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Civic science

Five years after Larry Summers set out to revamp Harvard's science curriculum, the faculty still can't agree on what it should be. The problem extends well beyond Cambridge.


(Corbis)

BACK IN 2001, Harvard president Lawrence Summers used his inaugural address to identify an especially significant problem he believed the university was facing. Harvard, said Summers, was failing to teach science to its undergraduates.

''We live in a society, and dare I say a university," Summers proclaimed, where few people would confess ''to not having read any plays by Shakespeare or to not knowing the meaning of the categorical imperative, but where it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome or the meaning of exponential growth." With Summers-an accomplished economist not shy about touting the virtues of quantitative thinking-on the loose in Harvard Yard, that seemed likely to change.

Instead, when Summers leaves office this June, his vision of making all Harvard undergraduates more science-literate will remain unrealized. A special university committee installed to revamp the undergraduate curriculum declined to require new science classes. Certainly this outcome is partly due to Summers's own troubles at Harvard-including his loss of clout after making controversial remarks about women and science in 2005-as well as the institution's traditional resistance to change. Yet Harvard's lack of response to its president reveals a problem larger than local campus politics.

It is easy to say Americans, even those graduating from elite universities, lack scientific knowledge. But it is hard to define what science literacy consists of-and harder still to know how universities can impart it to, say, English majors. Does science literacy mean knowing a roster of facts or concepts? Having a sense of the scientific method? Appreciating the history and philosophy of science? Being competent in math, the lingua franca of the sciences? All of the above?

These questions will await Harvard's next president. And if Harvard retains any influence on national education, committing itself to science literacy would seem especially important at a time when American educators and pundits are fretting about a shortage of science-savvy students in an increasingly competitive global economy.

. . .

In 2004, in the wake of Summers's vocal push for science literacy, the university formed a Committee on General Education meant to overhaul Harvard's core curriculum, which dates to the 1970s and mandates introductory courses in seven broadly defined areas of study, including science. Unable to agree on a specific new plan, the committee issued a report last November proposing to drop the core entirely and require three electives each in science, social science, and the humanities.

The faculty has made no effort to act on the proposal, and it appears unlikely to be adopted. But the committee's lack of consensus about how to introduce all undergraduates to science is revealing. According to committee member Louis Menand, a professor of English, the group considered three definitions of science literacy, but settled on none. ''One was the view that to understand science you actually have to do lab work," says Menand. Another, he adds, would prescribe courses ''of relevance to the average citizen," like genetics or computer science. Third, some committee members believed students should ''know something about the history and philosophy of science," to better illuminate the scientific enterprise.

That enterprise produces knowledge in a manner distinct from the humanities or social sciences, and many scientists would argue that the process is worthy of study in itself. ''Science is not a collection of facts," says David Helfand, an astrophysicist at Columbia University, who helped create a science course added to Columbia's venerable core curriculum two years ago. ''It's a mode of thinking about the physical world."

Indeed, scientists often assert, to understand any science you must first understand the scientific method: a mix of observation, quantitative reasoning, prediction, and testing. ''A science-literate person should know a few concepts and facts in each science," says Alan Lightman, a physicist, author, and adjunct professor at MIT. ''You could probably write them all down on a single piece of paper. But the idea of what scientists do is more important than any fact on that list." When creationists dismiss evolution as a ''theory," Lightman notes, ''the public doesn't understand how rigorous a theory is in science."

Many scientists, however, contend there is no single entity called ''science," but rather, many complicated sciences and specialized fields. ''The idea that there is something like a scientific method or scientific mind-set is a red herring," argues James Trefil, a professor of physics at George Mason University who has written about science literacy. ''Knowing general relativity does not give you any particular insights into molecular biology. It just doesn't work that way."

This is one reason Trefil and others emphasize teaching the practical side of scientific knowledge to nonscientists, so that students can evaluate science as they would any other part of society. Jon A. Miller, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, calls this ''civic scientific literacy," or, he says, the ability of ''citizens to make sense of scientific and technical material" relating to their lives, from public policy to medical matters. You don't need to master evolutionary biology, in his view, but you should understand a newspaper article about it.

. . .

Worthy as this goal may be, it is difficult for universities to stuff an extensive understanding of science into two or three semester-length courses. Consider the Harvard committee's ideas. Lab work may give nonscientists a hands-on introduction to one particular field, but not much else. ''Modern science isn't always like the stuff you can do in a lab," says Trefil, noting that today's research often features large teams and massive computer models.

A requirement consisting of socially relevant courses is the direct approach to civic scientific literacy but raises the question: Which fields are most important? ''There was a much wider range of opinion among the scientists than you might have guessed," says Robert Kirshner, a Harvard astronomer who also served on the committee. Topics relevant to civic life in 2006 include environmental studies, evolutionary biology, genetics, immunology, and computer science, for starters-and perhaps, Kirshner suggests, to understand news about Iran's arms program, ''you ought to know what fission and fusion are."

And studying the history and philosophy of science, although accessible to nonscientists, guarantees neither lab experience nor contemporary relevance. ''What we know about the universe is much greater than what Einstein knew," says Columbia's Helfand. With his input, Columbia's new core class, ''Frontiers of Science," aims for civic literacy, but with one eye on the scientific method. It is team-taught with lectures from scientists in several fields and discussion sections, to expose students to scientific reasoning and to ''allow them to acquire knowledge in that mode throughout their lifetimes," adds Helfand.

Meanwhile, Dartmouth, uniquely among Ivy League schools, requires undergraduates to take a mathematics course. ''Math, at a fundamental level, is the language of science," says Carol Folt, a biologist and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Dartmouth, where students must also take a lab course and an elective about technology.

To be sure, some Harvard professors teach science courses intended to engage nonscientists, even if the university has not settled on one way of doing that. Kirshner teaches a popular core class, ''Matter in the Universe." And the committee cited ''Reality Physics," a course by physicist Gerald Gabrielse that explains the connections between everyday phenomena or technology and physical principles, as a paradigm for future courses in other fields because of the way it links theory and practical matters.

. . .

Still, Miller, for one, thinks scientists do not appreciate the value of teaching nonscientists. Because scientific institutions rely on social and political support, public investment in science's future is at stake. ''General education courses need to be, for scientists, your last chance to speak to someone before they are elected senator," says Miller.

Yet research universities rarely reward professors for undergraduate instruction. ''We don't promote people to tenure based on whether they have done a good job teaching nonscientists," acknowledges Kirshner. To overcome inertia in Cambridge, Harvard's next president may have to do more than diagnose the problem, as Summers did, and suggest a specific solution.

In his famous 1959 essay ''The Two Cultures," C.P. Snow popularized the notion that science and the humanities had become spheres whose occupants held separate world views and existed in a state of ''mutual incomprehension." Yet with a growing perception in all quarters of academia that large swaths of the country, including Washington, D.C., are hostile to science, the time may be right to revive a solid grounding in scientific inquiry as an essential part of a liberal arts education.

Certainly, not everyone at Harvard regards the two cultures as entirely separate. ''As an English professor, I ought to be part of a conversation about what science everybody ought to have," says Menand. ''I can't teach that science, but as a generally educated person, I have some idea what it is. Not only scientists have that knowledge."

Then again, as Snow wrote in 1963, ''Changes in education are not going to produce miracles." Perhaps science journalism can fill the void. A gene is a piece of DNA containing hereditary characteristics. A chromosome is a large molecule on which genes and other material are located. Exponential growth describes the increasing rate at which populations, among other things, can expand.

Just so you know.

Peter Dizikes is a journalist living in Arlington. He frequently writes about science.

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