Introductory Science:
Experiments in Bridging Cultures

Paul Grobstein, Spring 2002

The Historical Context, Importance, and Challenge

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two groups. When I say the intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be distinguished ... Literary intellectuals at one pole - at the other scientists ... Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension - sometimes (particularly among the young) hostitility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding ... This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss, and I repeat that it is false to imagine that those three considerations are clearly separable.

C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures, 1959

If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and the humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized ... The future of the liberal arts lies ... in addressing the fundamental questions of human existence head on, without embarrassment or fear, taking them from the top down in easily understandable language, and progressively rearranging them into domains of inquiry that unite the best of science and the humanities at each level of organization in turn.

E.O. Wilson, Consilience, 1998

Current Realities, Significance, and Potential

My personal view of science for many years was, well, summed up with one word, "Yuck!"; in primary school it was undistinguishable from the morass of general information we learned from uninspiring textbooks and well-meaning, but insipid teachers. Middle school was worse: sterile classrooms in which science was lectured at us, and labs were limited to teacher demonstrations with very little student-centered learning ... Along with college pretty much came the exit of science from my life.

High School Teacher, 2000

We want to give our students the tools they need to be political actors in the world. Failing to teach them that, we are failing the traditional political mission of women's studies programs ... Contextualizing science is also essential for our science majors, failing to address ethical issues raised by the practice of science is to fail as science educators. Social questions are not just "hooks" to "real science", but rather deeply inform the way science is done".

A Conversation About Gender and Science, 2002

At the beginning of the term, I resisted the "cube of applied logic," secretly favoring the multi-colored "sphere of intuitive knowledge." ... The bold colors of logic and critical thinking suggested limitation, and a lack of mental "freedom." Reasoning represented an often cumbersome, painful process requiring patience and discipline. However ... Gradually I found that the exploration of various models of thinking could be interesting and even exciting. I discovered that intuitive thinkers like myself need not fear theoretical models of applied logic. Theoretical models are simply different glasses through which to observe and interpret the world. While I have been busy learning to "think" in new ways, it seems that I have been revising my attitude towards thinking, as well. I have learned that exploring new models or frameworks encourages a certain fluidity of thinking and keeps the mind reaching for new understandings.

Freshman Bryn Mawr student, 2001

The last thing in my life which inspired me was love. So perhaps by learning about it I could somehow rekindle that inspiration ... The first thing that emerged was my training as a chemist ... I was going to define system at question and then study it. My advisor ... called this "intellectual schizophrenia". I definitely had two sides to my inquiries. One had to do with what I thought was proper science, the inquiry concerned with the "right" answer. That is, anything a scientist sayts should be possible to rephrase as a summary of well-defined observations. The other part of me was concerned with concepts that mattered to me. These were abstract concepts such as love and philosophy. What I had to do for the first time in my life is to try to put the two together.

Senior Bryn Mawr chemistry student, 2001

Ten Plus Years of Trying to Get it Less Wrong: The Beginning

"--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." (John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor)

I'm going to spend less time worrying about whether other people think I'm doing my job right, and more time thinking. And I'm going to tell my students that that's what they should be doing too, whether or not they or anybody else think that's what I'm supposed to be telling them. And I'm going to tell my kids to stop trying to get everything right on their worksheets, and instead every once in a while to try something different, to do something differently, just for the hell of it and to see what happens.

Paul Grobstein, 1991

Biology 101 is not a "typical" science course, one in which the primary concern is to efficiently summarize a particular body of facts that students are expected to learn. It is, instead, a course predicated on and structured in terms of the fundamental activities of science itself, a process in which facts (observations) motivate ideas which in turn motivate observations which in turn motivate ideas in a continuing recurring interaction. One immediate consequence of this is that Biology 101 may place on you somewhat more responsibility for your own education than you have become used to from previous science courses. You will be given no list of particular things you are "supposed to know." You will instead be invited to listen to, read about, work through in your own mind, and contribute to an ongoing discussion of the relation between observations and ideas in biology. It is our belief that the experience of you making biology make sense to yourself is the most valuable thing you can take from this course, and also the most effective way to define and learn what one is "supposed to know."

Biology 103 syllabus, 1993

Science and life are both processes not of becoming "right" but rather of becoming "less wrong." Briefly discuss why this is an important distinction, and illustrate it using whatever concrete "less wrong" understanding about biology you acquired and were most impressed by during this semester.

Biology 101 final examination question, 1993

Ten Plus Years of Trying to Get it Less Wrong: Experiments Along the Way

Treat science as ordinary human activity, meaningful in relation to ordinary human questions (answerable and unanswerable) and to other human activities

No assigned textbook ... recommended readings/web resources

No examinations ... web papers as both engagement and assessment

Allow students to participate in flow of course ... web forums ... plus

Self-contained exploratory laboratories

Teach science as the open-ended, enjoyable process it is (should be)

Teach science in terms of the exploratory inclinations
which are inherent in all brains

And ...