PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
It is relatively easy to teach science to science majors and to get them excited about scientific research and discovery. Non-majors, on the other hand, are often not as excited to learn about science. However, it is essential that we equip these students with critical thinking skills and resourcefulness that will allow them to evaluate the science and technology that they encounter in their daily lives. For the past six years, I have been a member of the General Education committee at Central Washington University (CWU) and I have become increasingly interested in the role of STEM education within the General Education program. In order to provide all college students with a positive STEM learning experience that prepares them for responsible citizenship and Earth stewardship, I envision a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary approach that links their General Education science courses to their high school science experience and to other courses that include real-life applications of the importance of science. In General Education science courses, student learning should focus on the scientific method, the difference between observations and interpretations, how to evaluate interpretations, how to distinguish between science and pseudoscience, as well as basic skills such as quantitative reasoning, reading and interpreting graphs, using information technology and library resources, etc. Because the General Education science experience should ideally build on high school science learning, I envision a strengthened link between the two. Also, the importance of science and technology will be more apparent to students if some STEM learning takes place in their non-science courses. For example, in a course on Criminal Law, students might spend a week discussing forensic science and examples of its use in important criminal cases. Or in a course on African history, students might learn about anthropological genetics and how DNA variations are being used to understand linguistic variations and major human migrations. This sort of integration of scientific content into courses in other disciplines will help students make connections between science and their lives and thus they will better understand the importance of the scientific process.
I also envision that all college students will take at least one STEM course that is interdisciplinary in nature. These courses might cover interdisciplinary topics such as environmental science, oceanography, geography, anthropology, etc. Interdisciplinary courses may be team-taught by faculty in different disciplines or links might be established between existing courses. I have been involved in several team-taught interdisciplinary courses and have found that both students and faculty find them to be stimulating and exciting. In addition many of the areas of growth in science involve more than one discipline and the scientific process is more robust when the perspectives from different disciplines are combined. For example, in discussing the carbon cycle, it is useful to have the perspective of a biologist who understands the details of the patterns and limitations of plant growth as well as the perspective of a geologist who thinks in terms of long-term, global changes in the atmosphere and other reservoirs.
In order to arrive at this vision, cooperation and coordination between college science faculty in different disciplines is essential and time must be allocated for these collaborations. In my experience team-teaching interdisciplinary courses, I have seen how important it is for faculty to spend time together planning and coordinating the flow of the course. New interdisciplinary science courses should be developed or linkages created between existing courses to establish learning communities within those courses. For example, a subset of students in an Ecology course might also take an Environmental Geology course and biogeochemical cycling in certain ecosystems might be discussed simultaneously in both courses but from different perspectives. In addition, college faculty must become more connected with what happens in the high school science classroom, both by establishing and strengthening connections with high school science teachers and students and by becoming more informed about the high school science curriculum and standards. I have been involved in several projects at CWU that address some of these challenges. Funded by the National Science Foundation, CWU’s STEP program contains a Summer Science Institute that is aimed at bridging the high school and college science experience for a group of high school juniors. In addition to benefiting these students, the college faculty are gaining an awareness of what students are learning in high school science. I am also in the process of designing and seeking funding for a program, entitled Practicing Research in Science and Mathematics (PRISM), that will link CWU faculty and graduate students to local K-12 teachers so that they will serve as a resource to those teachers and help them to incorporate scientific research into their curriculum. Finally, the General Education committee at CWU is working to promote interdisciplinary and linked courses within the General Education program. In this case, we feel that support from the college administration will be a key ingredient to creating effective learning communities.