Oct

22

Frontiers of Science Town Hall Review: Is FroSci a Worthwhile Piece of the Core?

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Oh Hipster Scientist, you have so many opinions!

In lieu of the usual CCSC meeting, members of the Council and student body gathered to discuss the Educational Policy and Planning Committee’s review of Frontiers of Science. Bwog’s council correspondent, Maren Killackey, reports.

For Sunday’s Frontiers of Science Town Hall, administration procured a bevy of well-spoken individuals who voiced a variety criticisms regarding what many would consider their least favorite Core class. A decent spectrum of academic areas were represented, from Astrophysics and Biochemistry to Philosophy and Hispanic Studies. No consensus was articulated, but the general theme of the evening seemed to be, “FroSci could be something so great… but it’s not.”

The overarching questions posed by EPPC member Simon Jerome (CC’13) and Committee on the Core member Samara Bliss (CC’13) – with helpful input by Committee on Instruction Bob Sun (CC’14) and Grace McCarty (CC’13, CoC) – were 1) What is the main purpose of the course? 2) What aspects of Frontiers were most relevant to you? The most useful? The most engaging? Least? and 3) What are some ways the structure could be changed to make the course more effective?

With respect to the first question, the primary sentiment was that FroSci serves to teach the sciences to those who are generally unfamiliar with them and to update the more familiar students. Where the course perhaps fails is that, in the words of one student, “it doesn’t even teach you the scientific method, it teaches you how to read a Times article on science.” The larger point of this sentiment being that the fundamentals aren’t taught, thus contributing to a lack of rigor. Phrases like “watered down” and words like “superficial” were recurrent throughout the evening and students commented frequently on the fact that they felt they hadn’t learned anything about science itself; maybe they could throw around a fun term like “lahar,” but when it came to the essence of science, education was nil.

Another crucial FroSci failure that was expressed was its inability to generate discussion, both inside so-called “discussion sections” and outside of the classroom. “The only discussion outside of class is ‘God I hate frontiers’ and ‘Are you going to lecture?’” said Matt Chupak, CCSC Class 2015 Rep, to a great showing of agreement. But suggestions of a potential mechanism for creating discussion were not all that forthcoming; after all, to paraphrase several comments, the process of rigorous thought and exploration you bring to Lit Hum can’t be exactly translated to a science course, unless you approach it from a sort of “philosophy of science” perspective. While the questions of science regard functions of the universe and so perhaps those answers might have significant implications in defining the human condition, reading into such ideas as one would read into Plato might take away from the “useful” things FroSci teaches, like, well, math. That is to say, science requires indisputable data, while literature does not.

Other points of contention surrounded the fact that discussion section leaders are really only knowledgeable about one of the four of the topics covered, so aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about teaching something that’s not their specialty (a point raised by Loxley Bennett, CCSC 2015 Class President). In addition, contention surrounded the mismatch between lecture and discussion (also between discussion and homework, homework and exams, exams and life) and the fact that students are allowed a cheat sheet for tests (is it embarrassing that grades can be determined by what random facts one decides to include, or does it speak to the irrelevancy of the content and so emphasize the processes?). So what to do about it? At the outset of the meeting, Samara Bliss made it clear that a definite solution most likely would not come of the discussion, but later commented that any ideas regarding potential solutions would be relayed to the people who had the power to implement them. Some argued for a more choice-driven structure, wherein either Frontiers as a course would be eliminated and students would take intro level courses in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc. (which would be separate from the intro courses for people intending to major in the subject), or the common lecture would still be there but discussion would be split up. One is geared towards the laboratory aspect of the field, another statistical analysis, yet another “philosophy” (though it would somehow be just as rigorous as the other sections), and so on.

The meeting ended after an efficient one hour with numerous and diverse critiques made, but no ultimate resolution. According to Jerome and Bliss, the Frontiers review will be a semester-long task for the EPPC (which will take input from the CoC). If you have any questions, concerns, suggestions on the matter, e-mail Jerome (EPPC) at [email protected], or Bliss (CoC) at [email protected], as well as Sun (CoI) at [email protected].

It should be noted that Ben Shababo GS’13 is also an undergraduate representative on the EPPC but was unable to attend the meeting.

Hipster nonsense via Shutterstock

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8 Comments

  1. Anonymous  

    Good recap.

    I also fully endorse the use of "Hipster nonsense"

  2. CC 12

    I hate how there's no one left at Columbia who still calls the course "Frontiers" instead of "FroSci"

  3. sure the class sucks...  

    but it's an easy A. virtually no hw. suck it up.

  4. jks

    A 4-paragraph comment on a day-old Bwog post is probably not the best way to reach people, but I feel obliged to comment anyway. I am a former student who took Frontiers in its relative infancy. I was a science student, but I still enjoyed the class and learned a great deal, and there are some misunderstandings in this article that I want to address, since they seem to have largely driven the discussion.

    I can tell you unequivocally that the "main purpose of this course" is NOT "to teach the sciences to those who are generally unfamiliar with them and to update the more familiar students". This course exists because all responsible citizens of the modern world, which is what the core curriculum seeks to make us, need to be scientifically literate as well as critical thinkers. According to the Frontiers of Science page on the columbia college website the purpose is to "change the way students think about questions of science and about the world around them," as a part of the greater "habits of mind developed in the Core cultivate a critical and creative intellectual capacity that students employ long after college, in the pursuit and the fulfillment of meaningful lives" (core curriculum home page).

    From this perspective, then, I want to critique the assumption that "the process of rigorous thought and exploration you bring to Lit Hum can’t be exactly translated to a science course." Nothing could be farther from the truth. That is the point of Frontiers. Science may seek "indisputable data," and when you take high school science or other introductory science courses, that is almost always what you see. But at the cutting edge of science, the data are never indisputable. Understanding science requires "rigorous thought and exploration," and this process, while perhaps not sufficient actually to do science, as one student pointed out Frontiers does not teach the scientific method, is necessary to do science, and sufficient to understand whatever scientific issues are at the forefront at a given time. Further, I would argue that the applications of these critical reasoning skills extends beyond science, into the interpretation of any data or fact-driven claims, such as those flying around in an election year.

    So Frontiers is not about teaching the sciences, or teaching how to do science, Frontiers is about being able to think like a scientist, something that most students do not learn in high school. Whether Frontiers succeeds at this mission is open to discussion, although none of the proposals mentioned in this article would do a better job, given that they were proposed to solve a different problem. I think that as much as many students dislike the course, it is hard to argue that what Frontiers actually seeks to do is unimportant or in any way divergent from the values of the core curriculum. This is an important course, and deserves more than general resentment from the student body.

    • Samara Bliss  

      Hi jks--thanks for taking the time to write this out. You have a good point and I think many agree with you. I urge you to shoot me an email if you'd be willing to discuss this more. [email protected]

  5. Anonymous

    It's maddening that students have voiced these very fair criticisms ever since Frontiers first began, but the course heads have not lifted a finger to address them.

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