Rethinking Science Education

Presidents of liberal arts colleges are urged to move away from single discipline, traditional introductory courses.
January 6, 2010

MARCO ISLAND, FLORIDA -- The traditional introductory courses to science disciplines are a major reason why so many students drop science as soon as they can. That was the message of Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist who is president of Princeton University, in a well received speech here Tuesday at a meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges.

Some of Tilghman's talk to college presidents concerned the dismal state of science education in the United States, from elementary and secondary education through higher education. She recited various statistics and called for the creation of more courses that engage science students in "big questions" early in their careers. Too many college students are introduced to science through survey courses that consist of facts "often taught as a laundry list and from a historical perspective without much effort to explain their relevance to modern problems." Only science students with "the persistence of Sisyphus and the patience of Job" will reach the point where they can engage in the kind of science that excited them in the first place, she said.

One approach to breaking out of this pattern, she said, is to create seminars in which first-year students dive right into science -- without spending years memorizing facts. She described a seminar -- "The Role of Asymmetry in Development" -- that she led for Princeton freshmen in her pre-presidential days.

She started the seminar by asking students "one of the most fundamental questions in developmental biology: how can you create asymmetry in a fertilized egg or a stem cell so that after a single cell division you have two daughter cells that are different from one another?" Students had to discuss their ideas without consulting texts or other sources. Tilghman said that students can in fact engage in such discussions and that in the process, they learn that they can "invent hypotheses themselves."

Beyond the idea of seminars, Tilghman also outlined a more transformative approach to teaching introductory science material. David Botstein, a professor at the university, has developed the Integrated Science Curriculum, a two-year course that exposes students to the ideas they need to take advanced courses in several science disciplines. Botstein created the course with other faculty members and they found that they value many of the same scientific ideas, so an integrated approach could work. But that agreement, Tilghman said, didn't come easily, "as faculty are loath to cede control of preparation for the major to colleagues outside their own department."

The results, Tilghman said, are encouraging. Students are being admitted to top graduate programs at higher rates than in the past, and those programs "are begging us to send them more students."

During the question period, Tilghman discussed a similar effort for engineering students. Historically, she said, engineering programs take their first-year students and "send them off to take math and physics and say that they should come back when they know something." The problem is that many of them never come back. Tilghman said the university has a new course in which engineering students learn math and physics for engineering, and are also exposed to various engineering subfields.

Students are learning "the fundamentals" but also being engaged in engineering, she said.

Tilghman's talk primarily focused on the need to improve the teaching of science, and she noted that the liberal arts colleges that make up the Council of Independent Colleges have good track records -- better than those of most research universities -- at producing future doctoral students in the sciences. She noted some reasons for this, including the demand for professors at research universities to be so engaged in research that they may lack the time for the kinds of close interactions with students that liberal arts colleges take such pride in.

While Tilghman made no apologies for this reality of university life, she said that one reason research universities may not produce as many future scientists "pains me." She said that "as the scientific enterprise has become more and more competitive," undergraduates at research universities "witness firsthand the stresses and strains" of faculty members and graduate students "who are constantly concerned about the fate of the next grant application or the current paper under review." Tilghman added that she doesn't have "the slightest doubt that this pressure is discouraging even the best and brightest undergraduates from committing to a life in science."


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