To the Editor:
The proposals contained in the report of the Committee on Yale College Education which are aimed at changes in science education at Yale are certainly well-intentioned. There is broad consensus that “science” is here to stay and that all educated people are better off with some understanding of it. For a subject that gives the impression of clarity and precision, however, the parameters that describe “science” are often opaque and vague: “quantitative reasoning” and “critical skills” and similar eduspeak are oft-heard buzzwords. We can hope that one thing to come out of the proposed Science Teaching Center is a better understanding of how to move from platitudes to practice. From many years of exploration of various ways to teach “science” to non-group IV students, I offer several starting points for this project.
First, we must think about what we mean by “science.” It is no good to simply ask scientists what they do. As one well-known philosopher of science stated, “the average scientist knows as much about science as the average fish knows about hydrodynamics.” Scientists at Yale are very good at doing science, but they may need help from other thoughtful people, including students, to help refine, communicate, and teach the essence of their work that they often overlook, or take for granted as obvious, in the daily intensity of their work.
Second, as noted by Professor [John] Tully (YDN, 15 April 2003), one size does not fit all. We need to recognize that science majors have different needs than some other students. Perhaps the analogy of literature in translation might be useful here. If the essence of science is process, as I believe it is, then that process can be profitably taught and studied with less emphasis on the vocabulary-building that so often seems to substitute for true science teaching.
Third, and probably the most important, we need to find science teachers who intellectually respect non-majors, and who genuinely like to teach such students, not as a chore, not as second-best, but as the most rewarding sort of teaching. I, for one, have had greater pleasure in helping a science-phobic music student experience her “eureka moment” when she finds out how the neurophysiology of the ear allows her to hear different pitches than in guiding an already indoctrinated [Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry] student through the mathematics of light scattering. Perhaps one goal of the Science Teaching Center will be to seek out and support such teachers.
Finally, the proposal to build on the initial successes of Perspectives on Science (PS) is long overdue. This program, loosely modeled on Directed Studies, and which I had the good fortune to oversee for a couple of years, has the potential to provide Yale science students not only with a sense of community but also a real sense of perspective as a crucial antidote to the inevitable pressures toward narrow specialization within each scientific field. The proposed Science Teaching Center could be just the home that PS needs.
William C. Summers
April 15, 2003
The writer is a professor in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.