President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Teaching Science Literacy at Princeton
April 24, 2002
The Council on Science and Technology, begun in 1989, is close to my heart, not only because I happen to have been one of its founding members but because I believe so strongly in Harold Shapiro’s original vision for the council—to promote the highest quality scientific education for all Princeton students. While the education we provide to those who concentrate in the sciences and engineering is considered by both students and faculty to be second to none, it is too often the case that humanities and social science concentrators look forward to fulfilling their science and technology distribution requirement with a mixture of fear and loathing. With the front pages of newspapers filled with reports on human cloning, global warming and missile shields, every student should graduate from Princeton with the intellectual capacity to understand the process of scientific inquiry, the nature of scientific evidence and the rules by which conclusions are drawn from evidence. If at the same time they can come to better appreciate the ways in which scientific discovery reveals the power and beauty of the natural world—the excitement that drives most scientists—we will have also succeeded in sparking a lifelong interest in science.
The key to fulfilling this goal is innovative courses for non-science concentrators and good teaching. One of the council’s most successful initiatives for improving the ways in which we teach science to humanities and social science students is the Princeton University Postdoctoral Teaching Fellows Program, launched in 1997 with the help of John Beck ’53 and Ted Beck ’52. This competitive program offers three-year fellowships to approximately ten young scientists who have recently received their doctorates and demonstrated excellence in both the classroom and the laboratory. This dual focus continues at Princeton where they work with two faculty mentors, one in the laboratory on research and one in the classroom on teaching.
Neta Bahcall, professor of astrophysical sciences and current chair of the council, believes that the fellows program benefits everyone. The fellows have an opportunity to advance their own research and hone teaching skills at a first-rate university with outstanding students and research; our students benefit from better courses and laboratories as well as expert teaching; faculty benefit from the fresh perspectives of younger scholars and accomplished research and teaching assistance. After their tenure at Princeton, most fellows go on to teach in institutions of higher education across the county. This ascribes an almost missionary-like purpose to the program: Princeton preparing young scientists and engineers to educate students throughout the country. To me, this is truly Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations!
The program’s teaching mission is best understood through the fellows themselves. For example, Rachael Winfree is a first-year fellow who did her doctoral work at Princeton in ecology and evolutionary biology after studying English at Dartmouth. As someone who comes from “outside” science, she knows the importance of teaching the basic principles of scientific method to students who are not science majors, and she understands how to reach these students. She hopes to reintroduce field work into the teaching of biology courses, thereby reversing an increasingly dominant dependence on computers and computer simulation. Her laboratory exercises catalyze student interest by teaching them to look at live plant and animal specimens in their natural habitats rather than to look up answers in a book or in virtual representations on the Web.
Sima Setayeshgar, a second-year fellow educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology in mathematics and physics, believes fundamentally in the interactive aspects of the teaching process—learning through asking questions. She helped Professor Paul Steinhardt reinvigorate what some of you may know as “physics for poets,” now called “Contemporary Physics.” Sima also is working on teaching modules and project topics for the applied mathematics course MathAlive with Professor Ingrid Daubechies, drawing on Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia, in which mathematics is a central theme.
The value of dialogue between the sciences and the humanities was vividly illustrated to me this spring when I spoke at a joint meeting of fellows in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and in the Council on Science and Technology about genetic engineering and stem cell research. Not surprisingly, the exchanges were insightful, the analysis intellectually sophisticated, drawing on theory inside and outside science. The discussion shifted easily between science in the laboratory and science in public fora and focused on the semantics of science, including terms that, as a molecular biologist, I tend to use without a second thought. As I told the group, molecular biologists routinely attribute to stem cells the “decision” that “commits” them to becoming a specific type of cell. As the group pointed out, these terms automatically and inevitably, for non-molecular biologists at least, lend a human caste to the process, and such terms may color the public debate about embryonic stem cell research in ways unintended by scientists. I learned much from that luncheon discussion, and I am delighted that, with missionary zeal and commitment, the fellows are spreading the good news about scientific discovery and the importance of excellence in teaching!
More information about the Council on Science and Technology is accessible on the Web.