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John Harvard's Journal

Enlivening Science

July-August 2005

An expressed aim of the curriculum review is to assure College graduates’ scientific literacy in the twenty-first century. Summarizing the work of the curricular review’s committee on science and technology education on May 17, Cabot professor of biology Richard Losick said relatively little about the science component of general education. The real focus was on revamping introductory courses for science concentrators. Common features for the new courses, according to the committee’s draft, are that they “integrate fundamental topics taught in distinct departments,” they are “problem-oriented and not restricted to a single subject,” and the “context of the science is stressed prior to the study of the fundamentals.”

Robert A. Lue with part of his presentation on integrating life-sciences and physical-sciences training for the life scientists (and physicians) of the future.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

The process is most advanced in the life sciences—although work is under way in the physical sciences and in engineering and applied science, for future implementation. A Faculty of Arts and Sciences council (embracing chemistry and chemical biology, molecular and cellular biology, organismic and evolutionary biology, biological anthropology, and psychology) will launch overhauled Life Sciences 1a and 1b courses beginning this fall. As the first sequence required for concentrators and premedical students, LS 1a will cover chemistry and molecular and cellular biology, and LS 1b genetics, genomics, and evolutionary biology. But compared to the familiar Chemistry 5 and 7 and Biological Sciences 50 classes which the new courses will succeed, students will learn about molecules, cell membranes, and enzymes through consideration of the HIV virus, and study cell function through examination of cancer. Higgins professor of biology Daniel L. Hartl explained in a faculty briefing on May 3 that LS 1b will be able to explore the genetics of complex traits and complicated subjects such as color perception and color vision in greater depth; in his trial of the new material, students were more engaged, while learning the foundations for future courses. (The new courses are outlined at http://lifescience.fas.harvard.edu.)

In the May 3 briefing, the multi-hatted Robert A. Lue (senior lecturer on molecular and cellular biology; executive director of undergraduate studies; tutor in biochemical sciences) gave two rationales for the new life-sciences sequence. (Lue and Cabot professor of the natural sciences Douglas Melton co-chaired the development effort.) FIrst, he said, it no longer makes sense for students to take two years to fill up their “tool boxes” with separate skills in biology and chemistry, and only then to begin grasping their application to current science.

Second, he said, half of Harvard’s entering freshmen annually declare their interest in studying science. By the end of their first year, more than half that number choose to pursue other subjects. Much of the attrition may be due to finding exciting new interests, but Lue said the science faculty had become convinced its introductory teaching had to become more engaging. That is, of course, the larger subject for the curriculum review as a whole.