Scientific literacy: making science concepts into “household names”

“Can you explain stem cell research to me?”

This is not what you would normally hear on the car ride back to campus, after a week of on Spring Break. You might think we’d be talking about the Ultimate Frisbee tournament we just played at, the nice beach that we stayed near, or anything on the crazy list of happenings.

So, as any good shotty should, I entertained my driver with a brief account of stem cell research. Considering how much stem cell research has been in the news lately, it may not be all that surprising that this conversation actually happened.

But if you didn’t have someone science-y handy, how many people would care enough to take the time to actually find out the details?

With issues like stem cell research frequently appearing in the headlines of most news outlets in the country, it is becoming more and more important for the average citizen to understand scientific concepts in order to form their own opinions on the subjects. Not unlike other areas of interest, level of education seems to play a large role in the depth at which they can understand a scientific concept.

My companion at the wheel, Joe, is a graduate student at Teacher’s College, hoping to get a gig teaching English in high school next year. Joe is a non-science major, but he finds value in understanding science-related current issues. So what is the current status of science and scientific literacy among young adults?

To get a general feel for the situation, I set out to make a rough study of my peers. I created an online survey to assess the level of interest in and understanding of science among current college students, as well as some people who have been out of school for a number of years. Respondents were mostly people that I reached through social networking sites and word of mouth. I also set up 8 interviews with current and recent Columbia University students to get a better sense of how Columbia’s Core Curriculum fares in all of this, specifically the course “Frontiers of Science” – FoS. Many of the respondents and interviewees were friends or acquaintances so this exercise is nowhere near rigorous enough to compare with full scientific study. However, I am confident that the responses are honest and can give some indication of the general situation.

Nearly half of the 122 survey respondents claimed that they had a good enough general understanding of science to explain concepts to others. However, when asked to rate their understanding of several specific science topics, respondents generally were slightly less confident in their knowledge. The topics that people were most and least confident in knowledge of were evolution and space/Mars exploration, respectively.

The university can be the place where young students gain a worldview that includes science, or it can be the place that scared someone away from trying to enter the realm of the scientific perspective. I remember my freshman year of undergraduate (not at Columbia University) as being quite stressful. In addition to having to take Molecular Biology, I was also required to take Organic Chemistry. Both were very in-depth, hardcore science courses that could be considered “weed-out” courses.

I managed to make it through my first year, but it was a harsh introduction to college studies. While I understand the reasoning for this type of structure, it may not be ideal for interested individuals who are not looking to major in science but are instead fulfilling a science elective requirement. Non-science majors may get lost when the goal of an introductory course is not clearly meant to help them fill in the science background they may have missed in high school.

On the other end of the spectrum, introductory science courses can be super fluffy and only provide superficial coverage of topics. The difficulty that FoS faces is the broad target that is the student body. All of the first years are lumped together, science and non-science majors, creating an underlying conflict between those who aren’t getting anything from the course and those who don’t understand enough to get anything out of it; thus there is an inherent flaw in the structure of the course.

One interviewee says, “You have to try to simultaneously make it hard enough so that it’s interesting, challenging so that it is interesting, but easy enough so that like everyone gets it. Really I don’t know that there is much that you can do to save the class, because the concept of it is really flawed.”

It could be possible to restructure FoS by not trying to accomplish so much within one semester, “but maybe focus on hard analysis of a few things. Just so college students can really appreciate the scientific mindset that you need and not look at science as just memorizing a passage from a book.”

The course itself, as it stands, plows through several topics a semester, often jumping from one subject to another from one week to the next. This format may make it difficult for anything to sink in during the process, and may only further turn non-science majors off from going deeper into science from lack of purpose. I am certain I would not feel satisfied with it, especially if the instructors seemed to only aim to get through the material rather than foster growth of scientific understanding.

I know that I often feel more motivated in a class when the instructor was enthusiastic, whereas, when that was not the case, I may put less effort into assignments and exams. The vibe that instructors are less interested in teaching the material than the students are in learning it is a common sentiment among the respondents. It could be an influential factor for students that are on the borderline between understanding science or not, and generally being interested or not in science and related issues in the future.

This brings up the question of whether students unfamiliar with science should be separated from those who need to take a hard science course. Instructors may feel less enthusiastic about teaching introductory courses, but those may be the crucial courses for students who have not yet found their paths. Though I am not particularly good at physics and distinctly recall my physics courses from my junior year of undergraduate as being particularly grueling, the instructors were so fantastic that I still found myself enjoying lectures and labs. They were able to do this by making the topics relevant to my life and things I am familiar with.

An interviewee says, “I feel more educated about it because I know like some of the stuff now. But it makes me appreciate the scale of what’s happening. The fact that we can launch a space shuttle to the International Space Station, I’m amazed by this sort of stuff now.” A survey respondent talked about how astronomy and psychology courses gave them a “new perspective on the world I live in.”

In my own case, I do not remember when I came to those similar realizations, but a large part of it may have been the opportunity to leave my hometown for college and also to leave the country to study abroad. When I was able to leave my comfort zone and realize that my personal daily problems were so much smaller in comparison to what is happening on a global scale, my whole viewpoint and outtake on life changed.

So it seems topics that relate to the student’s life or that show them something they’ve never thought about can be worthwhile and transformative experiences. But that is not always enough to encourage them to pursue science as a personal interest.

Some might say that these educational interests of university students could be manifested later on as a societal divide between the sciences and the humanities. “So there’s a divide,” says one interviewee, “between the societal marriage of more art and cultural knowledge, which is seen as intelligent to most people, and science, which is seen as something else.

“And,” he continues, “you have to be more of a scientific creature to even like or appreciate that. Whereas I would go and read a novel or go to a play, not as many people would go and read a scientific paper for fun, or would not be as interested or curious about things like that.”

Columbia’s humanities core courses are extensive explorations of history, philosophy, and literature. They lay the foundation for much of the future coursework that the students will take and also give the first year class a sense of community by putting them through the same required readings, assignments, etc. As one student puts it, “You actually get a sense of the whole Western canon, like philosophy and literature. Then when you read other stuff, you understand where it comes from because you’ve read all these classics that the other authors have read.”

In this aspect, FoS is the most different. FoS attempts to familiarize the students with the course’s namesake, the frontiers of contemporary science. They cover topics such as astronomy, evolution, biodiversity, string theory, and quantum mechanics.

An interviewee, who is a science major, talks about his qualms with this aspect of the structure of the course: “They treat science unfairly by assuming you need to know the frontier of science to be in the loop whereas all the other core classes are the history of philosophy, the history of literature. They should teach the basic things to give people more grounding so that they can understand it.”

“What if,” he continues, “it was more about the history of science and the philosophy of science incorporated into basic science as well as cutting edge science…it would be really interesting.”

One student says, “but it’s just different with science, you know? Cause not everyone’s good at it.”

But why is that the case? Why is not everyone “good” at science? And when did we get “good” at the humanities when science was left behind?

It could have something to do with earlier experiences in the education system. There may be many pivotal periods during early and middle education that serve as formative experiences. One of the interviewees remembers a third grade teacher who influenced her so greatly that she credits her open-mindedness for science to those early experiences.

Of all my early elementary and middle school years, the science parts are the least memorable. I remember reading books that significantly changed the way I thought, like 1984 when I was in eighth grade. But no science, and yet I still find myself majoring in a science field. Was it something inherent in me that would have manifested itself eventually no matter what course I took? Did others have the similar experiences?

A graduating Columbia senior says, “If I hadn’t been lucky enough to have had some positive exposure to science and math way back in the day, I probably would’ve been turned off [to] those subjects while taking my intro college courses. Those courses were pretty uninspired, and I thought they focused too much on delivering the requisite information to the students – not enough on opening their eyes to the beauty and relevance of its application.”

“Weirdly,” she continues, “I see the world much more artistically and generally in the context of science; though one would ostensibly have a more rigid, calculated view of the world when looking at it with a scientific eye, I think science helps me to notice all the ‘other parts’ more readily.”

I can only speculate that other students may not have had the same opportunities and access to teachers who could give science a fair chance. I often marvel at how lucky I have been to manage to stumble my way through high school, undergraduate, and eventually through graduate school. Along the way, I have somehow discovered where my interests lie and what my skills are. Part of the beauty of the process was that I was able to try many things with an open mind, and I enjoyed it not necessarily because my teachers were enthusiastic about science but because I had the chance to find out if I was enthusiastic about learning it.

Science courses throughout a student’s journey through the education system may impact their worldview and general mentality; this at least has been true for myself. I eventually figured out that I enjoyed ecology, and then that I am passionate about environmental issues with a focus on the human impact. I am sure that I would not have found my way to where I am without taking those first steps towards biology and then to ecology, and finally to conservation biology. I’m not the same person I was when I started, but I’m closer to being who I am meant to be.

As graduation day nears, I have been thinking a lot about my future. The prospects are not looking great in this economy, but I have an interesting skill set that I think could make me a strong candidate for the things I want to do. I may be considered a scientist by training, but I am not looking to get into research or academia where those skills would be used. Another point is that the skills acquired from studies in the humanities more readily translate to a job or role in our society.

Reading, writing, and critical thinking are skills that most people will need when they join the workforce, but understanding scientific concepts and mechanisms is surely not as high a priority for being a responsible member of society. This may pose a problem when current events and issues are science related.

One interviewee said, “The only thing I think people need to know in terms of scientific literacy is that if they read something that politicians say or someone in power says that they should do, I feel like before they do anything about it, they need to learn about it.”

“On one hand,” says another interviewee, “I think it is pretty important for people to understand what’s going on around them but on the other hand I think some people just don’t have the time to devote to understanding what is going on. But I think college kids should definitely know because they have a lot of free time. So I think that it is important for college students to, but I wouldn’t expect like an adult to understand everything going on.”

The general feeling about scientific literacy is that science is a different type of intellectual endeavor than the humanities or other general interests. However, for this generation, the Internet has had a large impact on how information is acquired and could become more important for learning and communication. One interviewee has this motto: “Life is a giant wikiquest,” just because he spends an hour on Wikipedia each day. So the pursuit of scientific knowledge no longer needs to occur in the classroom with textbooks.

But the one obstacle that remains is the barrier for the permeation of science into daily life and conversation. One Columbia sophomore says, “I guess the very fact that I never talk about it or talk about things suggests that we are not very scientifically literate or I’m not friends with scientifically literate people.”

Recall my friend Joe, for whom I sat shotty on the ride home from spring break. He is in the circle of friends with whom I rarely talk about science with. However, Joe drives a hybrid as an expression of being environmentally and socially aware, so he may already be considerably more susceptible to scientific concepts and scientific thinking. In the future, I hope I can again serve as a bit of a bridge for my friends into the scientific perspective.

I never thought I would, but I find myself considering applying for PhD programs, mostly for ones in interdisciplinary settings that will involve the environment, resources, and social sciences. I can trace my choices back to a somewhat arbitrary decision as a high school senior to major in Biology when I moved on to undergraduate studies. Who would have thought that things would turn out the way that they have?

My journey as a student of science has greatly shaped my perspective on the world and I hope that I can help others find the beauty in understanding some of the science behind it. One of my goals is to educate the people around me about scientific concepts that are interesting and relevant to current events and issues. I hope that, eventually, I can contribute to solving problems of the world that will require the type of thinking that incorporates perspectives from many fields, including science, economics, and cultural studies.

One way that I have begun this effort is by starting this science blog, through which I hope to bring insight to science and topics relevant in today’s world and encourage discussion of how they relate to our daily lives. Hopefully, through my efforts and those of hundreds of like-minded science popularizers and educators, the overall understanding and appreciation of scientific issues will steadily grow and develop as our society advances so that perhaps, one day, many of these science concepts become “household names.”

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7 thoughts on “Scientific literacy: making science concepts into “household names”

  1. Lovely article!

    Also, to complement that science-and-art business a little bit, an interesting book I’m reading now — A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman.

  2. Very nicely written. I like how you tie together all of the quotes with your own insight. Really, the quotes make the article–you had a lot of very productive interviews!

  3. Thanks for the book recommendation Lili! I will have more time now, so I will look into it!

    Thanks Nat! The interviews were very enjoyable. I had only done one interview before this project, but by the end of this I felt much more confident. It really is an interesting topic, and I wish I could have included much more from the surveys and interviews!

  4. Interesting set of reflections and comments.

    The faculty of Frontiers feel strongly that there is already too much segregation of “science” and “non-science” students in education and in the culture. Columbia’s Core Curriculum doesn’t segregate philosophers from chemists; why should Frontiers?

    It is a very difficult course to teach, in part because the way scientists do science is not historical or philosophical but current, hence Frontiers.

    I gathered from the piece that you did not take Frontiers? You might enjoy a first hand look (Google “Frontiers of Science Online”).

    One of my students in another course recently wrote as follows:

    “I am currently a senior in Columbia College and am majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior with a Chemistry Concentration. Coming into Columbia, I had no intention of pursuing chemistry beyond the pre-med requirements. However, things changed my second semester of my first year. In Frontiers of Science, we were exposed to topics across the different science disciplines. I found the chemistry lectures with Professor Nuckolls to be the most intriguing.

    Professor Nuckolls made chemistry interesting, applicable, and comprehensible. He would cover the basic concept but provide context to its discovery and/or use and relate it to other disciplines. In addition to this, he would use anecdotes to break down the more difficult concepts. In the short amount of time that I had Professor Nuckolls as a lecturer, he had [unknowingly] swayed me to take more chemistry courses. And now, in addition to my major, I am pursuing a Chemistry Concentration.

    Years later, I am still able to look at chemistry beyond the basic concepts and also incorporate them into a more multi-disciplinary context, as Professor Nuckolls had done in his Frontiers lectures. This has been most helpful in my understanding of difficult concepts in my other chemistry courses.”

    I really liked Colin’s lectures as well; my attitude towards chemistry in college would have been radically different if I’d had her (my student’s) experience.

    Frontiers is an evolving effort that deals with a the scientific literacy issues that you raise as well as the need for students within the sciences to appreciate very early the power of multidisciplinary approaches to new problems. Teaching Frontiers is a real challenge and making it work is hard but important.

  5. Thank you so much for reading my work and writing a thoughtful and detailed response!

    You are correct that I have not taken Frontiers of Science. I was not an undergraduate at Columbia and at the time of writing this piece had not thought to attend a lecture or two in person.

    I was intrigued to hear the perspective of the students. I try understand how difficult it is for the professors teaching the course because it is a very difficult course to put together. For the purpose of the assignment, I did not want to take on more than I could handle, and therefore decided to take only interviews with students and not professors. I think an interesting sister piece would be from the perspective of the educators, but that was beyond the scope of what I had time to do.

    I’m glad that your students felt inspired by Frontiers to move onto taking more science and changing plans. I imagine that is a great joy to hear as an educator!

    I think that the problem I was trying to get at was that many of the students entering Frontiers were not as prepared to understand scientific concepts as they are prepared for humanities and other cultural studies. I’m still very interested in this topic, and hope to pursue further investigation into scientific literacy issues as part of an interdisciplinary PhD program (I’m applying for the Fall of 2010, wish me luck!). Thanks so much for your comments and I would be interested in getting in touch with you in the future!

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