Rethinking Science Education as Contextualized

January 6, 2010 at 12:57 pm 1 comment

She [Shirley M. Tilghman, President of Princeton] recited various statistics and called for the creation of more courses that engage science students in “big questions” early in their careers. Too many college students are introduced to science through survey courses that consist of facts “often taught as a laundry list and from a historical perspective without much effort to explain their relevance to modern problems.” Only science students with “the persistence of Sisyphus and the patience of Job” will reach the point where they can engage in the kind of science that excited them in the first place, she said.

via News: Rethinking Science Education – Inside Higher Ed.

YES!  This is what we’ve been arguing for the last eight years, since we started designing Media Computation, our Engineering CS1 in MATLAB, and IPRE’s CS1. It’s the basic idea behind Threads. We lose too many students in the first year, because we keep saying to them, “Just stick with it, and by your Junior and Senior year, this will all make sense and you’ll be doing relevant work!”  It’s nice to hear similar arguments being made for all of science education.

But I will say that I think President Tilghman draws too strong a contrast.  One of the lessons for me from the last eight years is that relevance is critical, but students still need to learn stuff.  They do need understand the history of what they’re learning.  We need to figure out what students really need to know, and not just include everything that we once studied.  Thus, that list of stuff to learn does have to be learned (but probably not everything on that laundry list) and a historical context is important, and still, I completely agree with President Tilghman, that the relevance to the big and important questions is the overarching context that needs to permeate our introductory classes.

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