Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Students in a biology Complementary Curricular Network—a series of linked courses and research opportunities—gather data in Alaska

Undergraduate Science: Engaging the Big Questions and Increasing Achievement


In assistant professor Peter Craig's Kitchen Chemistry course, first-year college students sniff spices, boil vegetables, and investigate the properties of baking powder. His colleague Shabbir Mian's students use prisms and spectroscopes to answer questions about natural phenomena like sunsets in A World of Light and Color. These courses don't involve the memorization or formulas of a traditional Introduction to Chemistry or Introduction to Physics class—they're not designed to. Instead, these science-focused First-Year Seminars at McDaniel College teach students to approach problems in a systematic way. They also provide one answer to a question that is being asked anew at McDaniel and on many other liberal arts campuses: What role should science play in a liberal education?

At McDaniel, an institution of about 1,600 students located in western Maryland, science is an integral part of the curriculum, even for those students who have no interest in a traditional biology or chemistry major, says Gretchen McKay, associate dean of academic affairs. "We think the scientific way of thinking through a problem really benefits all students," she says. Critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and scientific inquiry are transferable skills that students will need to become knowledgeable voters, intelligent consumers, and effective citizens. Craig puts it simply: "We want them to be adequately equipped for life."

Building Scientific Literacy

George Mason University physics professor and author James Trefil argues in a forthcoming issue of Liberal Education that liberally educated graduates must be scientifically literate so that they can clearly understand and discuss the issues that regularly turn up in the news—DNA, global warming, stem cells and the like. Liberal arts institutions don't need to turn out "miniature scientists," Trefil argues—just informed citizens. That goal of scientific literacy is a foundation for McDaniel's emphasis on science in general education.

The First-Year Seminar (FYS) Program isn't new at McDaniel—it was instituted in 1996, well before designated first-year learning experiences were commonplace. But the number of science-focused seminars offered has increased since that first semester; there are now six science-based offerings planned for fall 2008 out of the thirty possible FYS choices. McKay hopes to increase that number even more in coming years, to expose larger numbers of first-year students to scientific inquiry in their first semester.

"In our society, it's socially acceptable to be wary of science," Craig explains. "I've come to realize that exposure to it is everything. If students get a chance to be exposed to a science topic, no matter how minimally, that's a chance to strike an interest." Craig is concerned that in addition to the general lack of scientific literacy among American citizens, too few American students are pursing graduate studies in science. He hopes that colleges like McDaniel that purposefully infuse science into general education might eventually contribute to changing these trends. "These courses break down associations about science that people have—that scientists are isolated and sit in big dungeons talking to the glassware," he says.

In addition to Craig's class, upcoming FYS topics will include viruses and virology, environmental policy, and "great moments in science"—a course that will take an interdisciplinary look at science and history. "These are all ways of learning how scientists think without taking the default intro-to-chemistry course," McKay says.

Science and the "Big Questions"

Students at McDaniel who don't enroll in a science-focused FYS will also still encounter plenty of science. A new liberal arts curriculum called the McDaniel Plan, introduced in fall 2007, increased both the number and the scope of science courses students take. The McDaniel Plan, which is closely aligned with the Essential Learning Outcomes from AAC&U's LEAP report, College Learning for the New Global Century, requires that all students take at least two scientific inquiry courses—one with a laboratory component—and at least one quantitative reasoning course, which could include such topics as logic, statistics for the social sciences, and computer programming.

The McDaniel Plan also includes a sophomore year interdisciplinary requirement designed to help students learn to draw connections and approach a subject from several complementary perspectives. Associate professor of biology Ralene Mitschler is designing a Controversies in Science and Society class to meet the interdisciplinary requirement for fall 2008. Students in the course will use a role-playing model developed at Barnard College to examine scientific controversies in history—from the trial of Galileo Galilei to acid rain in industrializing Europe to the 1999 Kansas School Board creationism controversy. The students will read and analyze primary-source material—"including some from Galileo's time," Mitschler says—and will make arguments from the points of view of scientists, church members, and other involved parties. The course, like McDaniel's other interdisciplinary offerings, is designed to tackle "big questions," such as the intersections of science and faith in society, from several perspectives. Mitschler also plans to include mini labs in the course, to allow students to actually experiment with the scientific concepts they'll be arguing.

Science as a Liberal Art

The emphasis on science at McDaniel works, McKay says, because the faculty recognize its value and generally welcome the challenge of making science widely accessible. In developing the McDaniel plan, for example, faculty members voted unanimously to increase and deepen the science requirement. The laboratory requirement was added because science faculty saw how hands-on pedagogical exercises excited their students and recommended making labs part of the general education curriculum. "We have a cultural expectation in the biology department that you'll teach at least half your classes to nonmajors," Mitschler says. "And when we look for new faculty members, we always ask about their ideas for first-year seminars and general education." Craig says that a perk of teaching science at a liberal arts institution has been the refinement of his teaching methods. "Teaching a subject to a greater range of students means you have to teach better," he says. "You have to engage them in a different manner and make them care." And while making every student at McDaniel care about science might be a tall order, making them all more scientifically literate is a goal that's well underway.

McDaniel College