Don’t Know Much About Biology

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Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how American colleges teach science. According to an article in Inside Higher Ed:

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.

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.

Introductory courses in college-level biology, chemistry, and physics are famously hard. For decades getting unprepared kids to drop science majors was the point of difficult introductory courses in the sciences. The goal of this was to weed out lazy or ill-equipped students from majors in which they wouldn’t succeed.

The problem with this policy is that then, surprise, students don’t learn science. Students might drop physics and settle comfortably into English majors, but they were also scared off science for life. This is trouble, says Tilghman, because it means Americans, even college-educated Americans, lack scientific literacy. She recommends exposing students to the big questions of science through first-year seminars.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer