Breaking barriers: Course crosses disciplines to educate scientists of the future

by Steven Schultz
In an age when many scientific discoveries result from the infusion of ideas from one discipline to another, faculty members at Princeton have created a unified science class for freshmen that breaks down barriers between fields without sacrificing depth of knowledge.

The course, offered for the first time this fall, puts Princeton at the forefront of nationwide efforts to rethink the way the sciences, particularly biology, are taught to undergraduates.

Under the leadership of David Botstein, director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, faculty from chemistry, computer science, molecular biology and physics have teamed up to create a single course: "An Integrated, Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences." The full-year, double-credit course meets five days a week and spans subjects from genetics to quantum mechanics.

"Biologists [who take the course] are going to know much more math and physics and chemistry than they did in the past," Botstein said. "And physicists, chemists and computer scientists are going to have a much more sophisticated command of the basic ideas in genetics, genomics and molecular biology."

Traditionally, students interested in the natural sciences and engineering take some combination of freshman-level courses in biology, chemistry and physics. Rather than following the conventional curricula of those disciplines, the new course is organized around fundamental concepts and computational techniques common to all of them. At the same time, it fulfills the prerequisites of advanced courses that build on the conventional introductory classes. Botstein plans to follow the freshman course with a full-year sophomore series that continues the integrated approach.

Botstein said he was motivated to create the course because the specialized language and conventions in each field inhibit the flow of knowledge between them. "So physicists and chemists have trouble collaborating when you wouldn’t think there would be a problem. Collaborations between biologists and computer scientists go on the rocks because people just misunderstand each other," Botstein said. "Our belief is that the science of the present, let alone the future, favors those who have those communication skills."

That belief is shared by leaders in the field of biology, including a panel called BIO2010, appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, which recently issued a stern critique of undergraduate biology education. The 11-member committee, which included Princeton biophysicist John Hopfield, contrasted the profound transformation that has occurred in biology — driven by biotechnology, genomics and computing — and the lack of change in the way the subject is taught.

"The ways in which most future research biologists are educated are geared to the biology of the past, rather than to the biology of the present or future," the report states. "Like research in the life sciences, undergraduate education must be transformed to prepare students effectively for the biology that lies ahead."

The new Princeton course offers students a truly novel approach. "The truth is that everyone wants to do something new, but there is no program nearly as radical as ours," Botstein said. He emphasized, however, that the more traditional approaches to each subject are still available and that the new course is not for everyone. "In our program we don’t intend to ‘reform’ anything," said Botstein. "Our idea is just to give students an alternative."

Read the full story in the Weekly Bulletin.

 

Weekly lab sessions are an important part of the new science course. Here, freshmen measure the acceleration and drag of falling objects. As Christian Millian (right) drops a ball bearing into a liquid, Sandhya Sinha analyzes its image on a computer. Lewis-Sigler fellow Maitreya Dunham (rear) helps lead the lab.

Lewis-Sigler fellow William Ryu (center) discusses lab techniques with freshmen Greg Ugwi (left) and Clelia Zacharias.

photos: Denise Applewhite

 

 

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