PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Kenneth E. Clifton
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
Against a backdrop of eroding scientific literacy, tightening budgets, and disturbing lack of appreciation for the role of science within our society, science educators today face a daunting challenge. Somehow we must inoculate the next generation of students with a better understanding of the relevance and importance of science, yet we must do this without sacrificing the standards or the rigor of what we teach them. At the undergraduate level, where science skills are traditionally honed within majors such as biology or chemistry, and offerings to non-science majors tend to be limited in both scope and content, the development of integrated, interdisciplinary programs of science education may hold the key to restoring the ability of our students to both do and appreciate science.
Interdisciplinary science programs hold promise for several reasons. To begin with, the scientific method is, itself, interdisciplinary. All scientists, irrespective of their field of study, perform cycles of observation, inference, and prediction. Emphasizing this commonality reinforces the curricular ties that exist across the sciences and provides students with a broader context for judging the value of what they are learning. This becomes more important as the expanding frontiers of our knowledge increasingly blur the distinctions between traditional scientific disciplines such as biology and chemistry.
Interdisciplinary thinking also resonates with students concerned with complex issues such as global warming or sustainable resource use, whose causes, solutions, and impacts cannot be grasped without a broader cross-disciplinary perspective. Getting students to recognize that science is both relevant and important to their lives is perhaps the most critical first step in restoring the quality of science education on our nation’s campuses.
To successfully develop and implement an interdisciplinary program of science education several hurdles must be overcome. Getting biology, chemistry, and physics professors to recognize the value of a broader interdisciplinary approach to the extent that they actually change their way of teaching is an obviously important step. Without buy-in from a majority of science faculty, meaningful reform to the curriculum is not possible. Similarly, administrators must be willing to deviate from the status quo. Essentially, both groups must be convinced that the costs associated with course restructuring are more than offset by the potential rewards arising from a new approach to science education.
Liberal arts colleges that emphasize both teaching and research within relatively small science departments seem an especially good place to attempt this change. The size and typically collegial nature of such schools permits meaningful dialog at various administrative levels and the potential impact of such programs seems especially high. Smaller class sizes promote the effectiveness of any curriculum and liberal arts colleges are a major producer of graduate students in the sciences, Increased communication among liberal arts science faculty may also positively feedback to influence both research and teaching, as colleagues from different departments discover common areas of interest.
As an active research biologist who teaches within a liberal arts setting, I am encouraged by presence of like-minded colleagues who share my vision of a more integrated interdisciplinary STEM curriculum for our students. There is genuine promise for reform in the air, and I’ve been pleased to discover that groups like PKAL are actively seeking to encourage this reform. As we advance into the 21st century, I look forward to our shared efforts towards a common goal of improved scientific literacy for both science and non-science students at the undergraduate level.