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Faculty from 15 departments talk over new science core course

STANFORD -- "Find us a physicist," whispered geneticist David Botstein as he sat down next to statistician David Siegmund in a classroom in the basement of the math building on the Stanford Quad. They were attending the second of two symposia held April 18 and 19 for faculty interested in teaming up to design a new science- math-engineering core curriculum for non-science majors.

One purpose of the symposia was matchmaking, bringing together talented faculty from various disciplines, ready to form teams and design separate tracks of a course to be taught over three quarters. Botstein, chair of genetics, and Siegmund, professor of statistics and senior associate dean of humanities and sciences, were looking for teammates for a track that would use the cardiovascular system as a model for exploring biology, physics, engineering and math.

The sessions attracted 25 faculty members from 15 departments, including five department chairs and Stanford's most recent Nobel Prize winner. In addition, the eight faculty and three student members of the provost's science committee joined in on lively two-hour discussions about how -- and whether -- a course can be designed to teach the essential concepts of science and mathematics to non-science majors and give those students some skill in interpreting and using those concepts. (See Campus Report April 5, page 1, for a report on the committee's Request for Proposals.)

Based on recommendations last year from the Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE), Stanford's science core reform also is part of a larger movement to improve science education. At a National Academy of Sciences meeting this week, Donald Kennedy, Stanford's former president, is presenting the results of an April 9- 11 national convocation on undergraduate science education, which was attended by several Stanford faculty members. The National Academy of Sciences has just begun a year of national dialogue on science teaching in schools and colleges.

The core curriculum is still in a formative stage, said science committee chair Brad Osgood of mathematics, who led the two symposia. The committee has deliberately proposed only a rough sketch of a course. "We hope to tap into the originality of the whole faculty," said committee member Sharon Long of biological sciences. "We have so many colleagues who are effective teachers, and to develop a plan that would work for the whole university, we need to get their input."

Over the next 12 months, committee members expect to work with teams to develop several tracks of courses and to find resources to support them.

Faculty response at the two sessions was, in part, skeptical: Members of academic departments are concerned about faculty time and resources being shifted to the new curriculum. Some wonder about the fate of high-quality courses that already serve non-science majors. Most came to hear about the science core concept and to offer ideas to refine and improve it.

Wanted: engineer with teaching skills

Botstein and Siegmund were not the only science professors looking for co-teaching teammates at the symposia. Gene Franklin of electrical engineering has plans to meet with a small group to discuss plans for a track. At both sessions, chemist Richard Zare and biologist Long presented a rough draft of their plans for a track to be taught with mathematician Osgood and an engineer still to be drafted. It would be built around the theme of disasters -- how things work and what goes wrong when they don't work.

Others signed in with descriptions of possible course themes such as "history of Earth" and "How do we understand the universe?" Physics chair Douglas Osheroff said he hoped the plans will allow for faculty to join a core course team several years hence; he currently has other commitments, including introducing a new course into the Physics 50 series.

Osgood started the meetings by explaining how the committee approached the challenge set by the CUE report, to offer students a coherent approach to science, mathematics and engineering by offering a core course that meets the distribution requirements in these fields.

There is a not-so-hidden agenda to teaching science to students with non-technical majors, he said: "Stanford is proud of the leaders it produces in government and industry. When these future leaders make decisions based on science and math, we want them to be able to make informed decisions."

Rather than depend on the enthusiasm of a few dedicated professors who may not be able keep such a course going indefinitely, the committee focused on setting up a process that could be repeated many times by new teaching teams. They also established general principles for a core course that would teach students the process, as well as the concepts, of science -- starting with a goal suggested by an alumnus, to show students that "science is a structure of testable hypotheses."

Since every scientist knows how to write a grant proposal, the committee issued a request for proposals. (The first deadline, for a simple statement of intent, is May 19.) The committee will act as grant support administrators, working to help the teams develop their curricula. The plan is to start small, with several pilot tracks in the 1996-97 academic year.

"We hope for a small success rather than risking a large failure," Osgood said.

Jonathan Eisen, a graduate biological sciences student member of the committee, said course planners will be able to draw on a growing database of course designs, lab designs and syllabi from related courses at Stanford and across the country. "We are trying to set up a virtual library and virtual connections among the teams," Eisen said. The plan is to have a World Wide Web home page that will allow users nationwide access to information.

Ideally, there would be "permeable boundaries" between teams so effective ideas could be easily shared, committee members said.

Building a better mousetrap

Among the ideas about course design was a caution from Nobelist Richard Taylor, professor of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He said that the concept of such a course is important, but the goals should be realistic. In response to Osgood's list of mathematical concepts that the course should attempt to transmit to non-scientists, Taylor said that not all physics majors have a complete and clear picture of those concepts at graduation. He clarified his point later by saying that physics students need a higher than average level of understanding of mathematical concepts. The challenge for the core course designers will be to make non-majors familiar with the essential ideas without making the coverage superficial, he said.

Part of the answer may be in the lab and fieldwork component, which the committee says should be central to the course -- from "kitchen chemistry" labs to geology fieldwork, students should learn as much as possible by doing science themselves. "Students are not used to working things out on their own," Osgood said. In his introductory calculus course, "they are surprised that they can plug in a number and find out whether an equation makes sense."

Biologist Virginia Walbot warned against setting sights too low. Walbot, who taught a similar course at Washington University and has taught biology to non-science majors at Stanford, said only a handful of such students are "fuzzy beyond repair." She said that "the majority of Stanford students have done science and math in high school. Many of those who do not choose science majors have the skills, but they have voted not to use them because they did not find [science] sufficiently engaging."

A successful technique in her courses has been to require students to read a newspaper or newsmagazine regularly, and bring in questions about science and technology. "Students want to learn what is the science behind the ricocheting recommendations on how much coffee they should drink," Walbot said. Other faculty agreed that Science News, the New York Times science page and access to the World Wide Web could be other ways of making the link between the classroom and the world.

A question of resources

Faculty members questioned how the program would be supported with administrators, staff, office supplies and lab facilities. More pointedly, they asked how a department would be compensated for a professor who takes time off from other teaching responsibilities to teach the core course.

"For the course to be done, other courses and/or research will not be done," said committee member Franklin later. "It will take a creative mechanism of reward and recognition that must include the deans and department heads before faculty resources are found," he said.

Osgood said he did not have answers to these questions yet. "I'm not sitting here as a representative of management," he quipped.

Both the president and provost have expressed support for the core program, and outside funding is being sought. But without some gauge of faculty interest, Osgood said he did not expect an explicit commitment of funds.

Another concern was what one faculty member called a "Hobbesian choice" for students: If they fulfill their distribution requirements by taking the three-part core course, they may decide not to take other science and technical courses that have established a reputation for challenging, solid teaching. Among the courses cited were "Brain and Behavior," the psychology class taught by Russell Fernald, which enrolls more than 300 students a year; Gil Masters' civil engineering course, "Environmental Science and Technology," which enrolls more than 500; and the introductory computer programming classes for non-technical and for technical majors, which enroll 350 and 600 students a year, respectively.

Eric Roberts, who teaches the introductory programming course for students in technical disciplines, CS 106A, says many of those students did not think they were science or engineering majors until they took the class and learned that they were capable of computer programming. He fears that students in the core course will be "ghettoized" and not have the choice of switching to a science major. "From my vantage point, science education at Stanford is not broken," Roberts said.

Osgood reminded the group that the core curriculum is so far just an experiment, likely to start with only a few tracks serving a few hundred students. "It will just offer students an option," he said. Science committee member Sandy Fetter of applied physics said later that the committee is "extremely reluctant to tinker with the current distribution requirements" for science, engineering and mathematics.

Several faculty members asked if some tracks of the three- quarter core sequence could include successful department-based courses, or perhaps consist of a sequence of blocks based in different departments. Committee member Long said this could be a good method -- as long as the people teaching the physics quarter, the biology quarter and the earth sciences quarter, for example, take time to talk with one another so that students' learning is built and reinforced from quarter to quarter.

In its recommendations, the committee favored a multidisciplinary approach, taught by teams of faculty members working closely together and stretching beyond their own disciplines to cover the range of concepts in the core. In its team teaching aspect, the method is similar to other interdisciplinary programs such as Human Biology. Siegmund said its closest cousin in recent times was the Values, Technology, Science and Society program originated by Fetter, James Adams and Robert Osserman. "That was a good and popular program that has since been discontinued for lack of institutional support," Siegmund said.

Botstein said the multidisciplinary approach is the one most likely to make sense of science to students. "To a non-science major, this is the way science looks," he said.

"This is an experiment," Botstein said. "There is ample talent at Stanford to put a few of these tracks together and see how it works."

Nationwide look at science teaching

Similar experiments are being carried out elsewhere. Science core courses for non-majors are being offered at the University of Chicago and New York University. Siegmund said a 10-year program at Columbia recently ended when the three dedicated faculty members who designed it were no longer able to continue.

Carol Prevost, currently on sabbatical at Stanford, is director of Princeton's 5-year-old Council on Science and Technology, which has just begun an interdisciplinary course in science, but not math or engineering. Prevost said Princeton's faculty raised objections like those at Stanford about the strain on resources as new science courses were developed. "Later, faculty come back saying this was the most rewarding course they've ever taught," she said.

Earlier this month, Long, Zare, Osheroff and geologist Gail Mahood were among the science professors attending the National Academy of Sciences convocation on science education, chaired by Donald Kennedy.

Long said that there is wide agreement about the need for better assessment of teaching and learning. She was intrigued by a proposal for academic departments to set explicit goals for student learning in the same way that they do for research achievements. "Departments should have a clear idea of what they want their students to know, and what they want them to be able to do -- for example, what kinds of critical thinking they should learn. The department should measure its success by whether the students do learn.

"We say we want to reward good teaching," she said. "If you've got a job to be done, it's important to know what the job is so you can aim for the goal."

"I came away revitalized and re-energized," Zare said after the convocation. "I met dozens of kindred spirits interested in the idea that professors should be professing." Zare has proposed to the National Academy of Sciences group that professors should be judged by their overall contribution, not just by the research they do. "This is the way to change the culture, so people do research and education in an integrated manner, not in opposition to one another," he said.

Science committee member Anthony Siegman of electrical engineering envisions something like that change in culture coming step by step, if the idea catches on of a core curriculum shared by many disciplines.

Siegman said after the symposia that he was modestly hopeful that one or two pilot sequences will come out of the current planning process. "A course aimed at developing a basic literacy in science, mathematics and technology, especially for our non-technical undergraduates, is a very important goal," Siegman said. "My sense is that many faculty, both senior and junior, strongly believe in the same goal, but also have the natural worries as to whether they really have time and energy to commit to this task."

Outside funding may provide the initial seed money for those pilot sequences, but the university will have to commit adequate resources to convert them into a stable part of the undergraduate curriculum, Siegman said. "Just how the long-term existence of a good set of science core tracks can be institutionalized is not yet clear, but my sense is it will be done."

The real change would come if departments began committing resources to cross-disciplinary teaching. "Perhaps as Stanford continues to evolve . . . assisting in this task will become part of every science and engineering department's objectives, along with its more familiar purely departmental objectives," Siegman said.

Attending the symposia were David Siegmund, professor of statistics and senior associate dean of humanities and sciences; Patricia Jones, chair of biological sciences, and biologists Paul Green, Sharon Long, Peter Ray, Virginia Walbot and Ward Watt; Richard Zare of chemistry; Ralph Cohen, chair of mathematics, and mathematicians Gunnar Carlsson, Brad Osgood and Brian White; Douglas Osheroff, chair of physics, and physicist Robert Wagoner; Sandy Fetter and Martin Fejer of applied physics; Russell Fernald, David Heeger and Brian Wandell of psychology; and Jun Liu of statistics. From the School of Earth Sciences came geologist Gail Mahood, geophysicists Simon Klemperer and Paul Segall, and petroleum engineer Martin Blunt. Richard Taylor, professor of physics, came from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

The School of Engineering was represented by Eric Roberts of computer science, Gene Franklin and Anthony Siegman of electrical engineering, and Ross Shachter of engineering-economic systems. From the School of Medicine came David Botstein, chair of genetics, and geneticists David Cox and Rick Myers; and James Nelson, chair of molecular and cellular physiology. The student representatives from the Science Committee were biological sciences graduate student Jonathan Eisen, electrical engineering graduate student Jim Schneider, and undergraduate Vu Luu of science, technology and society. Carol Prevost, director of the Council on Science and Technology at Princeton University, sat in on both sessions.



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