Stanford News

4/9/97

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The Science Core experiment: Snapshots of the first year

Biological sciences Professor Virginia Walbot can just see the T-shirts: "I survived SME."

She envisions a team of students wearing the shirts with hats to match, blitzing the dorms early next fall. They'll tell other humanities majors about the Science, Math and Engineering core, SME (pronounced "smee") or "Science Core" for short. That's the new year-long course that satisfies the three "techie" general education requirements for a non-science major, all in one swoop.

The SME "survivors" will tell about the day a bunch of them stood around the Clock Tower and shook it until a seismic detector picked up the wave motions. Or how a professor demonstrated blood clotting mechanisms in class using real blood ­ lots of it. Or how they built their own pinhole cameras and used them to calculate the height of Hoover Tower. They'll echo sophomore Zoja Deretic, who said before a class in March, "I think everyone should learn this way. It's not dry. You learn the hard stuff but you get the big picture too."

The 80-plus students in the 96-97 course are testing a bold new idea. A handful of Stanford professors are trying to invent a new way to teach science. They want the students to learn not just the concepts and philosophy of science and technology, but how it is done, how it works and how they can use that information throughout their lives.

There are few road maps for most of such a program. The faculty and staff have been fine-tuning the experiment as they work through the inaugural year, rewriting lectures and redesigning labs, working with student suggestions as well as continual self-critiques. But Walbot, who holds her office hours in the coffee house and the freshman dorms, often has been first to hear the students' gripes about a course still finding its focus. She is not kidding about printing "I survived" on the shirts.

"This is an experiment," emphasizes biological sciences Professor Sharon Long, in a litany that is echoed by most of her colleagues. "We don't know exactly how it is going to turn out yet."

It is an experiment in its early stages, now beginning the third of nine test quarters. Still, Stanford's new course already has an anxious following in academic circles. In February, course director Brad Osgood, a professor of mathematics who has been active in changing the way calculus is taught, was asked to speak about the Science Core for a session on education reform at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

According to the National Research Council, only 15 percent of the 2 million students who graduate from U.S. colleges each year earn degrees in science and engineering. Stanford's new course aims at the non-scientist majority; there is a growing sense among U.S. scientists that unless that majority understands the work they do, there will be little support for it in the future.

At Stanford, the faculty also are convinced that they are working with future business leaders, judges, members of Congress ­ the decision-makers of the next century.

Asked about their aims for these students, most of the Science Core team have similar ambitions: "We want them to be able to read a report about a supposed medical advance and have a sense of whether the writer has enough information to draw those conclusions," said Robert Simoni, a biological sciences professor who studies cholesterol.

scicore1.jpeg
At work in a “Heart” core lab exercise, freshman Kim Baker adds a plasmid ­ a piece of DNA ­ to the genes of e. coli. The added DNA instructed the bacterium to glow in the dark.



"We want them to be able to make back-of-the-envelope calculations," said Martin Blunt, an associate professor of petroleum engineering who figures out ways to get hard-to-extract oil and pollutants out of the ground. Some of these students will have to make decisions based on claims about future world oil supplies, or about future population growth, Blunt said. He'd like them to have the tools to judge the reliability of expert testimony.

Originally recommended by Stanford's Committee on Undergraduate Education, the Science Core has garnered a margin of support, including three-year teaching commitments by 16 busy faculty members and their departments. The university renovated a space to set up labs and demonstrations in the basement of Margaret Jacks Hall.

The course has a budget of $2.11 million for the planning year and the first two years of instruction. Principal funding sources include a personal gift from William Hewlett, a donation of equipment from Hewlett-Packard Corp. and grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

A professional laboratory manager, Kelly Beck; three head course and teaching assistants, Marjorie Lucks, Jon Eisen and Jim Schneider; and a corps of nearly a dozen TAs support three separate tracks, dubbed "Earth," "Heart" and "Light" for the thematic approach that each takes to the material.

Each of the tracks has about 25 students, taught by four professors in the "Light" core, five in "Heart" and seven in "Earth."

Not teaching-as-usual

Most of the students are freshmen and sophomores. They may not know that they are learning about genetics and heart disease and earthquakes from some of the leading scientists in those fields. They probably don't know which of their professors is a MacArthur "genius" fellow or which ones have earned awards for the quality of their teaching. But by now they have discovered that this is not your usual introductory university lecture course.

Professors attend most of their colleagues' lectures and jump in to class discussions. Field trip destinations range from the flagship of biotech companies, Genentech, to a modern garbage dump.

Faculty take care to provide vivid demonstrations in class. Geophysics department chair Mark Zoback, who measures the movements of continents in his research, wanted to show how measuring systems vary in accuracy, so he enlisted a graduate student as a tape measure. Walbot, who uses corn in her research to study genetics, enlisted TAs in class to show how genes shift around on chromosomes. She attached Velcro "genes" to two human "chromosomes" and directed them to bounce against each other, exchanging "genetic material."

Simoni was the one who brought blood to class ­ eight units from the Stanford blood bank. "I thought the students would run screaming for the exits at the end," he said. "Instead, the students came running to get a closer look, and the faculty took off out the doors."

Some of the faculty and TAs have worked on the Science Core since its planning stages. Almost all have worked solidly since last summer, meeting weekly to plan and critique the course. Psychology Professor Russell Fernald, who also chairs another interdisciplinary program, the Human Biology major, says a hidden benefit is the chance to work closely with other faculty.

By now the "Light" team are such good friends, "we can tell each other 'that lecture stinks' without hurt feelings. We're having the time of our lives," Fernald said.

Sleepless nights

"There is a not-so-hidden agenda here, to change the way science is taught," Osgood told educators at AAAS. But he warned: "Don't allow yourself the illusion that this is easy to do." Most of his colleagues agree; several admit to losing sleep before some of their key Science Core lectures.

Long, a biologist who studies communication among the genes of different organisms, said the science core presented a fresh challenge for several reasons. scicore2.jpeg
Freshman Jomay Liu and sophomore Katharine Perez work with bacterial plasmids. The goal of the “Heart” core lab exercise was to learn some of the ways that molecular biologists identify genes and add or remove genes from organisms.



One is the range of subject matter: The goal is to combine math with the natural sciences, especially physics, chemistry and biology, and then to show how those principles become practical through engineering and technology. "None of us happens to have done that before," Long said.

"We need to teach several things at once," she said. "We have to teach the context. We have to teach the information, the facts. And we have to teach it in a way that conveys process and critical thinking." Most science professors know how to teach facts and critical thinking skills, she said. "But learning to always teach in a context that is meaningful to non-majors ­ sometimes that means learning a lot of new stuff."

For example, as a biologist she knows a lot of real-world examples of how oxidation-reduction reactions channel the flow of electron energy in systems like photosynthesis. The same principle applies to a battery ­ but while she is familiar with the chemistry, Long found herself having to go back and learn the details of how batteries really work so she could explain it to the students.

Long is a member of a National Research Council committee on undergraduate science education, a national group of practicing scientists who have just published Science Teaching Reconsidered, a handbook for undergraduate science teachers. Until she joined the NRC committee, she said, "I had never thought as much about the difference between telling what you know and teaching it. I think the hardest thing to learn in teaching is to let go of the material so the students can get it on their own."

Members of the "Light" core faculty try to build that concept into every class. Each lecturer stops in the middle for a "breakout" session ­ students cluster in small groups with the four professors and the TAs work out a quick science or math problem. Discussions about the solution work back into the main lecture.

Fernald, who studies the links between the brain and behavior, says another big challenge is that each lecturer's material must fit in context with what the students have learned from the others. Often topics are revisited several times over as the students develop more sophistication with concepts.

Fernald began a series of "Light" course lectures by reminding students that they had just learned from Long how energy in the form of photons of light is transformed to sugars, chemical energy that plants can use. Next, he said, they were going to find out how photons enter the body through the eyes and are transformed by the brain into information. It may have been the first attempt in history to suggest a link between photosynthesis and memory.

Different approaches

Each of the three tracks has taken a somewhat different approach. The "Heart" core, officially titled "The Heart: Principles of Life Systems," started with the question: "Why do so many Americans die of heart attacks?" Using the cardiovascular system as their central metaphor, the faculty introduced students to statistics by discussing what population studies reveal about heart disease. They covered the physics and chemistry of gases and the way the lungs, the heart and hemoglobin transport oxygen into cells and carry carbon dioxide away.

Led by David Botstein, chair of genetics, the "Heart" core faculty includes Simoni, genetics Professors David Cox and Richard Myers, who are co-directors of the Stanford Human Genome Center, and statistics Professor David Siegmund, whose work includes statistical analysis of biological data. Their course has a strong emphasis on genetics, molecular biology and cell biology. In one of their labs, "Heart" students performed the basic step that launched the biotechnology industry: They cloned a piece of DNA.

They also learned something about science as a process, rather than a set of immutable facts. In Fall Quarter, Simoni said, his geneticist colleagues assured the students that cloning a human was technologically difficult and would be unlikely for many years. In Winter Quarter, after the cloning of Dolly the lamb, "we had a good class discussion," Simoni said.

The "Earth" core, officially titled "Earth Resources and the Sustainability of Life," takes students from the creation of the cosmos to the pileup of trash in 20th-century landfills. It is led by Zoback and includes Blunt and Walbot plus biological sciences Professor Ward Watt, who uses butterflies to study evolution; Gretchen Daily, the Bing Interdisciplinary Research Scientist, who studies the services that ecosystems provide to life; Michael McWilliams, associate professor of geophysics and geological and environmental sciences, who measures the history of Earth's restless crust; and Jerry Harris, associate professor of geophysics, who studies Earth's deep interior.

They used the Big Bang, the history of the Earth and evolution to introduce students to basic concepts from energy to protein structure. In Winter Quarter, they applied these concepts to the study of climate, genetics and population biology. In Spring Quarter, humans come on the scene, with sections on human evolution, human impacts on the biosphere and the implications of energy use. The year will end with a review of some of the hazards that humankind is susceptible to, from pandemic diseases to asteroid impacts. Among the planned spring field trips is a tour of buildings perched on the Bay Area's earthquake faultlines.

Zoback said that at a "town meeting" in March, the faculty learned that many students had expected human impacts to be the main topic of the core. "They were surprised by how much science it takes to understand these issues," he said. Students were reportedly reassured that the final quarter would bring the issues into focus. Zoback said next year the course will depend less on "delayed gratification" and bring more big-picture and impact-oriented topics into all three quarters.

The "Light" core, officially titled "Light in the Physical and Biological Worlds," is taught by Osgood, Long, Fernald and Pat Burchat, an associate professor of physics who is also a particle physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center ­ and who has taught an earlier course for non-majors on the physics of light. Students have moved from waves and particles to molecules to how light is perceived by the eye, with discussions along the way of evolution, genetics, the greenhouse effect, photography and laser holography.

"Light" core students viewed Impressionist paintings to learn the physics of color. As an entree into genetics, they learned about mutations caused by ultraviolet light. They studied the chirp rate of the snow tree cricket as an example of exponential functions. They conducted a range of experiments with their pinhole cameras, then presented scientific "poster sessions" and conducted scientific peer reviews of the results.

As the Science Core's resident mathematician, Osgood was particularly concerned about working math into the curriculum ­ he coined the phrase "math in the service of science" to describe the emphasis that he sought. He said he was surprised at how little math was needed to get most concepts across. "I had envisioned this as a stealth course in calculus," he said. "Instead, the most useful mathematical concepts turned out to be from probability and statistics."

However, faculty in all three cores said they see a number of ways that more math can be worked in.

"Just plain smart"

A major uncertainty for planners of the Science Core was the question of student preparation. Most introductory science courses require students to come with prerequisite credits in science and math. The faculty worried they could not meet the needs of both the most and the least prepared.

The course they designed has been hard work for some students, but of the 90 who signed up for the year-long commitment to the three cores, all but 10 have stayed on. A few of the dropouts were converts to science, inspired enough by what they learned to decide they wanted to major in some scientific field. Others had a range of reasons for quitting. According to Osgood, one young woman's letter of resignation stated, "I understand the philosophy behind the course. It's just not my learning style."

Walbot said the concerns about the students' level of preparation were probably unfounded: Even if they don't plan to be science majors, most had taken advanced placement science and math courses in high school.

"These are Stanford students," Simoni agreed. "They are just plain smart, and that makes them fun to teach."

The course has three years to prove itself. Osgood, its chief booster, admits that proof is by no means a sure thing. It will not be sufficient to meet all the faculty's high ambitions for quality, he says, unless new professors can be persuaded to take up the baton as the originators shift to other assignments.

And someone ­ faculty and student "SME survivors" alike ­ must persuade a substantial number of humanities majors to commit three quarters in a row to this sequence. A ratio of 80 students to 16 faculty is great in the startup year, says Simoni. "but to succeed, this course has to be cost effective."

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By Janet Basu