The Curriculum in Science Today and Tomorrow

What constitutes the material of a science course? How is that material presented? How much of the history of a particular science should be included? How much of what is happening currently should be presented? Should there be any consideration for what is likely to happen tomorrow, even if what we think might happen may not always be the case (see “Some Interesting Predictions”).

In a piece that I hope to publish shortly, I noted that the subject matter taught at both the high school and college level is very much driven by the textbook. If it is in the textbook, it is taught; if is not in the textbook it is not taught. And at the high school level, we also have to understand that whatever is decided in Texas and California with regards to K – 12 textbook materials will influence what is in the textbooks in the other forty-eight states (see “A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education”. Also see “History’s first draft: Newt Gingrich but no liberals” as it applies to other textbooks.)

Now, I suppose this wouldn’t be too bad if our students didn’t leave school with the ideas that 1) if it isn’t the book, it isn’t going to be taught and, 2) all the problems have been solved and the answers are in the back of the book (from The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990). And heaven forbid if an instructor should ask an even-numbered question when the authors only provided answers to the odd-numbered questions.

Charles Handy also noted that “Learning is discovery but discovery doesn’t happen unless you are looking. Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is the mother of discovery.”

I cannot speak to the revision of teaching science at the high school level in the same vein that I speak of revision of teaching science at the college level. At the college level, the typical instructor is teaching a topic with which they should be intimately familiar; at the high school level, the typical instructor may have a similar familiarity but is also often times teaching multiple courses.

But I think that college level instruction should be taught in terms of the material, not the textbook. I fail to see why the majority of instructors teaching the introductory courses do not teach independent of the textbook, unless they are fearful of student complaints and the administration feeling that lack of student complaints is an adequate measure of teaching competency.

I shall continue this discussion in terms of chemistry but it should be evident that the same discussion could be made in terms of biology, physics, or any other science and perhaps all other courses.

But if we start with the idea that each instructor/professor teaching an introductory chemistry course is versed in the topics of the course (and I am not entirely certain there is agreement about what should be taught in such a course) then we have the basis for a classroom textbook. Another option would be to think in terms of what the students are likely to encounter when they complete the course. (See “No Books, No Problem: Teaching Without a Text”)

Once many, many years ago, in order to get credit for a seminar I presented a talk called the “Bowling Ball as a Curriculum Tool”. I pointed out that besides the obvious usage of bowling in physical education, there was a lot of chemistry involved (at that time, balls were making the shift from rubber compounds to plastic and polymer based compounds; for further information on this, see “The Chemistry of Bowling: A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners”In Chemistry, 2 (3), May/June, 1992, 6), there is physics, mathematics (at that time, most bowling centers did not have the computer scoring systems that are prevalent today), literature (Rip Van Winkle), and home economics (you have to learn to sew when you put the name of the back of a bowling shirt).

And while I did that in fun, I did point out later in my professional career, when I taught science methods classes at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin that you could develop a pretty good curriculum based on oil and water, the two most important liquids in west Texas.

We do very little in the way of expressing our science topics in terms of what our students will encounter later in life. In a recent issue of New Scientist, the editors posed the biggest questions ever asked (

  1. What is reality?
  2. What is life?
  3. Do we have free will?
  4. Is the universe deterministic?
  5. What is consciousness?
  6. Will we ever have a theory of everything?
  7. What happens after you die?
  8. What comes after Homo sapiens?

Obviously, such questions might be slightly beyond the scope of the introductory chemistry course but they do show that some people are thinking beyond the walls of the classroom and the pages of the textbook.

In my piece “Thoughts on the Nature of Teaching Science in the 21st Century” I offered the following areas as topics for consideration in the teaching of science:

  1. Energy – not only energy production in today’s society but energy sources (renewable and non-renewable) for tomorrow
  2. Global warming – if there was every a topic that called for the public to have a knowledge of science and its role in society, it is global warming.
  3. Environmental chemistry – how we view recycling and what can go into landfills and what cannot; this would also include acid rain. I might point out that there was an article in The Journal of Chemical Education some years ago in which the instructor posed the question about the cost of recycling. The essence of the problem was “what to do with some Co2+ solution that was left after an analytical problem. Should the solution be diluted to a safe level and disposed of by pouring down the drain or shipped off as liquid waste; should it be precipitated and shipped off to a landfill as solid waster; or should it be recycled and used again during the next semester. The calculations for this problem are typical calculations for an introductory chemistry course and one can set up the calculations to be dependent on the size of the class. The only information that an instructor would be need would be the cost of the original raw materials as well the cost of shipping liquid and solid wastes. And, from the numbers of times that I asked my students to do these calculations, it always appears that that recycling is the best solution.
  4. The role of chemicals in our environment – I would include the issue of mercury and mercury compounds in the preservation of vaccines and what this may or may not do. I would also include the use of the word “organic” to mean pesticide and insecticide free produce (when all foods are organic in nature).
  5. The debate for free thought in the classroom – if I was a biologist, I might have entitled this the creation/evolution debate but I am not a biologist. But to me, this issue has several impacts besides biology; it goes to the issue of free thought and what our responsibilities as scientists and educators should be. It also speaks to how we, individually, believe.

While one may conclude that any subject is taught best when it is taught in terms of the past, I think that it is best taught as current and with a view towards the future.

1 thought on “The Curriculum in Science Today and Tomorrow

  1. Pingback: On The Road Again « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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