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Science in the Core: A Progress Report

November 2014


At the beginning of the Fall semester 2013 Dean James Valentini formed the Committee on Science in the Core to consider alternative ways in which a Core science course, required of all undergraduates in Columbia College, might be developed.  The committee was asked to build on the analysis of the existing Core science course, Frontiers of Science (FoS), an analysis worked out during 2012-13 by a subcommittee of EPPC.  Although our primary focus is exploration of alternative possibilities, the committee, which met regularly during the 2013-14 academic year, does not rule out the possibility that, at the end of the day, a revised version of FoS might prove to be the best option.  Yet that verdict should only be reached after a serious comparison with the most promising rivals we can devise.

During 2013-14, the main work of the committee consisted in articulating the goals a Core science course should achieve, and using its conclusions to develop two approaches.  These still need more development, but after discussions with several faculty groups, held in the Spring and earlier this Fall, we are planning to elaborate both to a stage at which they can be tried out in the classroom.  This brief progress report is intended to inform the university community, faculty and students, about the lines along which we have been thinking, and to outline our current ideas about proceeding further.


The informed and thorough analysis provided by the EPPC subcommittee, chaired by Susan Pedersen and Stuart Firestein, recommends departing from the reliance on large lectures in FoS and making use of the seminar format, already present in FoS and central to Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization.  That recommendation lies at the basis of the two options we are exploring.  We are convinced of the pedagogical advantages of the seminar format, and are endeavoring to adapt it to the special case of general education in science.  Our hope is to elaborate at least one course that can achieve the educational success that other Core courses have come to enjoy (often, we would note, after substantial work in refining them).

Two other points made in the EPPC report have guided our discussions: first, it is important that a science Core course achieve the same level of coherence found in LH or CC; second, the seminars should not become standard recitation sessions, in which the seminar leader drills the students on what they need in order to do well on exams.  Both approaches attempt to respond to these problems.  We believe that the seminar format, in which discussions will be led by an instructor who can organize and shape the material, will help to alleviate the coherence problem (as it already does in LH and CC).

Our consideration of goals has led us to conclude that a Core science course should foster interest and enthusiasm for science (even a “sense of wonder”), that it should promote scientific literacy, that it should engender an understanding of ways in which evidence supports scientific conclusions, that it should provide a firm grasp of scientific concepts, and enable students to appreciate aspects of the practice of scientific investigation.  FoS began with the insight that a science Core course ought to be distinct in character from standard introductory courses in science departments, an insight it attempted to implement with a concentration on “habits of mind”.  During its evolution, FoS became more focused on instilling particular content, with the result that the seminars became similar, at least in part, to the recitation sections that accompany introductory science courses.  We cannot know in advance whether the alternatives we are developing can avoid a similar evolutionary trajectory, but these approaches have been crafted with an awareness of the problem.


The subcommittees that have worked on the two options concur in viewing both content and skills as important outcomes of a science Core course.  The approaches differ, however, in their emphasis on these goals and in the ways they attain these goals.

One option presents a range of topics drawn from across the sciences.  It starts with the origins of the universe and our planet, studies how the elements forged in stars combined into the building blocks of life, and tracks this life from its inception through evolution, concluding with the special case of our own species.  The course envisaged would be structured by a historical narrative, and would lead from physics and chemistry through earth science and biology to physical anthropology, neuroscience and psychology.

The second option presents seminal scientific ideas in the context of their initial development and acceptance, focusing on ways in which scientific evidence is marshalled.  It, too, covers all major areas of science, but uses great scientific breakthroughs (the discovery of the basic laws of heredity and of the special theory of relativity, for example) to illustrate and analyze the methods employed in the sciences.  Beginning with relatively simple instances, it articulates patterns of scientific thought in ever more nuanced ways as the semester proceeds.

We do not exclude the possibility that an eventual recommendation of our committee might synthesize elements of these two approaches.  We should also note that, like LH and CC, the courses we envisage would have a stable curriculum from semester to semester, year to year.   This feature should lessen the demands placed on instructors who teach it regularly.

At the end of last academic year, we began to discuss these two approaches with several interested groups.  We met first with the committee that prepared the EPCC report.  We continued by meeting with the Committee on Science Instruction, and the Executive Committee and staff of FoS.  This Fall we have discussed the options with a group of science faculty, representing all the science departments.  Some of the useful feedback we received has already been incorporated in our plans for going further.

Next Steps

From this point on, we hope to have continued discussions with faculty and students.  We are currently planning a town hall meeting, open to all students in Columbia College, and we hope that our work will benefit from the feedback we receive.  The involvement of science faculty (beyond the membership of the committee) will also be crucial to the development of the alternative courses we envisage.

Later this Fall or at the start of the Spring semester, in light of what we learn from our discussions with students and faculty, we plan to start a Model Seminars Program.  The greatest concerns emerging from the meetings we had last spring focus on the content of individual seminar sessions, and the burdens imposed on potential instructors in preparing suitable classes.  The aim of the model seminars program is to understand the possibilities for achieving the pedagogical goals of our two envisaged alternatives to FoS, in a framework that emulates the seminar-section format of other core courses (particularly LH and CC).  Since both options would cover a range of scientific areas, we want to determine if instructors who are not specialists in all these fields can lead seminar discussions that adequately convey the scientific content.  Further we want to understand the burdens involved in preparing successful presentations and discussions, and to explore methods of effective mentoring.  We expect that the model seminars will also help us to articulate further the outline syllabi that resulted from the committee’s efforts last year.

In the first phase of the program, we plan to invite people with proven success as section leaders in FoS to prepare individual sessions drawn from the two envisaged courses.  We want them to cover topics in their own research fields, and, later, topics removed from their areas of specialization.  While it is conceivable that, because of their past experience, they might be able to do this without consulting Columbia faculty who specialize in the pertinent topic, we do not wish to assume this and in fact intend to provide resources for mentoring as needed.

The presenters will come to meetings of the whole committee, supplemented with interested science faculty, more students, and perhaps members of other groups (COI, Committee on the Core, EPPC, COSI).  They will lead a mock seminar.  After the seminar, those who have participated will discuss whether the pedagogical aims have been achieved, and will work towards finding improvements.  It is possible that we shall want to invite the same presenter to offer the same seminar more than once.  As we go, we hope to assemble ideas and principles for further seminar development.

If and when the committee is satisfied that we have models of successful seminar discussions, we shall move to a second experimental phase.  In this phase, we will ask the most successful section leaders at the first stage to conduct a “training session” with some volunteers who have not previously taught in FoS.  We will then ask the “trainees” to offer seminar presentations to the committee (again expanded by adding other interested parties).

Proposed Timetable

If we can successfully complete both phases by the end of this academic year, we believe that the way will be prepared for a pilot program of alternative sections of FoS.  Once we have developed our ideas into fully worked-out proposals, we shall discuss those proposals more broadly with the university community.  A pilot program might begin by allowing a few student volunteers to select one of the alternatives to FoS.  It would certainly involve a stage at which we would randomize assignment and collect comparative data on student experiences.  The first pilot sections would be held in Fall 2015 (at the earliest).

As we progress with this work, questions of staffing will also have to be addressed and serious consideration needs to be given as to how faculty involvement and participation will be ensured.

Although this timetable may need to be modified in some respects, we want to emphasize that Fall 2015 is the earliest potential start date for a pilot program.  FoS will remain in place through 2014-15, and it will be the Core science course for a majority of students during 2015-16.  We think the problem of general education in science is a complex one.  Going slowly and testing our ideas will, we hope, provide an appropriate response to the complexities.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to be in touch with either Peter deMenocal or Philip Kitcher.

Committee Chairs:

Peter deMenocal, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Philip Kitcher, Professor of Philosophy

Committee Members (in alphabetical order):

Louis Brus, Professor of Chemistry
Martin Chalfie, Professor of Biological Sciences 
Jenny Davidson, Professor of English and Comparative Literature 
Ruth DeFries, Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology 
Emma Dell, GSAS’15 (Chemistry)
Donald Hood, Professor of Psychology
Cliff Massey CC’10 
Roosevelt Montas, Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum 
Violet Nieves CC’15 
Ari Schuman CC’15 
James Valentini, Dean of Columbia College and Vice President of Undergraduate Education, Professor of Chemistry (ex officio member)
Gregory Wawro, Professor of Political Science
Gareth Williams, Professor of Classics
William Zajc, Professor of Physics