Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century

Tony Mitchell (Department of Chemistry (M-S 372), St. Cloud State University, 720 Fourth Avenue South, St. Cloud, Minnesota 56301-4498)

Marcin Paprzycki (Department of Computer Science, The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Odessa, Texas 79762)

This paper was presented at a seminar presented to the Division of Science at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) on October 25, 1991 and was accepted for presentation at the 2nd International Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science and Science Teaching, Kingston, Ontario, May 11 – 15, 1992. While it was written in 1991, it is still applicable today.


The critical issue in today’s society is how unprepared today’s students are. We argue that the real issue is how unprepared today’s students are for tomorrow’s society. This is a result of how students learn, especially in science.

First, there is a gap between the information presented to the students and what they are expected to do with that information. Second, while students are presented large quantities of factual information, the presentation of such information does not show how the information is connected together nor how the information can be used in situations outside the classroom.

The presentation of facts without connection is not consciously done. Rather it is the result of teaching subjects as separate entities and from an essentially theoretical foundation. In addition, the presentation of science independent of other subjects and from a theoretical basis limits the teaching of both creativity and problem solving. The teaching of science independent of other subjects and from a theoretical basis has also removed science from its foundation as a liberal art.

A return to teaching science as a liberal art will help in part resolve the issue of unprepared students. For students to enter tomorrow’s society prepared to work on and solve the problems we know about today as well as the problems we do not know about, they must have an understanding of how to use the information presented in class AND be able to determine what information is needed to solve problems which have not yet been stated. This is the essence of the liberal arts tradition of science.

This can be done by increasing the amount of teaching in the area of creativity and problem solving skills. While critics may argue that it is not possible to teach creativity or problem solving, it should be pointed out that such skills are a direct outcome of the liberal arts tradition. Using real world situations (either in separate courses or in a cross-discipline nature) is what defines the liberal arts.

Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century

We live in an interesting time. At a time when we are experiencing the third great industrial revolution and our society is becoming more and more technologically oriented, we are also faced with an education system that cannot deal with those changes. It is estimated that only about 10% of students currently in school are capable of understanding and dealing with the changes in science and technology currently taking place. (1) If this is the case, then the most dangerous threat to our society today is not a military one but a social one. We face the possibility of creating an “intellectual elite”. This, in turn, could lead to riots much like those in industrial England when workers revolted because factory owners sought to automate the mills.

Perhaps this is too drastic a scenario. Still, it appears that there is a discernible gap between the education/training that students receive and what is needed in order to succeed in tomorrow’s society. Because of the way our educational system is structured, many students leave school with the idea “… that every problem has been solved; the answer is found in the back of the teacher’s manual”. (2)

Our educational system is structured to respond to change rather than be an instrument of change. Our educational system is also built as a compartmented structure with little encouragement between compartments. Society is more than just the sum of its parts; there is a great deal of interaction between the parts. Examining a problem only in terms of its parts removes this interaction and makes it impossible or impractical to study the whole system. Students who are taught subjects that contain no reference as to how the subject affects other subjects and how it is affected by other courses gain a false impression of the structure of the world. With such a picture in their minds, it becomes difficult for students to perceive, not to mention solve, problems with societal impacts.

If students are to be successful in tomorrow’s society, then they must be able to see or develop ways of seeing society in an overall, connective sense. Students in science should be able to use science in other disciplines. It is impractical to view solutions to problems only in terms of the disciple when societal needs are multidimensional. (3)

We argue that this is why science education must be viewed in terms of liberal arts. Liberal arts provide a process by which solutions to problems can be solved. While current society may be able to deal with current challenges, such as developing new energy sources at equitable prices, dealing with various environmental challenges, today’s students must deal with unknown problems. They should understand that “any solution to a problem is a new problem.” (4)

Consider the following. To develop the first periodic table, Mendeleev had to solve one of the great chemistry problems of his day, that of missing elements. Rather than place elements in consecutive series, Mendeleev left gaps in the table to account for missing elements. The discovery of gallium and germanium showed that this idea was correct. However, his table did not list any of the Noble Gases (He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Xe, and Rn). Why?

At the time of his work, none of these gases had been discovered. So there was no information available to suggest that an additional column as there was for the other elements. Mendeleev also did not have access to information about atomic structure or the technology to determine atomic structures so he could not predict the existence of such elements. Without the information available through the knowledge of other elements or atomic structure, it was not possible for him to even hint at the existence of the Noble Gases.

This is the challenge facing today’s students. While the educational system prepares students to solve today’s problems, such preparation does not provide a basis for solving problems that have not yet been formulated. Why is that?

Let us briefly consider that recent history of science education. In 1966, science education was experiencing its “Golden Age.” Because of the Soviet Union’s successful launching of Sputnik I in 1957, the Federal Government poured large amounts of money into science education in order to produce the scientists and engineers who would put the United States back in the lead in the “space race.” It can be argued that this was not a real threat. The United States’ choice of smaller rockets required technology which had not been developed yet. The Soviet Union chose to use current technology, i.e. massive boosters, to launch their satellites. Because we were developing the technology as we went along, there was a high probability of failure. Also, because we publicized our launches, whether they were successful or not, and the Russians did not, it appeared that they were in the lead. It is not clear how many unsuccessful launches it took before Sputnik I was launched.

Whether the Soviet Union or the United States was actually in the lead of the “space race” is inconsequential. The result, as far as the United States was concerned, was the development of several science education curriculum projects, all devoted to preparing students for future science studies. (5; see Table 1 ). Referring specifically to the chemistry programs, the overall goal was to help “… the student to acquire a knowledge of chemistry, not merely some knowledge about it.” (6) Students would engage “in the pattern of scientific activity – experimental collection of data, assessment and organization of facts, deduction of unifying principles, and application of these principles in developing expectations (making predictions).” (6) Science teaching in general would improve because “real” teaching would replace authoritarian pedagogy, true chemical content would replace descriptive chemistry facts, study would replace memorization of unrelated facts, and students would be evaluated on their “true learning” instead of how simply how much information they would “regurgitate” (quotes by authors) during exams. (6) As a result of these programs, students would be better prepared for college science courses. (7, 8 )

Table 1 – Science Curriculum Projects of the 1960s

BSCS – Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. High school – “Blue” version had an emphasis on the molecule; “Green” version had an emphasis on the community and the environment; “Yellow” had an emphasis on the cell.

CBA – Chemical Bond Approach Project

CCIP – Conservation curriculum Improvement Project

CLMP – Center for Collaborative Learning Media Packages. Science and Social Studies, grades 2 to 6

COPES – Conceptually Oriented Program for Elementary Science

ECCP – Engineering Concepts Curriculum Project

ESCP – Earth Science Curriculum Project

ESP – Elementary Science Project

ESS – Elementary Science Study

ESSP – Elementary School Science Project

HPP – Harvard Project Physics

IPS – Introductory Physical Science

ISCP – Iowa Science and Culture Project

ISCS – Intermediate Science Curriculum Study Project

MINNEMAST – Minnesota Mathematics and Science Teaching Project

MSCC-JHSP – Michigan Science Curriculum Committee Junior High School Project

PP-BCP – Portland Project, Integration of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics

PSNS – Physical Science for Non-Science Students

PSSC – Physical Science Study Committee, Advanced Topics Program, College Physics Program and High School Physics Program

QPS – Course develop project in Quantitative Physical Science

SMSP – Special Materials Science Project

SSCP – School Science Curriculum Project

SSSP – Secondary School Science Project

These new, innovative programs also addressed the needs of students not interested in further science instruction. Students who would not be taking any more chemistry (or science) were supposed to gain an understanding of science in human activities. (7) Chemistry courses developed were also expected to be at the intellectual level of average students while challenging advanced students. (8)

These programs had an impact on science education. However, while students did go into science, it is not clear if the other goals were met. In fact, there are suggestions that the decline in science and mathematics enrollments today is due in part to a reliance or over-emphasis on those same first goals. What caused this shift?

A partial explanation lies in the perceptions planners had for each level of science (high school and college) in the process. Many college level planners felt that they could make changes in their science courses (to a theoretically oriented approach) because the information removed from college courses (i.e. descriptive information) would be kept in high school courses. College instructors, then and now, tend to view high school courses in terms of overall preparation (i.e. thinking skills, writing skills, etc.) rather than in terms of specific content study. From a high school standpoint, the goal of preparing students for college overshadowed the other goals, an attitude still present at the time this was written and probably still true today. (9) With high school teachers holding the view that the content of high school science courses should be the same as the college counterparts, courses at both levels focused more on the theoretical and less on the applications of science. The emphasis placed on the use of mathematics in science, especially for chemistry, was not that of a tool but rather as the explanation. (10) This might have been acceptable except that it came at a time when there was also a serious regression in the quality of mathematics teaching. Lack of a solid mathematical background and an understanding of mathematics prevented it from becoming an explanatory medium. It also appears that the efforts to show science as a part of everyday society were not included in the reforms, despite being one of the stated goals.

The result today is a series of courses that present a view of science removed from its actual nature. Instead of presenting a set of unifying rules and principles, students receive “facts” with no connection to other information, no means of determining that information, and with no relationship to the world outside the classroom. Students leave the science classroom with a perception of science very different from what it really is. With science taught from a theoretical basis and laboratory experiments more confirmatory than exploratory in nature, students see science as a confirmation of knowledge rather than as an exploration of knowledge. (10) This is a contradiction of the operations of science.

Scientists rarely follow a single, fixed path to the solution of a problem. It is more likely that they follow a process which takes an idea and refines it until it can be clearly stated and understood. Such a process includes the evolution of ideas and insights, from a first faint hint, through repeated blind alleys and diversionary channels, to a final testable result. The experimental design develops from crude initial trials through an elaborate, successive-step, equipment-intensive series of progressively complex experiments, to the final exquisite, definitive, but superficially simple demonstrations. Experimental data, at the beginning analyzed only using very simple techniques to find rough correlations, in the end is explained in terms of elaborate computer models. In its final steps, the overall picture (as broad as possible) is presented by a synthesis of data analysis and conclusions based on the results from one’s own investigations as well as those published by other investigators. (11)

The scientific method, then, is a process by which individuals solve problems, starting first with some basic unanswered questions and working to the solution of the problem. Yet, students are presented with a structures step-by-step process in which all of the answers are known beforehand. Students get the feeling that there is one algorithm that, if applied to any problem will give them the right solution.

What then is the best way to teach science and how can we best prepare students to work in the sciences? In 1971, a group of chemical educators, meeting at the Snowmass Conference, created a list of characteristics for the “ideal chemist.” The characteristics were

  • Well trained and effective in applying knowledge;
  • Concerned with the application of chemistry; aware that chemistry, as an applied science and as a technology, will have an impact on the world;
  • Sensitive to society’s changing needs, priorities (in particular, the urgent problems of developing nations), and problems; feeling a personal commitment to assist in the solution of those problems;
  • Trained and effective in multi-disciplinary problem-solving skills; and
  • Capable of and willing to communicate chemistry’s role in solving the world’s problems. (12)

Crosby presented a set of similar suggestions. (13) Interestingly enough these skills can be acquired through a liberal arts education. But are these the same skills expected by industry? Rossiter provided a list of characteristics indicative of the type of skills industry wanted universities to teach science graduates so that they, the graduates, would be prepared to work in industrial settings after graduation. These are the ability to think, achieve objectives, and communicate. In addition, such a person would have interdisciplinary interests, energy and enthusiasm, as well as a proper attitude and an understanding of industrial research. (14) He concluded that, while a good background in science is appropriate for industrial research, the other aspects were just as critical for a person’s success. After all, critical and creative thinking are not limited to those who enter industry. After all, if Tom Sawyer not thought creatively, he would have not escaped painting Aunt Becky’s fence. Would we be able to understand the humor of Victor Borge’s music if it were not for creative thinking?

Instead of teaching people to think scientifically or how science works, neither of which translates well into classroom teaching, we need to focus on ways of developing a student’s thinking skills, as well as the other skills they will need to use later. Besides, many of the great scientific discoveries came not because of a background in scientific facts but because the discoverer was prepared to act upon what was happening. As Albert Szent-Giorgi stated, “discovery consists of seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.” (15)

There are those who would argue that you cannot teach students to solve problems unless they have a firm grounding facts. But learning facts alone has a limited outcome. Learning is incomplete unless skills are included in the learning process and students see how those skills relate to the facts presented. It would be like teaching someone to shoot free throws or drive a car. Without the practical application (going to the gym and shooting baskets or getting in a car and actually driving), there is no assurance that true learning takes place. If we can teach students how to think creatively, then they will have the skills needed for later dealing with unknown problems and everyday situations.

What then does it take to be creative and a successful problem solver? A successful problem solver must

  • Be able to understand the problem with which he or she is confronted,
  • Be able to identify suitable sub-goals,
  • Have at hand or be able to retrieve relevant information from memory,
  • Be able to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information,
  • Be able to derive solution procedures for each sub-goal,
  • Be able to carry out these procedures correctly, and
  • Know how to verify both intermediate and terminal results. (16)

Adams stated that the process of problem solving involved moving from a state of “unconscious incompetence” to one of “conscious competence” (see Table 2).

Table 2 –

From Unconscious incompetence in problem solving to conscious competence

Competent Incompetent
Conscious Know you know Know you don’t know
Unconscious Don’t know you know Don’t know you don’t know

The process he calls conscious problem solving

  • Utilizes the experiential language of life.
  • Is restricted in speed to a rate approximating life.
  • Is linear and single-channel in any one sensory mode.
  • Likes complete information.
  • Is heavily influenced by behavioral factors.
  • Does not always do what it might like to do. (17)

What this shows is that teaching problem solving and developing creativity are both part of the liberal arts tradition. As the title of this paper suggests, there is a role for the liberal arts in dealing with science education in the coming years. The liberal arts have always focused on thinking. The goal of liberal arts (gymnastics, music, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical harmony, and dialectics) in their earliest forms was

“To reveal the underlying, ideal forms of reality so that a student could apply that knowledge to the pursuit of the good life, both socially and individually. The goals were practical: education should lead to effective action.” (18)

The major critique of teaching thinking skills is that it cannot be easily done. Yet, as Root-Berstein stated in speaking about teaching how to discover things,

“How a scientists handles these matters if a function of his entire personality – the sum of the interests, skills, experiences, and desires that define him as a human being.” (19)

That is the essence of the liberal arts tradition. DiLiddo wrote

“The liberal arts education is a unique approach to the development of the scientific mind. It attempts to maximize the potential for creativity by the exposure of the mind to all the forces which power creative events. A liberal arts education forces a student into all areas of knowledge, including how those which seem at the moment to be useless. A liberal arts curriculum realizes that no knowledge is ever useless, only perhaps little used. It also recognizes that one cannot pre-know what one will need to know and so guards against potential ignorance with a potpourri of knowledge.

A liberal arts education also realizes that a creative event is fueled by more than knowledge alone. The importance of analytical training is not forgotten. Those who seek to diminish the analytical portion of the liberal arts curriculum contribute to the perpetuation of lackluster ideas based on innuendo and sloppy thinking. (20)

The challenge, then, is to find ways to put science back into the liberal arts curriculum. Of course, it may have never left but it was certainly pushed aside. It is critical that we view the liberal arts tradition and curriculum not only as Aristotle did, a way to enjoy the act of thinking, but as Plato did before him, a way to improve our practical skills. In science education today, we see the call for science literacy, not in terms of scientific content but in terms of its application to today’s technology. As Krajcik and Yager pointed out, unless there is an application of knowledge being presented, the likelihood of learning such knowledge is limited and quickly forgotten. (21)

In terms of science instruction, we need to consider how we present information to students. Is information presented “straight” from our notes (or text) or is it presented within the context of applications? It may be a minor point but consider the following example.

How many of the 100 or so chemical elements do you know? Most practicing chemists/chemical educators could probably come up with 60 of the elements while filling out a blank periodic table. But instructors routinely (and we trust that we are wrong in this statement) have their students memorize the symbols and names of all the currently discovered elements. Wouldn’t it be more effective and more practical to have students only memorize those elements that they are likely to encounter in future studies or every day occurrences? This is not to minimize the importance of lesser known elements but rather maximize the importance of the ones encountered.

When a topic, such as acid-base chemistry, is presented, is it presented within the framework of current topics, such as acid rain? The reverse is also true; to discuss acid rain without considering the appropriate acid-base chemistry is like typing a manuscript without putting paper in the printer.

Table 3 Bloom’s Hierarchy of Cognitive Objectives
6 Evaluation
5 Synthesis
4 Analysis
3 Application
2 Comprehension
1 Knowledge

Similarly, how do we test? Do our tests emphasize the need to apply knowledge and synthesize new information? Or our tests simply require that students repeat what the instructor said in class? Bloom’s hierarchy of cognitive objectives (see Table 3) shows that knowledge is the lowest of the objectives.

The ability to analyze knowledge, synthesize new knowledge, and evaluate such knowledge are the highest levels of the hierarchy. Do the tests we use consider these levels?

Consider the following. We typically teach students how to determine percent yield calculations. Many times, we have them do such calculations based on actually laboratory work. The purpose behind doing so is that it is easier to grade problems, labs, and tests. Why do we not give the students typical percent yields for the experiment that they are doing and have them calculate the required amounts needed for the reactions? In this manner, we can still grade the students but we can also determine if they understand the concept and the calculations.

This is also brings into question what the laboratory emphasizes. After all, science is centered in the laboratory. Are the things done in teaching laboratories done to encourage or emphasize creative or critical thinking? Or do they simply reinforce the approach presented in the lecture? For the most part, it seems that laboratory work does not parallel the actual work of science. Instead of seeing experimentation as a means for refuting an hypothesis, students see experimentation as a means of verifying the hypothesis. If you already know the answer to the laboratory exercises, is there any reason for attending the class that day or even doing the experiment? In doing these types of experiments, students gain a less than accurate view of both the natural world around them and how science operates. If we did experiments that required knowledge of a particular concept, would it not be better if such experiments were actual problems? For example, if the concept in question is acid-base chemistry, why not have the experiments focus on the role of acid-base chemistry in various settings, such as the pH of rivers, lakes and streams. If a source of natural water is close by, samples of the water could be tested in addition or instead of artificially created samples.

How we approach teaching science will go a long way in getting activities which re-involve the liberal arts. Early resistance to the first industrial revolution arose because people were afraid of the changes and also because they were incapable of dealing with those changes. If we are to have a society which can deal with the changes that it undergoes, we will have to have a society which can understand what those changes are. That is the nature of liberal arts. Learning how to do it is the nature of science education.

(1) Speech by Mary L. Good, 18 September 1991, to the Minnesota Section of the American Chemical Society at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota.

(2) The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990

(3) Capra, F. 1983. The Turning Point, Bantam Books, New York, p 81

(4) Goethe

(5) Migaki, J. 1969 (April). “The Alphabet Game”, The Science Teacher, vol. 36 (55)

(6) Pimentel, G. C. and Ridgeway, D. W., 1972, “CHEM Study: Knowledge of Chemistry”; Pimentel, G. C. and Ridgeway, D. W. – Science Activities; Basolo and Parry also presented a discussion of the development of the CHEM Study program in “An Approach to Teaching Systematic Inorganic Reaction Chemistry in Beginning Chemistry Courses”, Journal of Chemical Education, 57,

(7) G. A. Ramsey, A Review of the Research and Literature on the Chemical Education Materials Study Project, Research Review Series – Science Paper 4 (Ohio State University ED 037592), 1970, p 2

(8) Osborn, G, 1969, “Influence of the Chemical Bond Approach and the Chemical Education Materials Study on the New York Regents Examination in High School Chemistry”, School Science and Mathematics, 69, p 53

(9) Mitchell, T., 1989, “What Do Instructors Expect from Beginning Chemistry Students? Part 1”, Journal of Chemical Education, 66, 562; Mitchell, T., 1991, “What Do Instructors Expect from Beginning Chemistry Students? Part 2”, Journal of Chemical Education, 68, 116

(10) The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action. The Report of the Project on Liberal Education and the Sciences (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990) – this report also lists various courses at selected colleges which consider science as a liberal art

(11) Sindermann, C. J., 1985, The Joy of Science, Plenum Press

(12) Long, F. A., 1971, “Preparing Chemists to Meet Society’s Future Needs,” Journal of Chemical Education, 48

(13) Crosby, G. A., 14 October 1991, “Chemistry as a Liberal Art,” Chemical and Engineering News, p 59

(14) Rossiter, B. W., 1972, “What an Industry Laboratory Desires in the Preparation of Science Graduates,” Journal of Chemical Education, 49, 388

(15) Johnson, 1983, Biology, William C. Brown, p 16

(16) Scandura, J. M. 1979, “Human problem-solving: A synthesis of content, cognition, and individual difference” in Human Artificial Intelligence, F. Klix, editor, North-Holland Publishing Company, New York

(17) Adams, J. L., 1986, The Care and Feeding of Ideas – A Guide to Encouraging Creativity, Addison-Wesley

(18) Schwartz, A. T, 1980, “Chemistry: One of the Liberal Arts”, Journal of Chemical Education, 57, 13

(19) Root-Berstein, R. S., May/June, 1988, “Setting the Stage for Discovery”, The Sciences

(20) McBride DiLiddo, 1987, “Scientific Discovery: A Model for Creativity” in Creativity and Liberal Learning – Problems and Possibilities in American Education, edited by David G. Tureck, Ablex Publishing Corporation

(21) Krajcik, J. S. and Yager, R. E., 1987, “High School Chemistry as Preparation for College Chemistry,” Journal of Chemical Education, 64, 433

10 thoughts on “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century

  1. As I read this insightful paper I was reminded of Ray Brown’s comment that, “Drowning problems in a sea of information is not the same as solving them.”

    Whatever the field of study or professional focus, the availability of information is generally not an issue. Knowing how to effectively process that information toward solving a specific challenge is an on-going issue in both education and business. The essence of effective critical thinking and problem solving is knowing how to think both logically and comprehensively about that mass of information and identify an appropriate course of action. This demands that individuals develop tools and processes for going beyond the collection of facts from unrelated courses of study to integrating and using those facts to define problems, identify root causes, and develop and execute new solutions.

    Thank you for a valuable reminder of what needs to occur in education if we want to adequately equip people for career success.

    You are welcome to discuss these concerns with others at the Critical Thinking Cafe–

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