March 29, 2011

Science Reqs in a College Education

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With the goal of providing students with a well-rounded education, science distribution requirements can prove a tricky path to navigate. For some students, they act as their only exposure to the sciences on the collegiate level. However, according to administrators, relevant understanding of science can prove to be beneficial.

A decade ago, according to Jed Sparks, director of undergraduate biology, non-science majors in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences only had the choice of taking the then equivalent of BIOG 1109, Foundations of Biology to fulfill life science requirements.

“Now there are ten courses available in CALS for non-majors that are biologically based but socially relevant that have been developed over the past five years,” Sparks said.

Issues ranging from biologically modified food, green house gasses, stem cell research, to sustainability will be key issues graduating students will have to be knowledgeable about in the future, Prof. Donald Viands, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said.

Viands was closely involved in developing the curriculum for CALS and noted these issues were at the forefront in what they hoped student would be able to take away from their courses.

“We are basically moving into the environmental and ecological era and moving out of the information era,” Sparks said. “So whether you are a medical doctor, a businessman, a fashion designer, a hotel owner—being educated on biological and environmental issues is becoming more and more important, similar to how information technology was for the past ten years.”

Sparks and Viands both noted how the courses aim to help students connects scientific ideas to other factors in their lives.

“[Scientific exposure] will help graduates know whether or not to believe what the politicians are telling them. I think those are the kind of courses students need to be motivated to want to take,” Sparks said.  “If people are educated they will understand what the issues are that they need to be more aware of in the world.”

Some Cornell students see that the humanities and sciences compliment each other well, such as Maya Koretzky ’13, who entered Cornell as a biology major and is now a College Scholar, concentrating in Russia and history. Koretzky finds the change a natural progression.

“The reason that I love biology is because it is all about studying emerging properties … Like a heart cell isn’t a heart and kidney cell is not a kidney. So what is it that makes your heart and kidney function specifically differently from how cells work? I find that fascinating,” Koretzky said. “On a much broader level, history and the humanities are sort of emergent properties you can see in a whole society. They are very analogous for me, so it doesn’t seem strange to me to study both at the same time. They seem to fit together well.”

According to Viands, the goal in non-majors science classes was to incite curiosity in biological topics by intertwining them with relevant and human-interest topics.

“College of Agriculture has classes that are just intrinsically interesting. Like I’m a really big fan of Hollywood Biology, Science and Cinema,” Sparks said. “It is all linked to what the science behind film is — like the science behind disease outbreak and they go in and really dissect that … it has that interest factor. Sometimes it takes that interest factor.”

Sparks acknowledged that students are often concerned about maintaining their GPA, but should instead take advantage of the Cornell education experience—citing that despite being a science undergrad, some of the most enjoyable experiences were in the fine arts classes he took.

“To fellow humanities majors, I would recommend stretching your neck out and really going for science classes that interest you,” Koretzky said. “I know a lot of humanities majors tend to look for science classes that will fulfill requirements but I really feel like studying the sciences will really help inform how you look at different aspects of the humanities. “

Sparks noted that under the new biology curriculum, that concern for environmental issues is not just limited to non-science majors and will be integrated into classes for biology majors as well.

“Now what we’ve done is make the entry point freshman and sophomore level courses more liberal arts now in the sense that if you’re going to be a biology major at Cornell you just can’t focus microbiology from beginning to end…” Sparks said. “At least as a freshman and sophomore you have to have exposure to all of them. Even if your dream is to be a geneticists, you’re still going to have exposure to sustainability.”

Through distribution requirements, students are able to accomplish a greater liberal arts education in comparison to the more widespread specified approaches seen in European Universities, according to Sparks.

A level of proficiency in science courses would help prepare students for like after Cornell, noted Viands.

“It makes you a better geneticists to have exposure to global issues, and it makes you a better citizen to have exposure to genetics,” Sparks said. “It makes you a better citizen to have basic knowledge in everything.”

Original Author: Tajwar Mazhar