An impasse on civic science
NATIONAL ALLIANCE OF STATE SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS COALITIONS
News Brief #3565 Category: Postsecondary Education
TITLE: “Civic science”
Harvard president Lawrence Summers emphasized the importance of creating a more science-literate student body when he was inaugurated to his post in 2001. But when he leaves Harvard in June, not much will have changed.
Plans to revamp Harvard’s undergraduate science curriculum were stymied by faculty disagreement over what constitutes science literacy. A Committee on General Education that meant to overhaul Harvard’s core curriculum considered three definitions, but never reached a consensus.
“One was the view that to understand science you actually have to do lab work,” said Louis Menand, a professor of English who sat on the committee. Another theory favored courses “of relevance to the average citizen.” The third called for knowing “something about the history and philosophy of science.”
There was also disagreement within each theory. In trying to decide which science fields are most socially relevant, for example, members came up with a wide range of answers, including environmental studies, evolutionary biology, genetics, immunology, and computer science.
Many experts outside of Harvard advocate teaching the practical side of science to nonscientists so that they will be able to make sense of it in their everyday lives. Yet few scientists appreciate the civic importance of making science understandable for all students, said Jon Miller, a professor of political science at Northwestern University.
“General education courses need to be, for scientists, your last chance to speak to someone before they are elected senator,” he said.
SOURCE: Boston Globe, 30 April 2006 (p. E01)
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This, to me, is a very interesting quandary. We want to raise the profile of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), and it's hard to argue against that sentiment in theory. But when it comes down to brass tacks - what gets taught in (assumedly) a very limited time frame - who gets to say what will be covered, and to what end?