Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Moving Target

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.


Anonymous said...

Clearly the answer is #1; it is the only answer that actually addresses the core goals and methods of Science.

quasarpulse said...

I would *hope* that the answer would be (6), as it seems the least relevant to a science course and is a questionable assertion to begin with; gravity continues to work as expected regardless of culture. However, knowing bureaucracies, I imagine the correct answer is probably (1), which is the most relevant.

Anonymous said...

Trying to read over and get all the ramifications clear, I'm hoping it's the last (i.e. 6) one. Sometimes English doesn't feel all that comfortable after all.

Anonymous said...

I feel for you, because I'm in the middle of proposing a course like this. I like topics that involve the intersection of natural science and social science and humanities, but just like you, the only way I can run it is if I jump through GE hoops. Well, I could run it without those hoops, but then it wouldn't attract much enrollment and it would go on the chopping block. So a lot of work would be spent designing a canceled class.

The connection to "humans" is weird. I sort of get a requirement that a GE course integrate human concerns or applications or intellectual history--even a course on cosmology, as far from the human scale as you get, could at least include a unit on intellectual history and the role of cosmology in shaping world views and all that--but what you describe sounds far more obtuse than that. If you have to write "Humans live in the universe so any course that involves a topic related to something in the universe is relevant to humans" then this is being read by some completely brain-dead bureaucrat.

My guess on which of those is NOT a requirement for the course:

Item 6 on the list sounds way too fluffy and idiotic. Which means that it's probably an actual requirement somewhere. So I'll go with my second choice and say that Item 1 ("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.") is not a real requirement. The insistence on "non-living" sounds weird for a science course, given that biology is (last I checked) a science. And the insistence on the scientific method and experiment, paradoxically, sounds a bit too scientific for a GE requirement written by bureaucrats.

Anonymous said...

Well criterion 1 sounds the most sensible for a science course, so it's probably the one not allowed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for raising this topic! Being fairly new to the academic world, I'm frequently baffled by these directives handed down from above. The goals change every couple of years, and sometimes one can't even figure out what the goal is. This has been happening at my uni with both general ed and assessment lately. Our gen ed program is being revamped, and it has gone through a series of five task forces in the last six years. And my uni loves to put the dang education wonks in charge of all this; I get so tired of their indecipherable pedagogy-speak. I wonder if they know that many (most?) departments regard it all as a big joke. We teach what we think is right to teach, using the methods we think are best, and then we manipulate the description of what we're doing so that it fits whatever the latest garbled directive says. Same with assessment: our dept's explicit policy is to make our assessment tests as easy as possible, so our numbers will look good. One year I tried to give my students a substantive assessment exam, and my dept. head told me to change it so it didn't have so much content. It's all just window-dressing.

Anonymous said...

It's got to be 1. That's the only course objective that one would actually have.


Luis said...

That would be #1, FSP. I'd bet my wisdom teeth on it.

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed by this post. I've taught in non-majors courses but they had already been on the books for years. I didn't know there were criteria! I thought the "human connection" that we always emphasized was just to reassure the sciencephobic English majors.

Do English profs have to demonstrate the relevance of their courses that are requirements for science majors? I hope so.

Unknown said...

The correct answer is #1, which of course if the most relevant to teaching non-scientists and scientists alike how to think critically and test hypotheses so that scientific "fact" may be made to stand up to appropriate scientific rigor. IMHO this is the most important skill that science educators could and should pass on to their non-science major students. The details of a specific field are less useful to these students in the long run than having a foundation of being able to critically analyze data.

But of course, we wouldn't want to worry about teaching anyone that...science thinking about science is hard after all and best left up to the actual scientists. *snark*

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised and a bit confused by this practice. Does this mean that a science course intended for science majors cannot be counted toward the liberal arts criteria for non-majors? What happens when someone changes majors (away from science)? Are there in fact similar requirements for other departments?

Anonymous said...

Based on my experience as an undergrad, definitely #1!

Anonymous said...

Clearly you have not spent a lot of time writing NIH significance statements regarding human health! (answer is #1,btw) Life scientists have to justify our grants in terms of human health, no matter how distant and nebulous the connection.

ScientistMother said...

#1 b/c that seem like the most obvious criteria to have.

Anonymous said...

My. God. So glad that my courses are longstanding courses and that there is no requirement to in any way justify their existence to my University's bureaucracy.

I can imagine what the "relevance" list might look like:

"Without oxidative phosphorylation, you would die."
"Without amino acid biosynthesis, you would die."
"Without DNA replication, you would die."
"Without lipid biosynthesis, you would die."
"Without correct protein folding, you would die."


Female Science Professor said...

My course is a longstanding one as well. Even so, I have to re-justify it every couple of years.

JaneB said...

Clearly the answer is #1... or it would be here anyway.

I'm curious - are gen ed courses in the humanities required to show how they are relevant to 'modern society'?

Anonymous said...

I'm torn between 1 & 3, so I'll be contrary & go with 3. Active learning? Basic principles? C'mon! what does that have to do with general education?

I mean, 1 is very close, but I'm guessing that since it includes the phrase "non-living matter," it was written by someone who forgot either (a) biology is a science or (b) biology involves living matter. That is, a gen ed administrator type.


Anonymous said...

Having been through the process of Gen Ed course approval several times at MyU, I am reasonably sure the correct answer is #2. The committees setting criteria are not always clueless ...

Unknown said...

Sorry I'm late commenting - my dog ate the paperwork that would prove I had a flat tire yesterday (when it was raining).

Actually, #1 sounds like a lot of the K-12 science education standards, so I would expect it to appear at the college level (or at least it does at my university, which has a large education school... heck, we even have a science education track).

My answer would be #3 - active learning (e.g. lab experience)? Not necessary to learn science, right (which is why we teach all these non-lab equivalents of courses with labs). Although I did consider #6 but erased that answer.

Unknown said...

It's a trick question: They are ALL criteria for science-for-poets courses.

Anonymous said...

My bet (belatedly) is on #4.

Anonymous said...

I'm going for # 4. We all know lots of professors that like to talk on "the dimensions of an ants spiracle" at great length and there is no reason why gen ed students should miss out on this too.

I did like George's justifications for his course though.

Ursula said...

#3, and if two answers are allowed: #1 and #3. Both imply real learning.

Anonymous said...

I wish, oh how I wish, the answer were #6.

But since we all know it's not, I'm going with C, since -as any veteran of the multiple choice wars will tell you- the answer is ALWAYS C*.

*And no, that doesn't equate to #3. C means C.

Anonymous said...

As a veteran of Gen Ed teaching and planning I sadly conclude that the answer is #1. I only say this because I presume that the other factors are definitely required, leaving no room for #1. I hope (hope! HOPE!) that those generating the requirements assume that #1 may go unstated because a professor will address this item without outside encouragement.

Professor of Strangeness said...


#3 is an interesting requirement -- the course will need to have a lab component.

But I would need a detailed list of measurable outcomes derived from the objectives and the assessment methods and standards to be applied to say for sure.

EliRabett said...

FWIW when I was an undergrad physics major and had to take a humanities course for scientists, I ended up taking the most narrow, irrelevant to modern life classics course I could find. a) It was a gas b) I was so far out in left field as far as the others in the course that I actually contributed something c) it was so different from all my other courses that I loved it and d)I ended up knowing a lot about a very small esoteric area. Good training for doctoral research