A rough road for science in the Core

A rough road for science in the Core

Despite update, proposal for new science Core mired in delays, criticism

Published on November 19, 2015

After a year of silence on the state of a new science Core course that could replace Frontiers of Science, Columbia College Dean James Valentini emailed all Columbia College students a proposal for the new course—called The Rough Guide to the Universe—on Wednesday evening.

Since the creation of Frontiers—a semester-long science course required of all Columbia College first-years—in 2004, the course has come under intense scrutiny and continued criticism. The chief criticism is that Frontiers has failed to meet the standards of Core staples Contemporary Civilizations and Literature Humanities, which are known for their seminar-based structure and reliance on primary texts.

But after undergoing review by various committees for three years, administrators have made no final decision about whether or not to replace Frontiers with a new science Core class—and the new course wouldn’t be rolled out to all students until 2017-2018 “at the earliest.”

In the meantime, thousands of students will continue to take Frontiers, as faculty and administrators continue to question and debate the merits of both classes.

In 2012, Valentini tasked the Educational Planning and Policy Committee—a group of faculty that coordinates educational policy in the Arts and Sciences—with reviewing Frontiers. An EPPC subcommittee conducted a year-long review of the course, culminating in a confidential report—obtained and published by Spectator in June 2013—that recommended a series of significant changes to the Core science class, including the elimination of lectures in favor of small-group seminars similar to those of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations.

The EPPC’s report set into motion a lengthy process of developing a course that has passed from committee to committee over the past few years—and which will now take at least another two years to complete.

The EPPC report sparked intense debate on the quality of the course, and following its analysis, Valentini formed the Committee on Science in the Core, a seventeen-person group of faculty and students charged with developing a potential alternative Core science course.

Since the creation of the EPPC report, momentum has stalled, according to Jim Applegate, a professor of astronomy who served informally on the Committee on Science in the Core.

“The law of inertia applies to many human things: unless acted upon by a force, an object will come to rest. This object has come to rest,” Applegate said on Monday. “And I expect it’s going to take a fairly large force—or at least a fairly loud one—to get it moving again.”

The Committee on Science in the Core took two years to complete its charge, culminating in the creation of the confidential proposal for RGU, which was presented to Valentini this past summer.

(Graphic by Anna Alonso)

Spectator obtained this report and informed Valentini in an interview on Tuesday that it would be published on Thursday.

In that interview, Valentini declined to comment on the contents of the report because it was marked confidential.

“When we’re developing anything new, the first stages really are to keep the discussion within a group of people who have been chartered with the responsibility of trying to develop it,” Valentini told Spectator. “That’s not unusual, that’s not atypical. That’s pretty much what we do with anything.”

But the day after his interview with Spectator, Valentini emailed a revised version of the report to all Columbia College students.

A rough guide

The proposal for RGU as a potential alternative to Frontiers relies upon a guiding principle set forth by the EPPC review of Frontiers: a Core science course should be structured similarly to other seminar courses in the Core curriculum.

RGU—following the EPPC’s recommendation—proposes eliminating Frontiers’ course-wide lectures in favor of a seminar-only format in which students engage primary texts—chosen to highlight scientific breakthroughs—in small group discussions.

The new course also seeks to address criticism raised against Frontiers by students and faculty and identified in the EPPC review—namely that the original Core science course lacks coherence.

The proposal seeks to provide narrative coherence through a chronological organization: topics will sweep from the “origins of the universe to the emergence of animals with large brains and complex psychological traits” and “end by considering the ways in which those animals have brought about significant changes in the planet on which they have evolved.”

But three years since the EPPC’s review, Columbia College is far from implementing a pilot course that addresses longstanding student and faculty concerns—and no decision has even been made to pursue the development of a pilot at all.

Additionally, many faculty members, particularly those who have been involved with the development and instruction of Frontiers, have cast doubt on several key components of the RGU proposal.

Nicholas Christie-Blick, a former co-chair of Frontiers, said that “this plan … hasn’t got a prayer of succeeding, based on our experience trying to teach Frontiers.”

Science faculty interviewed by Spectator questioned whether a general education science course could be taught effectively through primary text readings. Bob Cave, a professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College who served as an external expert consultant to the EPPC, said that many of these texts would likely be inaccessible to first years.

“You can read the words, but unless you have access to the mathematics, it can be like reading a dead language,” he said. “For example, the paper that Einstein developed—the genesis of special relativity—it’s not clear to me that the average person is going to be able to pick it up and say, ‘Oh, I totally get what he was talking about.’”

Using primary literature to teach a Core science course is not an original idea. Astronomy professor David Helfand, who taught two different iterations of a Core science course in the 1980s and was a leader in developing Frontiers, cited the use of primary texts as a key failure.

Millie Christie-Dervaux

(Millie Christie-Dervaux)

“We’ve tried it in two completely different context points and it’s failed both times,” Helfand said. “That doesn’t mean we’re all knowing. … But I’ve done enough experiments that I’m satisfied that it doesn’t work.”  

But Biology professor Stuart Firestein, who is also a former Frontiers instructor and the co-chair of the EPPC committee that issued the report on Frontiers, disagreed.

“I think it is possible to take classical papers and then prepare a commentary about them,” Firestein, who also participated in experimental model seminars conducted in the spring to test the proposal, said. “I personally believe that’s more engaging, because it allows you to present not only the paper itself, but the history behind it.”

For Applegate, who also participated in the model seminars, the use of primary texts could help the proposed course to overcome a longstanding challenge posed by Frontiers.

“One of the problems with Frontiers is that it’s too easy for the scientists and too hard for the non-scientists,” Applegate said. “It manages to miss both groups of students. One way to make the course more interesting for [both groups of] students… is to read primary texts.”

Philip Kitcher, a philosophy professor who co-chaired the committee that developed RGU, agrees that a stable syllabus will ultimately benefit the course, by lessening the burden placed on Frontiers instructors who have to learn new material year after year.

“It’s relatively more stable, and I think that will help,” he said. “It may turn out in the end that David Helfand and Nicholas Christie-Blick are right and the texts don’t work, and the instructors find it just terribly burdensome. But I think it’s surely worth giving it a go, given the success of CC and Lit Hum. You always have to remember, it took a while to get those courses going too.”

Other faculty stressed that eliminating the course-wide lecture component from Frontiers would be a critical mistake.

“I think those big lectures are really important,” Cave said. “There was something beautiful and unique about those large lectures that can’t possibly be captured in a seminar format.”

According to Christie-Blick, the expert lectures serve as vital context, without which students would have great difficulty understanding the material. Eliminating the lectures would therefore be problematic, especially because seminar leaders would have to teach outside their field of study without the lecture to refer back to.

“Now you’ve got these things that look like seminars, but now the seminar leader is doing the lecturing because the fact is, none of the students know what’s going on,” Christie-Blick said.

Kitcher, however, who formerly chaired CC, feels that there are pedagogical benefits to the discussion-based course that RGU could take advantage of.

“I came away [from chairing CC] thinking that virtually all of the people I saw leading sections— although they didn’t always get the details right, although they were not experts—they taught their students far more than the students would have gotten if they had been in a major lecture course,” Kitcher said. “I actually think that the section leaders in any Core course are empowered if they don’t have to follow on the heels of an expert.”

Faculty have also raised concerns that have not yet been addressed—most notably how Columbia College will staff the course.

Christie-Blick said that the preparatory effort to teach two seminars each week, as outlined in the RGU proposal, will prove to be too burdensome on faculty.

“The regular [Frontiers] faculty, who have all sorts of other responsibilities, teach just one seminar,” he said. “They put a lot of effort into it, have enormous amounts of prep time to teach just that one seminar… Now you’re teaching two seminars a week. How exactly does that work?”

Applegate also noted that the problem of staffing needs to be better addressed, but that responsibility for finding a solution lies with the dean.

“The skeptics [of the proposal] came in and said ‘Who is going to teach this?” and that is going to be a problem,” he said. “That is not my problem. That is James Valentini’s problem … because if you want to make this happen you’re going to need resources.”

But Valentini said that no decision has yet been made—nor will be made in the near future—about how the new course will be staffed.

“There is no assumption about how the course will be staffed—who the instructors will be, or how that will be developed,” he said.

Has RGU destabilized Frontiers?

The reception of announcements about this new course, combined with a pervasive culture of criticism which has dogged Frontiers throughout its existence, have caused some to worry that the development of RGU has “destabilized” the existing course and demoralized its students and faculty.

Valentini announced in a blog post in 2013 that he had appointed a committee of students and faculty to develop a new science course for the Core and in fall 2014, he emailed a progress report to students detailing two preliminary visions for a new course.

According to senior science faculty, Valentini’s statements—as well as the leak of the EPPC report—fed into already negative attitudes surrounding the course.

“Students haven’t warmed to it,” Marina Cords, Chair of the Committee on Science Instruction, said of Frontiers. “Sometimes I worry that the lore of the course follows it around like a bad reputation.”

Christie-Blick said that Valentini’s remarks negatively impacted students’ perceptions of the course during a time when course evaluations had been steadily improving over time, a trend noted in the EPPC review.

“The message you got from Valentini and [CSC committee chairs] Kitcher and [Peter] deMenocal was that, ‘We’ve got this fantastic new course, and the reason we’re doing this by the way, is Frontiers is shitty,’” Christie-Blick said. “And let me tell you, the evaluations tanked.”

Paul Olsen, a professor who teaches Frontiers, agreed that Valentini’s announcements negatively impacted students’ perceptions of the class.

“Our reviews were improving pretty continuously since the beginning, it seemed remarkable that the one time something like that comes out, they immediately go down,” Olsen said.

Faculty outside the leadership of the existing course share the concern that the creation of RGU could negatively impact Frontiers.

(Justin Strauss)

“I do feel sensitive to the possibility that this other course could somehow cause Frontiers to implode,” Cords said.

“I think it is terribly important—we worked very very hard to make our respect for what the people in Frontiers of Science had done very very clear,” Kitcher said. “And yet, at various stages, I think that people in Frontiers of Science felt that our committee work was undermining their activity.”

Christie-Blick, who served as one of the chairs of Frontiers, resigned in 2014—a departure that was seen as a significant blow to the course known for its committed faculty. Christie-Blick said that he resigned because the work being done to create RGU “destabilized” Frontiers.

“This whole thing was so disastrous, I simply wasn’t willing to [be Chair],” Christie-Blick said. “I was totally committed to Frontiers and I’m no longer teaching it.”

Christie-Blick also noted that he felt Valentini opposed the course and wanted to eliminate it.

I don’t trust Valentini at all,” Christie-Blick said. “It’s a shame.”  

His frustration was noted by faculty members, many of whom expressed sympathy for his position.

“In a certain sense, he was leading the course at a time when it was in limbo,” Kitcher said. “He was very committed… and it was very frustrating for him.”

But when asked about Christie-Blick’s role in leading Frontiers and the significance of his departure, Valentini told Spectator that “it takes more than one faculty to propel a course.”

He also denied that the development of RGU has destabilized Frontiers.

“We have never said that Frontiers is dead,” Valentini said. “We have always been careful to say the EPPC recommended we consider an alternative and we would pursue the consideration of alternative in parallel with the offering of Frontiers of Science.”

Despite what Darcy Kelley, a biology professor who co-developed Frontiers, calls “ongoing drama” that has been discouraging to some faculty members, she stressed that the course continues to evolve as it experiments with new teaching techniques to better engage students.

This semester, for instance, Kelley and Ivana Hughes, the associate director of Frontiers, successfully applied for funding to implement an adaptive learning platform in the course’s neuroscience module, which Kelley reports was highly successful. Hughes declined to be interviewed by Spectator.

Loss in momentum

While concerns surrounding Frontiers’ evolution persist, many faculty are equally uncertain about the pace of RGU’s development.

The original EPPC report said that the new science Core course could be launched as early as fall 2015. But the revised report sent out on Wednesday pushed back the timeline, noting that the course wouldn’t roll out until the 2017-18 year “at the earliest.”

According to Applegate, the delay in the launch was caused by the loss of “momentum” in the progress that the EPPC report had inspired.

“There was a major year-long movement on it,” Applegate said. “What I thought should happen was that the report should have been item number one on the agenda. Jim Valentini decided he was going to do something else.”

While he acknowledged the concerns surrounding the delay in the launch, Kitcher felt that a longer deliberative process was necessary to ensure the success of the new course.

“We could’ve produced a course in a year—it probably wouldn’t have been very good,” Kitcher said. “You can’t do something this big quickly. You’ve got to get it right and it’s very hard.”

As Valentini has sought widespread faculty participation in this process, he has passed responsibility for the progress of the new course between three separate faculty committees.

But momentum slowed when Valentini put responsibility for developing the course in the hands of a committee that only met six times a year—though he added that work should be conducted outside of committee meetings as well.

“Committees can take responsibility for things, it doesn’t mean the actual work they take responsibility for is conducted solely during those meetings,” Valentini said. “That won’t be the case.”

Before the long process to design, pilot, and roll out a new course even begins, this committee, the Committee on Science Instruction, will take the rest of the academic year to decide if the effort should even be pursued, according to Cords, the chair of the committee.

Even if COSI decides that the new course should proceed, it is not yet clear who would be responsible for its design and implementation, Cords said.

“There are lots of decisions [to be made],” Cords said. “Not only if to go forward, but if we go forward then how? Not only how would the course get developed, but if it were developed, and there was a trial run, what might that involve?”

Wednesday’s revised report claimed that a pilot course would be ready by fall 2016, at the earliest.

But, on Tuesday, Valentini was unwilling to give a new timeline for when testing for the new course might begin.

“Right now, that’s difficult to say,” he said.

Ben Libman and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

kelly.fan@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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