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Senate debates proposed science sequence for nonscientists

STANFORD -- Should Stanford's proposed new science requirement for non-science majors be a year-long sequence of interdisciplinary courses focused on current issues or a set of courses based on math and science disciplines?

The Faculty Senate debated but did not resolve this question during a wide-ranging 90-minute discussion at its meeting Thursday, Nov. 10.

Senators generally praised the proposal made in October by the Commission on Undergraduate Education that would replace Stanford's current graduation requirements in mathematical sciences, natural sciences, and technology and applied sciences with a new interdisciplinary three-quarter sequence tentatively titled "Introduction to the Natural Sciences, Quantitative Analysis and Technology."

But some faculty criticized the proposal as not sufficiently demanding or rigorous. They also wondered if the courses might prove too burdensome for those students who suffer from math and science "anxiety."

Several of the 26 faculty who spoke questioned whether they would have sufficient resources to implement the new science curriculum, and whether the new requirement would divert science faculty from teaching science majors.

Others wondered if an interdisciplinary approach could be sustained for more than a few years, and some felt it was inappropriate for a scientifically oriented committee to design a requirement for a clientele they hardly know.

The session was the first of several that will be held this year to discuss recommendations set forth by the commission at the Oct. 13 senate meeting. Senate Chair Robert Simoni, biological sciences, announced that the recommendations for enhanced language and writing requirements will be discussed at the Dec. 1 senate meeting.

A new science sequence for non-majors was one of the most significant recommendations put forth by the commission, which said it considered the current requirement to be "the weakest link" in Stanford's present system of distribution requirements.

In its October report, the commission suggested establishment of a design committee that would develop specific proposals for a new science core. The faculty Committee on Committees will meet with Provost Condoleezza Rice on Nov. 17 to advise her on composition of that committee.

Stanford annually graduates about 600 to 700 students who do not major in science or engineering.

Most fulfill the three technically oriented distribution requirements with courses designed for nonspecialists. "Whatever their other merits, many of these courses do not teach students what it means to think scientifically," the commission said.

History Professor James Sheehan, who served as commission chair, told the senate that there was a "disconnection between theory and practice. . . . There was not a clear connection between this long list of courses and the rhetoric defining their purpose."

In its report, the commission recommended creation of new courses that would cover problem solving, experimental work, technology, computer literacy and elements of probability and statistics.

It said the courses should include study of the interplay between the environment and biological systems; the molecular basis for living and nonliving things; the nature of energy in the physical world; the character of physical law; and the concepts of symmetry, growth, orders of magnitude and the effects of scale.

The courses would be organized into individual tracks emphasizing such problems as natural disasters, global climate change, biological diversity, natural resources, how things work, and biological and physical change.

Interdisciplinary proposal

The senate discussion began with brief presentations by Sheehan and seven other faculty members that had been organized by the Faculty Senate Steering Committee.

Senators Gail Mahood, geological and environmental sciences, and Brad Osgood, mathematics - both members of the commission - set forth ideas developed by the commission and its breadth requirement subcommittee and discussed with an informal faculty group that met during the summer.

Mahood and Osgood strongly advocated an interdisciplinary approach in the proposed courses.

Mahood said the sequence would not cover the philosophy or history of science. Instead, the nonmajors would be taught facts and principles as they learn to "approach the natural world like scientists and engineers."

In addition to learning just the subjects of whatever track was chosen, students would emerge with "basic computer literacy, including using e-mail, networks, spreadsheets and simple graphical programs,² Mahood said. ³We would hope that they would understand what constitutes a valid scientific experiment. They would learn how real world problems can be posed as equations; basically, what we all learned in grammar school as word problems. And we'd hope that they'd all come out with a feeling of how to do back-of-the-envelope calculations and then estimate the uncertainties in their results."

As originally envisioned, the courses would be highly interdisciplinary, she said, in hopes of presenting a "seamless view" of science to students and "to sort of seduce them into learning some of the otherwise abstract principles of chemistry and physics by applying them to biological or geological problems with which they are more likely to have had personal experience."

She said some faculty had argued that the tracks should not be "so idiosyncratic that they can only be taught by their originators." Faculty who support this view want courses that could be divided into modules that "concentrate on how a discipline approaches the problem that is the subject of the track," she said.

The new science core would be a three-quarter sequence of four units per quarter, she suggested, adding that some faculty like the idea of a more intense two-quarter sequence with an intervening winter or spring vacation field trip.

According to the plan outlined by Mahood, teaching would be done by teams of tenured faculty, with help from teaching assistants who would run labs. Faculty would be drawn from the schools of Engineering and Earth Sciences, the natural science departments in Humanities and Sciences, and the basic science departments from the Medical School.

Weekly lab sessions would include classic experiments involving observation and measurement, guided tutorials on computer spreadsheets, working through analytical problem sets, field trips and computer simulations, Mahood said. "We're not talking about dissecting frogs or conjuring up explosive mixtures in these labs."

Initially, the core would operate with one or two tracks as an experimental alternative to the current distribution requirement. Start-up funding would likely be available from the National Science Foundation, she said, but long-term resources would be needed to sustain the effort, which eventually should include a full-time coordinator such as a senior lecturer.

Mahood said that what attracted her to teaching the courses was the prospect of collaborating with "my smart colleagues in other disciplines."

"Whatever financial or disciplinary barriers there might be to initiating the science core, I think most of us know in our heart of hearts that it's the right thing to do for some of our students. I hope that we can gain the moral support of the greater faculty and the financial support of the university so that we can proceed promptly and decisively," Mahood said.

Importance of math

In his remarks, Osgood said it is impossible to consider a serious discussion of science or scientific problems without some understanding of mathematics, which he and others defined as including probability and statistics.

"I would like the students to be able to use mathematics as a tool with some confidence and common sense," he said.

"I want students to be able to work with data, to interpret drafts, to have a sense of orders of growth, orders of magnitude and rates of change," Osgood said. "I would like them to have a practical working knowledge of many of the basic ideas of calculus, even though we want to try to maintain a light touch as far as the terminology and notation goes."

He then entertained the senate with a problem he presented to President Gerhard Casper: "If Gerhard runs twice as fast as Condi [Rice] and Condi runs five times as fast as Bob [Simoni], how much faster is Gerhard running than Bob?"

"Say 10," Osgood hurriedly prompted the president to wide laughter.

"You can now understand the chain rule for finding the derivative of the composition of two functions - sort of," Osgood said.

At the next senate meeting, "I'll trick you into solving some differential equations," Osgood told Casper to more laughter.

Osgood went on to say that the "mathematical background of many of our students is weak."

Much can be done with the thoughtful use of technology as a tool to supplement and enhance mathematical reasoning, he said.

Interdisciplinary support

Senate guest Sharon Long, biological sciences, supported Mahood and Osgood's recommendations.

Drawing on her experience as a member of a national committee of academics and industry leaders working on the same issue, she told the senate that after two years' work, the Committee on Undergraduate Science Education of the National Research Council "came up with almost exactly the same conclusions and recommendations that you've heard from your colleagues."

"Science literacy is the broad issue," she said, adding that "you don't become literate in science by knowing a set of facts, but by understanding the process."

Lucy Shapiro, developmental biology, likewise endorsed the interdisciplinary approach. She said that faculty would benefit from joint work with those from other disciplines, "working creatively to put together something that would be quite unique and invaluable."

Also supporting the Mahood-Osgood proposal was James Nelson, chair of molecular and cellular physiology, who was invited to attend the meeting along with chairs of technical and science departments from the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering.

Nelson said that a discipline-oriented approach would "turn off students" because they would worry about whether they could survive a quarter of mathematics or physics.

He said that he would enjoy teaching with engineers and mathematicians, and that other basic science faculty from the Medical School also are committed to teaching in the program.

Approach based on established disciplines

Concern about how much science the students would learn from the interdisciplinary approach prompted chemistry Professor Michael Fayer to suggest a science core based on established disciplines.

"I'm for getting across the excitement of science," Fayer said. "I really want ideas to be considered." He also endorsed the proposal¹s emphasis on the importance of mathematics and statistics. "[But] I think math and statistics are so important that they shouldn't just be folded into tricking people into learning about them. Math is to science and statistics is to science as linguistics is to literature," Fayer added.

He said he is quite worried that unless the program is departmentally based, "there will be no long-term coherence."

While it sounds "wonderful" to spend a year studying "disasters and pulling people from all sorts of disciplines," Fayer suggested that a four-quarter sequence of math, physics, chemistry and biology would be more successful.

Fayer said that he would start with a quarter of math and statistics so people know the language, then go to a quarter of physics, emphasizing mechanics, electricity, magnetism, and topics in technology such as electronics, integrated circuits and computers.

"This gives people what they need to understand in chemistry, where they can then learn about molecules, but also in combination with technology, the plastics industry, the petroleum industry, all the things we see around us that are technological results of chemistry. Once they've had this physics and chemistry, they're ready to go into biology, where they can learn how molecules and physical principles combine to give us life. And in biology, of course, they can study technology, such as recombinant DNA technology used to make pharmaceuticals," Fayer said.

Fayer also said labs should be used to expose students to the "excitement of seeing science happen."

"There is nothing like seeing, in a chemical reaction, something burst into flames, change colors, do all sorts of wonderful things."

He told the senate that his own career was launched one day in high school when his chemistry teacher used Fayer's desk for a demonstration of what happens when sodium mixes with water. "He cut off too large a piece, and it blew up and threw flaming sodium all over me. I thought this was wonderful and I became a chemist," he said.

Labs also train individuals to do procedures. "You develop technical ability that you eventually will use in your career," he said. "It's not what you learn in any one lab course in terms of technique that's important, it's the cumulative effect of taking these lab courses."

Fayer admitted that his proposal "sounds very old fashioned." But 10 years from now, the courses still could be taught, he said.

Humanist supports disciplinary approach

English Professor John Bender, an expert on English Renaissance literature, told the senate that he took many science courses in college with the original intention of becoming a scientist. He strongly supported Fayer, and expressed concern that the interdisciplinary approach sounded like "physics for poets."

He suggested that the faculty should have "a very, very clear sense" of the clientele and what they need. On the subject of labs, he said he wanted to see problems solved with supervisory help from faculty or teaching assistants, rather than have students sit around "jawing about ecology."

Bender said he would like to see a preliminary unit covering math skills, but could not support the science core if it would "slide into knowing how to run Excel."

Philosophy Professor John Etchemendy, who also serves as senior associate dean of humanities and sciences, echoed Bender's concern about computer literacy, but said Mahood and Osgood's overall vision for the proposed sequence is "very exciting."

However, he also told Mahood, "you're setting your sights far too low" if computer literacy means the ability to use e-mail and spreadsheets. Probably 95 percent of undergraduates already can do that, he said.

"These might be good, challenging goals for the faculty," he said to wide laughter.

John Hennessy, computer science, added that computer literacy "is no more than the notion of teaching typing might have been a few years ago. We should move forward and try to teach them topics like what's an algorithm, how is data represented in a computer, how can a computer store language and pictures and information, and how does it all get represented."

Math, science anxiety

Amos Tversky, psychology, and Roger Noll, economics, joined Fayer and Bender in their concern about the proposed interdisciplinary approach.

Tversky said he was "thoroughly excited" about the proposal, and especially about seeing "first-rate scientists get involved." However, he worried that the goals are unrealistic.

Many of the students taking the science core will be "anxious" about math and technology, he said. "The notion that they will be able to actually solve problems and do sensible back-of-the- envelope calculations, let alone get uncertainty ranges, strikes me as completely unrealistic."

He said that a more realistic goal would be to develop an understanding of science, to convey what it is about and why it is exciting. "I don't think coherence is so important. I think we need a good set of demonstrations, a good set of examples. I think you ought to choose simple, compelling examples rather than a timely one," he said.

"The danger of discussing ecology is enormous," he said. "The science is terribly complicated, in many cases very controversial."

Noll said he was concerned about the disparity of the student population that would be the target of the new science core. He called for a remediation program to bring students up to a level where they could take the course Fayer described.

It is "absolutely clear to me that there's not only the math and science phobia, but there's also the math and science retrogradeness," he said. "And I don't think a single course can serve people on all points."

The course should be at a "demanding, serious level," but Noll said his experience is that "a significant fraction of them won't be able to hack it."

Chemistry Professor John Brauman questioned whether a high standard could be maintained in the proposed sequence, given the fear some students have of math and science. "I don't think we can put in a requirement for graduation that 20 percent of our students can't meet," he said.

Taking the opposite view, mechanical engineering Professor Charles Kruger, who also serves as vice provost and dean of research and graduate policy, noted that two-thirds of undergraduates score above 700 on the math Scholastic Assessment Test.

"If we have a well-constructed, well-taught, exciting course, I think we can achieve these objectives," Kruger said.

Don't ignore history of science

Two senators, George Dekker of English and Mike Atkin of education, spoke on behalf of the history of science, which Mahood earlier said would not be included in the new sequence.

Dekker agreed that the new science sequence would be too crowded to accommodate history of science, but he put in a plea to add it to the culture core, which also is slated for revision.

A class on Darwin was one of the best he took in college, Dekker said, and "I'm still drawing on the capital I built up in that course." Most students leave college "pretty ignorant" of the history of science, which is "one of the most important aspects of human history," he said.

Atkin said that some schools have been successful in using historical episodes to teach science to those who are not destined for science careers. He also suggested that faculty with expertise in history of science could help sustain the proposed sequence over a longer period than might otherwise happen.

In a gentle reminder to the senate, German Professor Rob Robinson pointed out that the commission proposed replacing the current three-course requirement with a differently structured three-course sequence. But several suggestions made during the meeting would add more courses.

"I thought it was kind of nice that the result was going to be another three required courses, not four or five or six," Robinson said.

How to pay for it?

Several faculty members also reminded their colleagues that Stanford's science faculty already is lean and that more resources would be needed to operate the new core.

Science faculty in the School of Humanities and Sciences number about 120, physics Professor Sandy Fetter told the senate. "I find it inconceivable that you could pull out six or eight faculty from H&S units and not have it be very detrimental to the majors," he said.

A mechanism is needed to expand the pool of people who would teach the course, said Fetter, who expressed support for the integrated, interdisciplinary approach. "I don't think it can succeed with the current number of faculty unless you give up something else."

Senate guest Dick Zare, chemistry, said he strongly supported Mahood and Osgood's interdisciplinary approach and estimated that it would cost about the same as the university now spends to operate the Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) program.

"Please do not attempt to acquire champagne tastes on a beer budget," Zare warned his colleagues. "Either we should do this program right or we shouldn't do it."

Summarizing a brief discussion on the subject held in Biological Sciences, Pat Jones, who chairs the department, said that some faculty are worried that the new core might pull resources away from science majors. Some of the most skilled faculty might be intrigued by this new science core and therefore not be available to teach majors or graduate students, she said.

Jones said she had been told that it takes about nine faculty to sustain a CIV track over several years. Only four may teach in a given year, but provision must be made for faculty leaves, scheduling conflicts and turnover.

Also setting forth views gathered at a departmental meeting, Hennessy of computer science said his colleagues are worried about the cost of implementing the proposed requirement.

Currently, the Computer Science Department teaches two courses that fulfill the technology distribution requirement. Enrollments have risen dramatically in recent years, and 80 percent of the students taking the courses are now nonmajors, he said. Funding for the courses currently comes from off-campus television revenues that the department receives for graduate-level courses. But that cannot be counted on forever, he said.

Try it out on science majors?

Reflecting on the long discussion, chemistry Professor Steve Boxer said, "I see a real bifurcation of approaches, and I'm not sure these two approaches can easily come together."

Faculty at Stanford have no experience teaching science majors in an interdisciplinary manner, but this could be attempted, he said.

"I'm not sure how to deal with this other clientele," he said of the nonmajors. "I consider it rather presumptuous that we even know what we would want to say to these people."

Boxer told the senate that he might be the only person in the room who spent two undergraduate years in a "truly interdisciplinary, integrated science curriculum."

In this program, six faculty members met six days a week with 20 students, "and we barely managed."

They studied calculus, physics on alternating days, and the labs were all biology. "It met all of the wonderful things that those people who are talking about an interdisciplinary program would like to accomplish. But I think it's impossible with 600 or 700 students to do that in any sensible way."

He proposed that Stanford experiment with the format by offering an integrated program for science majors next year. "Get some of the people at Stanford who teach in these different departments used to teaching together on something they actually know something about," he said.

Asked if the discussion would continue at the next meeting, Simoni said he would rather wait to have additional discussions with the science curriculum design committee that soon will be appointed.



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