Friday, November 02, 2007

Citizen Science

This is a very timely article by Robert Crease of Stony Brook. He highlights two different college courses (they're more like projects), one at Stony Brook itself while the other at Columbia University, on efforts to introduce and educate students on science, regardless of their majors and specialties.

He clearly stated the exactly difficulty in trying to accomplish such a mission:

On the one hand, they must incorporate a significant amount of mathematics and scientific knowledge if they are to be effective in teaching the science relevant to the modern world. On the other hand, they must appeal to students with little or no background in maths and science.

This clash usually dooms such courses. If they weaken the science and maths component, they become more about science than genuine science courses — versions of what is often pejoratively called "physics for poets". If they do not weaken it, they risk being too intimidating and difficult for the target audience.

As I've said in another blog post, there is a distinct different between studying physics, and studying ABOUT physics. One doesn't actually get the feel for what physics is if one doesn't actually study physics itself.

The first of these efforts in teaching science to the masses is from Columbia University:

Columbia University's "frontiers of science" course is compulsory for all first-year undergraduates. It is part of the core curriculum, which aims to give each student "a rigorous preparation for life as an intelligent citizen in today's complex and changing world".

"Frontiers of science" is Columbia's largest single course. Once a week, students attend a one-and-a-half-hour lecture and a two-hour seminar. The lecture is given in the university's theatre, where the 560 or so students fill the orchestra pit and spill onto the balcony. The seminars are smaller, consisting of groups of 20 students each, and taught by professors and postdocs selected following an international search.

The other is from Stony Brook University:

Meanwhile, Stony Brook University runs an "introduction to experimental research" course that takes a different tack. It takes place in the Nuclear Structure Laboratory in the basement of Stony Brook's Van de Graaff building among dozens of scintillation counters and the infrastructure for monitoring them that is associated with a project called Mariachi (Mixed Apparatus for Radar Investigation of Atmospheric Cosmic-Rays of High Ionization). The course has no formal lectures or seminars, but instead thrusts its dozen students almost immediately into selfdesigned research projects to detect and study cosmic rays.
The beauty of the course is that, while cosmic rays are scientifically interesting because they provide clues to the origin and structure of the universe, they allow important research can be carried out without using much maths. This allows Marx to get students and teachers with a range of backgrounds involved in a scientifically viable project with significant connections to wider scientific issues in cosmology. Even physics students like it because it is a lab course much less micromanaged than most; students develop their own projects rather than being told exactly what to do.

I think I would gravitate more towards the Stony Brook project (but then again, I'm bias since I'm an experimentalist). I think there's nothing better than having students to actually have to do things and measure things. It is a more direct and transparent study of how nature behaves, rather than simply listening to what someone has to say.

Still, these are commendable efforts in educating the public (in this case, students who need not necessarily go into science) in science. It adds to the previous two efforts that are being done at other universities in this regard (Physics for Future Presidents and the course New Mexico State University).


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