the course, but it is also the aspect of the course that arouses the strongest opposition from members of the science faculty.

Steeped in the guild-like tradition of the sequence of courses required to become a physicist or a chemist or a biologist, many science faculty members think that it is impossible to be both interesting and rigorous in presenting difficult subjects to entering students. Further, many view the prospect of teaching outside of their own disciplines (having a biologist teach quantum mechanics or an astronomer teach neuroscience) as either pointless or extraordinarily difficult from the point of view of faculty expertise. As a scientist advances in training, his or her expertise tends to become narrower and narrower. For example, many astronomers, though well versed in mathematics and physics, have not taken a biology course since high school.

Interdisciplinary Scientific Habits of Mind

The Pyramid Model of Science Education

What has changed recently is the acceptance of the idea that, to be optimally effective, scientists must acquire cross-disciplinary skills. Nanoscience, the realm of 10-9 m, is a superb example of a cross-disciplinary forum: at this scale, physics, biology, and chemistry meet and scientific interactions can produce truly novel insights. Most scientists would agree on the importance of educating their replacements; such an education will have to be cross-disciplinary. Students at Columbia can begin to be trained that way through Frontiers of Science. This kind of scientific collaboration, moreover, can be tremendous fun for the faculty, and teaching Frontiers provides a built-in collaborative forum for some of Columbia’s best scientists.

A second impetus for the creation of Frontiers was provided by the realization that all students should learn about the analytical tools that scientists use. We all need the ability to critically examine scientific evidence if we are to make wise choices about today’s most pressing issues—climate change, stem cells, nuclear technology, transplants—and the problems that we cannot now imagine but that we will have to solve in the future. This set of tools is outlined in Frontiers Codirector David Helfand’s Web-based text, Scientific Habits of Mind. This text provides a unifying theme across the physical sciences and life sciences components of the course. The students meet in seminars to use these analytical skills to tackle scientific problems from the current literature.

A running joke in Frontiers is that we must have a New York Times spy; it is uncanny how the paper’s weekly Science Times section tracks Frontiers topics and themes. This coincidence demonstrates that it is possible to enrich faculty members’ interdisciplinary knowledge while teaching cutting-edge science to eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. We acknowledge that the caution of generations of Columbia science faculty was well placed: teaching Frontiers is probably the biggest educational challenge that any faculty member has ever faced. A seminar that includes an Intel science winner and a student who is afraid of math is difficult to get right; it is worth attempting, though, and is tremendous fun.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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