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The Journal of General Education 51.4 (2002) 272-281

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Using Problem-Based and Active Learning in an Interdisciplinary Science Course for Non-Science Majors

George E. Keller, III


Because the United States is an international leader in scientific research, the public has long assumed that undergraduate education in science serves all. Yet many national concerns have attended this status as world leader, as many citizens have lagged behind in awareness, knowledge, and attitudes toward science. David Goodstein has pointed out that the United States is a world leader both in science training and scientifically illiterate students (1993). Furthermore, the population of women and minorities has been underrepresented traditionally in the scientific disciplines.

Too often, science is presented as a collection of organized facts rather than a search for information. In The Liberal Art of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) states that scientific discovery must necessarily involve interaction with both the natural world and a community of discoverers (1990). These national concerns are recognized locally in the attitudes and aptitudes of Samford University students. Many undergraduates seek to take only those courses that are perceived to be the "easiest" science courses, and they describe themselves as bored by science classes. Furthermore, although women make up over 60 percent of the freshman class, fewer than half of the majors in biology, chemistry, and physics are female.

Traditionally, research institutions have played a central role in scientific education. However, research institutions often must work against the prevailing academic climate in order to accomplish necessary reforms. For this reason, Daniel Sullivan, President of Allegheny College, has noted that liberal arts colleges can [End Page 272] play a major role in science education (1994). Samford's faculty in biology, chemistry, and physics has worked cooperatively to restructure the undergraduate science requirements and to develop an innovative, interdisciplinary core course in science.

Samford students in discipline-specific courses for non-science majors appear to lack an understanding about how science is carried out. Both science majors and non-majors tend to memorize facts reasonably well but do poorly when asked to reason through problems. Further, many students may have retained some knowledge from their high school science courses, but they have little concept of how scientific findings originate and are conveyed to others. At Samford we see that science majors have difficulties designing experiments, and their discipline-specific courses emphasize coverage more than process. Comprehensive coverage of discipline-specific material is important for science majors, but students rarely work directly with that knowledge in their scientific careers. The skills we attempt to address in our Scientific Methods course, such as the ability to think critically, to approach complex problems with collaborators, and to use scientific methods to propose explanations and solutions, will better equip students for excellence in their occupations. But perhaps an even greater benefit is the education of future teachers, business leaders, politicians, and attorneys. These individuals, whether in their careers or as voters, will be the primary shapers of the direction of scientific research for the future. It is vital to have students learn science using inquiry and hands-on techniques (Advisory Committee to the National Science Foundation, 1996).

Samford non-science majors demonstrate an overall negative attitude toward science, as exemplified by comments from students. Many students have a phobia toward science that is reflected in their grades and even more in their attitudes. By emphasizing the process of science, rather than the inundation of specific facts, we can eliminate the fear of science that many students bring with them. We can also alleviate the general disdain for science expressed by some students, who find science dull, repetitive, dehumanizing, and irrelevant to their lives. Obviously, change is needed to ensure that the United States has citizens who understand the important role of science in social and political contexts. We feel [End Page 273] that problem-based learning and other active learning strategies can aid in this change in attitudes toward science.

The Role of Problem-Based...


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