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|Introduction to Scientific Inquiry: Fall, 2009 and Fall, 2010|
I. The Students
The students were second year undergraduates in the honors program, called University Fellows. There were three sections, planned and taught by different teachers who consulted together, but developed very different courses.
This section was predominately non-science majors. Only six had either AP chemistry or physics in high school. One girl had no science beyond freshman biology. The anticipated majors* were:
Business 4 Music 1
Religion 4 Mathematics 1
Psychology 3 Education 2
Biology 2 Family Studies 1
History 2 Undeclared 1
English 3 *Figures for the two semesters are combined
Four of the students plan to attend medical school. The business majors were all enrolled in the entrepreneur curriculum of that school. The history majors and one of the English majors plan to teach, but is not certain of the level. One religion major seems headed for an academic career.
II. The Big Question
The question for the entire semester was “How do we decide something is true?” This is one of the important questions of our time and is independent of major or career plans. We have just finished a political campaign where deliberate obvious lies were our daily fare. Our political leaders wouldn’t know the truth if it hit them in the head. Medicine is filled with fraudulent advertising and many of television’s “talking heads” are blatant liars. How do we decide and what can we believe are the big questions of our life.
The second big question chosen to help unravel the first was, “What assumptions are being made.” Again, this is a question that carries over into all areas of inquiry so was appropriate to all students.
III. Course Description
The literature on quality in medicine is wide and deep and a recent publication caught my attention: “The phrase, ‘Quality of care’ should reflect the degree to which health services for individuals and populations increase the likelihood of desired health outcome.”1 This is an outcome definition with no attention given to process. A similar statement for education might be "quality education refers to the degree to which attending a course of instruction increases the likelihood the student has acquired the anticipated outcome. I used this as my constant reminder that teaching is not important, only learning.
In addition to the topics described below, the class read the Tuesday science section of The New York Times and wrote a one page reflection on one of the articles. We then discussed these and treated them to scientific criticism as we learned more about it. There were at least two benefits, they had specific content to consider as to degree of believability, and they greatly expanded their idea of the content of science.
I. Sources of Truth Claims
The first section began with the various ways natural philosophers used to search for truth.
Plato: Truth is found by pure thought.
Einstein and the theoretical quantum physicists followed this method.
Aristotle: Truth is found by observation and classification.
Darwin also followed this method.
Ptolemy: “Truth” is hypothesis formed by observations.
This was the thought structure of the early modern physicists.
Euclid: Truth comes from logical deduction from assumptions.
Galen/Harvey: Truth comes from experiments and deductions from them.
The students listened to each other’s hearts and described the circulatory system.
Statistics: Truth is really a probability statement.
Experience measuring a block of wood repeatedly and doing simple statistics.
One of the evaluations of this section the first year was a concept map of the search for truth. Three of these are attached to this portfolio. This seemed to be an exercise in recall and I did not repeat it the second year. Another assessment for this section was to write a letter of recommendation for a faculty position at Samford for either Aristotle or Harvey and 2000 words describing how they made the choice. This brought forth a great deal of imagination in setting and mode of description. The students enjoyed this and will remember a great deal about their choice. Several are attached.
II. Philosophy of Science
Scattered throughout the course were days devoted formal definition of hypotheses, theories, and models. The big question was “What do scientists think they have discovered?” Are they giving explanations designed to “save the appearance” or do they assume to be accurately describing reality?
This section relied on Michael J. Crowe, Theories of the World: From Antiquity to the Copernican Revolution, with successive readings concerning Copernicus, Bache, Kepler, and Galileo. I supplemented this with a lecture comparing the Jesuits, who were excellent astronomers, and Galileo. This was an example of differing explanations since the Jesuits believed the Copernican system preserved the appearance while Galileo insisted it described reality.
We made two visits to the University Planetarium the first year and one the second. The idea of retrograde motion was not understood by any of the students and the presentations made it clear. Interestingly, a planetarium is geocentric, making it hard to teach a heliocentric system.
We read “Albert Einstein: Relativity, Three Rivers Press” and “Russell Stannard, Relativity: A very Short Introduction.” Everyone was surprised how readable Einstein could be. The class did well with special relativity but found general relativity much harder to grasp. [So do I, which may have contributed to their confusion.]
The evaluation was to develop one 30 minute lesson on one topic of special relativity for junior high students writing out the entire “lecture” including film clips or other teaching tools. Several students commented how much they learned when trying to teach. I liked this form of evaluation as it gave me an excellent idea of what they knew and how to relate the ideas. Samples are part of this portfolio.
In keeping with the Fellows philosophy of reading original works, we read “Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species” supplementing it the first year with “Brian & Deborah Charlesworth, Evolution: A very Short Introduction and the second with Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True. Coyne is very readable and even more persuasive than Charlesworth.
This section gave me the most concern during the planning. At the end of the first year one lady wrote that she had long been an evolutionist, but gave no hint of this earlier. No one in the second year would admit to such. The remainder were/and two still are/ either 6 day-young earth creationists or believers in Intelligent Design. They were as apprehensive about the course as I, but with different fears. One very personal description of his fears and his new understanding is attached.
The classes went well, with copious discussion and exchange of ideas and which areas gave them difficulty. The most difficult concept was the non-directional aspect of evolution; they wanted it to be the ever upward form of Lamarck.
The evaluation was to prepare a board game of evolutionary concepts. The grade would be determined by the number of ideas they could incorporate into their game. The level of imagination was unbelievable. Most of them had cards to be drawn after landing on a square and some had questions to be answered. We spent one class period playing the games. By the end of the hour I had been able to grade them to my satisfaction. Samples are part of this portfolio.
VI. Quantum Physics
The first year primary text was “John Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory: A very Short Introduction,” which was too difficult for most of the class. The second year I used How to Teach Physics to your Dog, by Chad Orzel, which, despite its somewhat pejoratives title, is an excellent description of quantum physics for non-scientists. The class loved it.
The evaluation was, in groups of three, to prepare a Jeopardy game. These gave evidence of knowledge of a surprising understanding. One student thought this was the least useful of the assignments, but the others enjoyed it.
VII. Evaluation of the Students
The first year I used only alternative methods of assessment and was satisfied they tested higher forms of thinking than simply recall. However, there is such a predisposition among faculty that tests much be given, I gave midterm and final tests. These did not test recall but analysis and synthesis. They were simply a list of big questions from which they could choose to write on two. Examples of the questions for discussion are:
“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it comprehensible.” Einstein
“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain they do not refer to reality.” Einstein
What do philosophy and science have to offer each other?
“There was a time when people simply wanted to experience the moon, but now they want to see it” Goethe
It has been said that the history of living things can best be represented by a forest of trees, rather than a single tree of evolution.
Two of the students said they enjoyed these more than the other assessments. Attached are two representative essays.
In the evaluations by the students, more than one-half commented on the idea of big questions, how much they had enjoyed thinking that way, and the expectation they would continue.
VII. Evaluation of the Professor
Samford makes a determined effort to obtain and take seriously student evaluations. The forms ask for both quantitative and narrative material. The course scored very well, the comments were what a teacher loves to read about himself. The first year two students made critical comments such as “This certainly was not my favorite class.” The second year, the most critical comments concerned lack of clarity in the assignments.
I plan to offer essentially the same course next year.
1 Danny O. Jacobs, "Variation in Hospital mortality Associated with Inpatient Surgery--An S.O.S." NEJM 361:14, Oct 1, 2009.