Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

Cramming Science Into 90-Minute Classes
Harvard and MIT ponder their science requirements
By Peter Dizikes. Nature Network Boston, March 14, 2007

Harvard and MIT are among the most prestigious places for undergraduate study in the world. But are students learning the right things about science?

The two universities have been tackling that question in earnest this academic year, with each floating major proposals—MIT in October, Harvard last month—to revamp its undergraduate core curriculum. If adopted, what professors teach students about science, and how they teach it, would change significantly for the first time in decades, setting examples for other universities across the country.

While the schools view undergraduate science education differently—MIT grooms students to become scientists and engineers while Harvard teaches science to many nonscience majors—both have struggled to find agreement among their faculty members about how to adapt the curriculum to the significant changes happening in science. The life sciences have expanded and risen in prominence. Traditional disciplinary lines are fading and computing has become much more pervasive. A new curriculum thus needs to include new fields while still representing time-tested knowledge.

“We’re trying to do something that is really hard in any university, which is deciding to give up some things in order to replace them with something else,” says Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT, and co-chair of the university’s undergraduate curriculum committee.

Neuroscience or magnetism?

MIT’s new plan, in the works since early 2004, would retain some traditional courses, while giving students more choices elsewhere.

For example, the biology component would be replaced with “life sciences,” which could be fulfilled through classes not only in the basics of cell and molecular biology, but also in areas such as neuroscience or bioinformatics.

The plan would also drop traditional fixtures like “Electricity and Magnetism,” an idea that has generated faculty resistance. Disagreement has also come between science professors and those in engineering, who argue that the new plan would overburden engineering students already dealing with extensive requirements in their majors.

At MIT and Harvard, curriculum changes must gain faculty approval through a formal vote. Stewart says he thinks some MIT proposals–like encouraging study abroad–will be quickly accepted, but admits it could take another couple of years of testing classes before the faculty votes on the course requirements.

More science?

At Harvard, the new plan would require that all students take one class each in the life sciences and physical sciences—instead of two science classes in any area—to ensure a broad base of knowledge. They would also have to take a yearlong “analytical reasoning” class to enhance mathematics skills. And core courses could feature lab experience or the history and philosophy of science to help students understand the process of science, not just its results.

Curriculum reform has also been controversial at Harvard. A 2005 proposal to replace the core set of classes with a choice of a wider range of classes was greeted coolly and never made it to a faculty vote. The proposal also would have increased the relative emphasis of science—a goal of then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers—but faculty members were not willing to abolish the core requirements in the process.

The current plan, which retains broad core classes in areas like ethics and cultural studies, has been taken more seriously, says Stephen Kosslyn, a psychology professor at Harvard and a member of the university’s Task Force on General Education.

The faculty may vote on the plan later this spring, although even if it is approved, implementing it will require further deliberations. Still, as Harvard develops its science-centric Allston campus, the university will have more cutting-edge science in its future. It will soon be clear if Harvard’s undergraduates will follow suit.


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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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Photo credit: Flickr user alb Marcos, via a Creative Commons license