Interdisciplinarity and the Science Classroom

Academic officers discuss what it means to think about science as a liberal arts subject.
October 29, 2007

About 120 provosts, deans and academic officers met in Washington late last week for a highly focused conference on “Promoting the Liberal Sciences: Science as Liberal Education,” sponsored by the American Conference of Academic Deans and the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

“We’re not here to talk about dysfunctional departments or recalcitrant curriculum committees,” John Churchill, secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, said Friday. “We’re hoping to discuss the root issues that got us interested in higher education” – specifically, in this case, Churchill said, “How do we understand the sciences as liberal arts disciplines?”

One common way in which attendees grappled with that question was through discussions of interdisciplinary approaches to teaching science. Sessions at the three-day conference focused, for instance, on studying biology through science fiction films and teaching science in its historical and cultural contexts.

In a Friday morning session, four faculty members from Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College -- instructors of biology, philosophy, anthropology and English -- tackled one particularly tricky case study: the challenge of teaching evolution across the curriculum. Even putting aside today's culture wars, “there are obvious problems teaching evolution as an anthropologist because of the historical legacy my discipline has relative to evolution,” said Christopher Kovats-Bernat, an associate professor at Muhlenberg.

Kovats-Bernat, for instance, referenced the “criminal anthropology” movement that dates to the 1870s -- essentially the argument that by measuring the degree to which a person exhibits “ape-ish” physical features one can determine their propensity to commit crimes (as “crime is equated with violence and violence is equated with lesser animals,” as Kovats-Bernat described the logic).

And Bruce Wightman, an associate professor of biology, pointed to a number of other dubious movements based on natural selection (or, more commonly, a misinterpretation of Darwinian principles) -- including the rise of social Darwinism and the catch phrase “survival of the fittest” (though, when it comes to natural selection, as Wightman points out, “whether you survive is irrelevant if you don’t reproduce"), and the interest in eugenics and forced sterilization.

Especially when the current political and curricular debate over intelligent design is layered on top of this complex historical legacy, there’s a tendency, Wightman said, for professors to retreat and teach the biological theory apart from its context. And yet, evolution is the most important idea biologists have ever introduced in terms of influencing broader thought, Wightman said.

His own sophomore students, already with a year of introductory biology under their belt, may accept evolution as a statement of fact, but still, he said, "they're poorly equipped to talk about it.... This raises questions for us as educators."

“We have to start by admitting some level of failure. If two-thirds of Americans doubt evolution, that’s a lot of college graduates out there,” Wightman said, referencing a 2004 Gallup poll. “Can this problem be addressed only by better biology instruction?”

“We know that if students see things multiple times in multiple different disciplines, they’re more likely to retain” knowledge, Wightman said.

The Muhlenberg presentation sparked a lively conversation among audience members about how the four faculty panelists might be able to teach evolution in a unified way on the Muhlenberg campus (where, for instance, Kovats-Bernat teaches a course on human evolution and Barri Gold, another presenter, teaches a literature course on Darwin’s writings. But the professors currently don't teach their various approaches to the same basic subject in a coordinated way).

The audience debated the benefits versus the administrative challenges of team teaching, including institutional barriers typically limiting cross-departmental collaboration and the extra work burden on faculty. They suggested the use of guest lectures and thoughtful advising as less complex strategies that could encourage cross-enrollment.

Those in attendance also discussed whether individual faculty members should be charged with stretching outside their specialties by teaching a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives in a course that they teach alone, with some suggesting that if students are expected to stretch across disciplines, faculty members should, too. But they acknowledged that sometimes it’s easier to encourage the former rather than the latter to take up the challenge.

A subsequent session on “Integrated Methods of Teaching Science” followed up on some of those questions, if indirectly. A group of three faculty members from Austin College began by discussing the development of interdisciplinary courses meshing science and culture, and the various manifestations of the interdisciplinary approach since the 1980s.

In the current manifestation, as Hank Gorman, a professor of psychology explains, Austin College offers a number of team taught, semester-long courses on topics like the art and science of sight -- which covers subjects including visual cognition, consciousness, and the interaction of color television with the human visual system. Austin also has some summer and January term offerings abroad, including one in Italy on "The Life and Times of Galileo." They tend to be smaller than the 60- to 90-student courses offered during semesters.

A Susquehanna University panel then followed up by describing the structure of their interdisciplinary ecology program, based primarily on a combination of biology and earth sciences courses, and the deliberate effort to design courses at different points in the curriculum -- freshman, sophomore and senior year -- with different balances of three core skill sets, “speaking, writing and teaming.”

Grady Ballenger, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida’s Stetson University, pointed out, however, that while professors increasingly value the need to master underlying skills and the ability to broadly make connections across disciplines, interdisciplinary classwork can be a tough sell for students -- especially freshmen.

There’s sometimes a sense among freshman science students “that if you’re stopping to learn about the historical context of Galileo, you’ll fall behind” as the MCAT looms, Ballenger said. Meanwhile, Ballenger said that in his experience, interdisciplinary approaches to science can, ironically, sometimes overwhelm non-science majors who are anxious about taking a science class to begin with.

“This is the kind of approach or experience that students don’t necessarily understand their first semester of college,” Ballenger said. Only later, he said, do they figure out that it's the specialized knowledge that's most easy to master.

"That's the stuff you can Google."


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