Literacy isn’t Just for the Humanities: Scientists Discuss What It Means to Them

 
     

Pace faculty, students, and alumni in the Biology and Health Sciences and Chemistry departments recently sat down to have a roundtable discussion on the critical need for science literacy and interdisciplinary, integrated curricula. Participants stressed the need for relevant, applied understanding of the sciences, their interrelationships, and their effects in academia and the “real” world.

Read the Annual Report article below:
Addressing Science Literacy

Pace faculty, students, and alumni discuss the critical need to improve science literacy and why academic programming at Pace provides students with a more integrated, relevant, and broader understanding of the field.

Roundtable participants:

  • Moderator: Richard Schlesinger, PhD, Associate Dean and Professor, Department of Biology and Health Sciences (RS)

Attendees:

  • Antonella Castaldo ’10, Staff Associate (AC) Marcy Kelly, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair, Biology and Health Sciences (MK)
  • Erica Kipp, Adjunct Assistant Professor and Director of Biology Laboratories (EK)
  • Zelda Mendelowitz ’13 (ZM)
  • Mary Margaret (Peggy) Minnis, PhD, Lecturer in Chemistry (PM) Neil Patel ’13 (NP)
    

Richard Schlesinger: One of the big issues nationally today is “scientific literacy.” There is an attempt at all educational levels to change the curriculum so that students will have a better idea of how to relate the concepts they learn to the real world. One approach involves a move toward integrating concepts across disciplines. Right now, for example, if a student learns something in biology, they may not be able to apply it toward chemistry. What we’re trying to do at Pace is develop a Learning Community, whereby the concepts discussed in biology will be applied to chemical problems, and then the chemical concepts will be applied to biological problems. In another approach, Peggy Minnis has developed a course called Consumer Chemistry, which is an online course that provides relevance of scientific concepts to non-majors.

Peggy Minnis: We were trying to find some way to put one of thesciences online that incorporated a lab component. So what I did was get the students to use household chemicals in order to do theexperiments. Students didn’t know that things around the housewere actually chemicals; so I think they are finding science to bevery relevant to their life.

RS: Another of the more popular courses in the general educationUniversity core is what has been termed “general biology light,” which Erica Kipp has recently redesigned to make more relevant.

Erica Kipp: We changed it to Human Biology and Contemporary Society, whereas before it was more focused on biology and we didn’t have this other component. One of the things I did was integrate case studies into the lecture portion, so that when we discuss a concept, students are given an actual scenario that it canbe applied to. With genetically modified (GM) foods, for example,we’ll talk specifically about a GM product, like golden rice, and how it is adding vitamin A to the diet of folks that have a blindness directly related to a vitamin A deficiency. We look at journal articles and popular articles, so they’re learning a lot about not only genetically modified products, but also deficiencies, food products,and the relation of these to other cultures.

RS: The integration of case studies in this course makes it more relevant to the students. To me, the goal of “the thinking professional” related to the sciences means that non-science majors can read popular articles, for example in Time magazine,and figure out whether or not the reporter is biased.

PM: Science majors also need to be schooled in that kind of thing;they’re not critical readers. They don’t know how to read the NewYork Times. They know how to read a textbook.

RS: That’s true, and one of the factors in the redesign of Dyson Hall was this integration across disciplines. It’s also important for students to see what’s going on in research labs other than their own. One event in the city that we hope to do in Pleasantville isa colloquium every year, where the students in all of the science disciplines at Pace present their research in poster sessions.

EK: The poster session I host usually has biology, chemistry, physics, forensic science, and environmental science students presenting. Next year, we hope to have communication science disorders and psychology involved as well. The goal is to make these programs more Dyson-wide in terms of the various natural sciences and related social sciences.

Marcy Kelly: I was also thinking about our seminar series, where we have professionals come in to talk about what they are doing.

 
     

EK: It shows the students how the information they’re learning,the degree that they are going to earn, can be relevant once theygraduate.

Neil Patel: In terms of integration of the biology and chemistry departments, one thing that the seminars do really well is show exactly how the two are connected. When you’re in BIO 101 you startoff with this huge whiteboard that talks about how everything gets broken down—“the hierarchy of life.” It goes from the broadest organism level all the way down to the cellular. It shows exactly how, on the larger scale, things get influenced through the body and environment. Recently in my Chemistry 111 class, I learned that the cellular respiration produced by two human beings is equivalent to a Hummer H2 per year.

RS: That’s the kind of relevance that students need! This is what sticks in their head. One of the other problems with science is you can bore students by standing there and just lecturing. Marcy Kelly is using a new technique that promotes interactive teaching.

MK: I use a classroom response system with a remote control device in my BIO 101 and 102 courses. It’s similar to… have you seen the showWho Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the “ask the audience” question where you get that bar graph response? Every 10 to 15 minutes I’ll do a clicker question, and I’m able to see the response. If most of the students get the question correct, I’ll know they understand and I can continue, but if I realize they’re not understanding it, I can backtrack and try and figure out where they’re stuck.

RS: Another issue with science majors in general, and not just at Pace, is as incoming freshmen, they’re thrown into a program where they’re taking two lab sciences right away. So they have two problems: one is adjusting to college life; the other is time management. One thing that we’ve done to try to help in this regard is to set up discussion groups that are peer led by an upper-level student. If they have a question, they can talk to a fellow student about it and hopefully resolve it.

EK: I also think they can sometimes explain a concept in a different way than the professor that might make more sense to the student.

Antonella Castaldo: I benefitted from those a lot, because I definitely felt intimidated to stop the whole class and say “Hey, I didn’t understand that.”

NP: The help of a peer leader really influences how well a student develops in making connections with both classes [chemistry and biology] and overcoming the overwhelming pressure that’s put onby both courses.

PM: And as you’ve probably found out, the process of teaching is the best learning experience that you can have!

RS: I wanted to bring up the issue of research. A number of years ago, at many schools, research was considered an elective. But it has been shown that one way for students to understand concepts is to see their application in the lab. So we revised the science curricula and made research a requirement. And I think it’s one of the factors that draws people here…If a student came up to you and asked “Why should I study science at Pace?” what would you tell them?

Zelda Mendelowitz: I would tell them because it is a small school. When I came here, I was a freshman in Dr. Lampard’s BIO 101 lab section and he asked me to join his lab, and I think it was the best thing that has ever happened to me.

NP: I’d tell them that the interaction between the faculty and the student is greater. You’re not just a number, you have a name. They offer a lot of summer programs and internships and in-school research, which is what a lot of kids want to do. At Pace, you’re someone who has potential to present a poster or paper.

AC: I want to go back to what Zelda was saying: Faculty members can affect their students on such a great level. I would not have been here today if it wasn’t for my freshman year when she [Kipp] scooped me up. I had all my papers ready to transfer, and she brought a new perspective and opened my eyes up to a lot of other possibilities. You guys [Kipp and Kelly] aren’t just here for my academic career, you could be my life mentors. It’s really important because the bonds you form now, whether it’s with a classmate or a faculty mentor—you hold that for life.

RS: Some of the advanced courses can have as few as six or seven people, so it is almost like a one-to-one relationship. It’s also attractive to students that we do not use graduate teaching assistants. One of the questions I get asked at open houses is “Who teaches? Real faculty or TAs?” And when I say real faculty, parents often look shocked. Our assessment process also makes us unique. When I was in college, assessment consisted of a biology exam at the end of senior year, and if you didn’t pass it you didn’t graduate—I thought that was a little late. So we’ve started giving an assessment exam in the junior year. This allows us to tell if a student has a problem in a particular area, and if a student does, we can perform some remediation before it’s too late. In addition, there is advisement during all years to assure that students are entering a field in which they can succeed. For example, many biology majors come to Pace thinking they will goto medical school. In some cases, they will not be able to achieve this goal so we advise them on alternatives that will allow them to pursue their interest in science or science related fields.

PM: So a real strength of coming into the sciences [at Pace], and finding out they are not suited for it, is you can advise them into a field where they can still achieve their life goals, and not compromise.

MK: I wanted to touch on one of the other courses we offer in biology, which is our Capstone. It’s a writing enhanced course, and we have each student pick a research topic and guide them through the development of an NSF [National Science Foundation] style research proposal. The end goal is to get our students to come up with their own scientific ideas, develop their own hypotheses, and be able to think about and apply all of the material they’ve learned throughout their time at Pace.

RS: That’s the purpose of that course: to integrate and synthesize everything they’ve learned into developing a research project. The era of generalization in science is gone. In any field—medicine, dentistry, scientific research, business—what employers are looking for are people who can think. And in the sciences this translates into people who are able to look at the big picture, but then be able to drill down to the problem at hand. What we try todo in the sciences here at Pace is to provide the ability for both the science degree and non-science degree graduates to think outside the box of their specialty, and make them a “thinking ‘science’ professional.”

Learn how Pace professors are making science relevant through films like King Kong and Jurassic Park.

View Pace’s Annual Report for more information.