At many institutions of higher education, course enrollments rise and fall depending on whether they satisfy a REQUIREMENT imposed by the university and/or college (or other university sub-unit) and/or department (for a major). The only way to get significant enrollment in most science courses for non-majors is if the course satisfies a science-for-non-scientists kind of requirement.
I am sort of on board with this 'liberal arts' philosophy of American higher education and think it is a good thing if undergraduates take a broad range of classes in the sciences and non-sciences. I say this recognizing that I am being hypocritical, as I specifically chose to attend an undergraduate college that lacked any requirements beyond those for the major. I took a wide range of courses, but I didn't want to be made to do this.
Anyway, despite being generally positive about these requirements, what I am not so positive about is the fact that the criteria are constantly changing for courses to satisfy these requirements.
One of my courses is specifically intended for students without any particular background or strong interest in Science, but to get it approved as fulfilling one of these requirements has involved significant effort on a regular basis. It seems like every other year or so I have to re-justify my course and describe in terrifying detail how and why my course deserves to be a requirement-fulfilling science course for non-scientists.
And every time a new set of criteria is rolled out, the list of criteria gets longer and weirder. And that's in addition to the ever-expanding need to explain how student learning outcomes will be assessed.
Do the criteria keep changing because there is a committee tasked with this task and they feel an urgent need to have an outcome, so they keep changing things? With all due respect to the hard-working and dedicated faculty and administrators who serve on these committees, are these requirements so abused that this level of scrutiny and frequency of course justification is needed?
During my recent travels to other universities, other professors have mentioned their own travails with the exact same issue, suggesting that it may be a rather common experience.
A frequent complaint by my Science colleagues is that some universities require that science classes for non-scientists discuss the relationship of humans to the science topic in order for the science class to fulfill a general science requirement. This is a complicated issue. I surmise that the intention is that Science courses be made 'relevant' to undergraduate humans, and I can understand that, but it's not difficult to think of some courses that don't directly involve human activities but that nevertheless concern significant and interesting topics for non-science students. Should these courses be excluded from general ed requirements because they don't involve humans?
If the science-human connection is allowed to be somewhat indirect (e.g. Humans live in the universe so any course that involves a topic related to something in the universe is relevant to humans), any science class that is taught at the appropriate level can fulfill the general ed criteria. It's when the criteria are very detailed that some courses become difficult or impossible to justify as general ed requirements. Maybe that's a good thing and maybe it's not.
In the early days of justifying a science class to fill a general-ed requirement, it was easy to address the human-science criterion by saying something simple like "Science 101 includes discussion of the relationship of Science to humans and human society". To most of us scientists, it is obvious that understanding the physics, chemistry, and biology of the planet and beyond is important for life, and it's not too difficult for most of us to make connections to 'real life' as the occasion arises during an intro level course.
As scrutiny of such courses intensified, this type of justification had to be more elaborate and specific, e.g. "Science 101 includes discussion of the following topics that relate to how Science impacts human society and the daily lives of all people on this planet: [LIST]". This is easier for some sciences than for others, but for most it's not so difficult to come up with some examples of topics we teach anyway.
Today, however, as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we physical scientists must meet greater challenges to have our courses approved for the non-science masses, even as it becomes ever more important for non-scientists to understand some Science.
To explore this issue further and to show that I am very concerned about Blog Reader Learning Outcomes, I will provide you with an active learning exercise/assessment survey (cleverly disguised as a multiple-choice question), based on info compiled from various colleagues at major US universities:
Which of the following is NOT a real criterion for a physical science course to be approved as a general ed requirement for non-science majors?
1. The course must deepen a student's understanding of how physical phenomena involving non-living matter and processes can be investigated by the scientific method through the development of hypotheses that can be tested by observation or experiment.
2. Physical phenomena to be investigated must be of major significance. Highly specialized topics of primary interest only to scientists are unlikely to be approved.
3. The course must involve an active learning component that helps students understand how physical phenomena can be elucidated in terms of basic principles recognized by scientists.
4. Phenomena to be investigated must explicitly involve the interactions of humans with the physical world and its non-living constituents.
5. The course must explore the limitations of science and scientists, and how these limitations impact public policy issues of regional or global significance.
6. Students in this course must learn that scientific problems can only be successfully solved within the context of the ethics of a particular society.
This is an open book test, but you must do your own work and turn off your iPod while choosing your answer. Tests will be graded at the professor's leisure and returned during the one class you skip this term. Results will be curved in such a way that everyone will be happy with their score.
11 years ago