PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
Interdisciplinary education in the sciences faces a pair of challenges. The first is to provide a science experience that is explicitly multidisciplinary, as opposed to nondisciplinary. Any approach to interdisciplinary teaching that is not firmly grounded in the natural sciences and mathematics runs a severe risk of becoming only a superficial encounter with the sciences. An analog of the wrong way to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to science education may be found in an extreme position taken in the recent and ongoing reform of calculus teaching. To say, as one of the more radical proponents did, that we can no longer teach our students calculus, but can merely teach them about calculus, is an indicator that necessary academic emphasis has been lost. A similar statement may, of course, easily be made for science.
This presents some rather tricky issues for the science curriculum. If we are committed to interdisciplinary science courses, we must look at a science student=s entire four-year course of study, for it will be necessary to provide solid foundation courses in a variety of sciences and mathematics in order that successful interdisciplinary integration can happen later. Whether this is done through a separate interdisciplinary concentration or through selective enhancement of disciplinary majors, the disciplinary strengths of our faculty must be acknowledged. At the same time, the question of how faculty can best prepare themselves to teach these new kinds of courses must be carefully addressed.
The second challenge is to find effective ways to provide this interdisciplinary experience to all students. If we are sincere in our desire to enrich each student's science education, we must be realistically aware that few students, science majors included, are sufficiently well-versed with all of the sciences to gain the full benefit from a single properly interdisciplinary science course as part of a general education program. In many ways, this is like a challenge we face in mathematics: how to convey the essence of the subject to all of our students, majors as well as non-majors. It follows, then, that a general education science course which is truly interdisciplinary must build effectively on high school science rather than relying on students= prior college science courses. This, of course, requires us to address issues of high school preparation for the serious study of science.
It may well be that a hybrid approach is both necessary and desirable. If we can successfully develop an interdisciplinary science course and offer it with integrity to a general college audience, it must be only a part of a student=s college science experience; it must be supplemented by separate specialized study of at least one scientific field and of college-level mathematics.