Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Is There A Fundamental Difference In The Teaching of Physics and Chemistry/Biology?

I read in utter fascination of this opinion piece by Micheal McCracken. As you read this, pay attention not only to the fact that there appears to be a difference between how he perceived physics is taught at the undergraduate level, but also how the differences between the pedagogy of physics and chemistry/biology translates itself into how science is perceived by the public.

Abstract: During recent collaboration with colleagues to revise our institution's general-education curriculum, I encountered many perceptions of what we mean by the Natural Sciences. I was surprised to find that perceptions of scientific pedagogy varied significantly among the scientific disciplines, especially concerning issues of philosophy of science and epistemology, manifested in the approaches to teaching theoretical concepts and their development. These realizations suggest that Physics occupies a singular role in college curricula, introducing students, even at the introductory level, to the acquisition of knowledge by theoretical means and the assessment of theory based on experimental evidence.

His idea that fulfilling a student's requirement on learning Natural Science without taking physics and either chemistry or biology will be a serious deprivation on how science is done.

I tend to agree.



Mike McCracken said...

Dear ZapperZ,
This is *the* Mike McCracken cited above. A friend sent me a link to this post, and I was flummoxed to see that my essay had appeared anywhere but on the arXiv. I have been shopping this around to various publications, but there seems to be confusion about what to do with it. The piece is largely opinion, and I don't know of a good forum for such essays, especially of this length. Any suggestions from you or your readers would be appreciated. Thanks so much for reading and for giving it a wider audience! I would rather have appeared on the most attractive physicists list, will take what I can get. :P
Your read of this essay is on-point. Perhaps I've obfuscated my main point by including too many opinions, but the essence of my point is this: Being careful about teaching scientific epistemology and scientific process is important for producing graduates that are trustful of science. If we tell our students (or the public) that scientific theories are fact and are *beyond question* (as my colleagues suggest), then I am not surprised by the sentiments of science deniers; such claims always sound fishy. I am not claiming that intro biology and chemistry courses are bad, but perhaps they are incomplete/misleading introductions to what science is and how it's done. Physics seems to be better placed to give students a more comprehensive idea of how scientific knowledge is assembled and tested.

Thanks again! Best regards to you and your readers.

ZapperZ said...


Glad you found the blog. Maybe next time I run the "Most Attractive Physicist" contest again, we will definitely make you a contender! :)

A few days after I posted this on here, I also started a discussion on your manuscript on Physics Forums. The thread did get a bit of a discussion, even though it eventually meandered into another direction, which is a common evolution on any public forum.

If you are interested, you may look at the thread here: